It would be easy, and perhaps not unreasonable, to put Hong Kong’s emergence as the world’s newest capital of art down to money alone. Since time immemorial, Hong Kong’s traders have had a genius for monetizing anything and everything, from chicken feet to caterpillar fungus to the barren rock itself. No one smells an opportunity faster than Hong Kong’s business community.
But that would be far too simplistic an explanation, according to Mark Saunderson, show director of the Asia Contemporary Art Show, which whirled into Hong Kong in March and featured more than 3,000 artworks representing some 300 artists.
While interest is rising in art as an asset class, alongside watches and wine, there are several other reasons, he suggests, noting that over the past five or 10 years there has been a rapid expansion of small- and mid-size galleries, from single figures throughout the 1980s to about 120 now.
‘Several practical fundamentals have made it a success—it’s a free port, for example, so there are no duties on art, and Hong Kong doesn’t have a sales tax, which most markets do. There’s transparency, integrity and ease of movement. Its location and catchment area close to China and Taiwan, from where it can draw collectors, is also very significant, and it has established international market standing on the status of New York and London.’
Saunderson, who says that two-thirds of buyers at the Asia Contemporary Art Show are local compared to one-third expatriate, adds that the emergence of a legitimate middle class is also a huge factor.
‘There’s money here, it’s successful. Hong Kong is fairly prosperous overall, and as careers evolve and people have already bought their house and the kids are in school, they are looking for more discretionary ways to spend their money.’
He stresses, though, that the arrival of fairs in the art ecology has had the greatest impact.
‘Connecting sellers and buyers is increasingly an issue. ‘Up or out’ now sums up the art scene in Hong Kong—galleries are often either high up in a building or out somewhere like Aberdeen. With galleries being more remote, commercial art fairs have made a significant contribution to broadening the market, turning it from exclusive to inclusive, to the benefit of everyone whether buyer or seller—in Hong Kong and other cities as well.’
‘It has been a combination of factors, which created a perfect storm over last five years,’ agrees Cosmin Costinas, executive director/curator of Para Site, a leading contemporary art center and one of the oldest and most active independent art institutions in Asia.
‘Without doubt, local interest is growing. Hong Kong is also very well positioned geographically and culturally, and combined with a significant regional network, no sales tax, the influx of major global art fairs—such as Art Basel—and a significant increase in government spending on arts and culture, including M+ (a museum of visual culture scheduled to open in 2019 in the West Kowloon Cultural District), we have seen huge growth.’
Established 42 years ago, Galerie du Monde is among the older—if not the oldest—contemporary art galleries in Hong Kong. Founder Fred Scholle has seen the market develop ‘from the beginning’ —primarily due, he says, to the opening up of mainland China to contemporary art, as well as the improving standards of living. He also credits Art Basel’s presence as a real catalyst for the explosion of the art market in Hong Kong.
‘The launch of the fair brought a huge number of international collectors and Western galleries that have since set up shop here,’ he says. ‘Of course, Art Basel was responding to a growing interest in Asian art and collectors, but its decision to launch an edition here consolidated that.’
Angela Li is owner of Contemporary by Angela Li Gallery and led Art Central’s selection committee this year. She believes Hong’s Kong’s dominance has been galvanized by the secondary contemporary-Chinese-art market, which emerged in Hong Kong around 10 years ago, focused around biannual sales at auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams.
And in addition to the general ease of doing business in Hong Kong, she believes that Hong Kong’s freedom of speech and a lack of censorship, unlike some other places in the region, has further consolidated the city’s position.
In terms of demand, Li says her gallery receives a mix of collectors: Hong Kong expats, who for a long time have been very supportive of the art market here, and—increasingly—local people, along with international and regional trade. Interest from mainland Chinese clients is also growing at a very encouraging rate, she says.
But it’s not all good news. Leading auction house Bonhams recently fired its Asian deputy chairman and eight others, citing an ‘art slowdown.’ And Sotheby’s October 4, 2015, auction saw sales of modern and contemporary art worth HK$596 million, including fees, down slightly on the event a year earlier that realized HK$615 million.
This sentiment is supported by a truly fascinating document, Artprice.com’s Global Art Market Annual Report for 2015, which indicates that the Chinese auction market, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, contracted 26 percent to US$4.9 billion in sales last year from US$6.6 billion in 2014.
These blips notwithstanding, Hong Kong remains the world’s fourth-largest auction market after New York, London and Beijing.
Mark Saunderson concurs, saying that while it’s been ‘a fairly rosy picture’ for some time, the market has softened somewhat due to China’s crackdown on corruption and broader economic factors. Buyer sentiment is a meaningful factor to drive a healthy art market.
‘In the past few months, we’ve seen a material decline in auction sales, partly because prices have become inflated, partly because, as an asset class, values go up and down.’
He adds that with typical prices of HK$200,000 and up at Art Basel, the largest of the three principal fairs, buying original art is for most people an aspiration, with only two to three percent actually making a purchase. Meanwhile, prices were HK$30,000–$150,000 at the Asia Contemporary Art Show.
‘Fairs have their work cut out for them—in terms of both bringing in visitors and also encouraging sales,’ says Saunderson. ‘However, while current market conditions may be a little wobbly, people will still be buying art.’
ARTISTS TO WATCH FOR IN HONG KONG’S GALLERIES THIS YEAR
Hiroyuki Takahashi is an exponent of Mood Shojo, an artistic movement born in Japan in the 1990s, and is very popular in Japan with a strong social-media following. Using the Superflat style developed by Murakami and Yoshimoto, he captures ‘frozen’ images of women and digitized girls in an urban context.
Wessel Huisman is fascinated by the use of light, which along with architectural forms serves as the platform for his new series highlighting the familiar urban cityscapes of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. Huisman’s works have been exhibited throughout Europe, Asia and the US. He is the 2013 recipient of the Florence Biennale’s Lorenzo il Magnifico prize.
With works held in many museum collections—including in Chile, Hungary, Japan, Russia and France—Mario Gomez’s work can also be found notable private collections. His vibrant paintings beckon viewers to reimagine their own childhood, breathing life and joy. The source of Gomez’s images is often autobiographical and reminiscent of his childhood fantasies.
An artist of undeniable significance to the aboriginal art movement, and to Australian art, Minnie Pwerle (Awelye Atnwengerrp, seen at the page top) began painting on canvas late in life, lasting from 1999 until her death in 2006. Named as one of Australia’s top 50 most-collectible artists in 2004, she transferred ceremonial designs onto canvas with great success. What is often mesmerizing in Pwerle’s work is the spiritual connection with the land expressed on the canvas with touches of modern technique.
Since 1993, photographer Peter Steinhauer has documented facets of Asian cultures, focusing on architecture within urban and natural landscapes, man-made structures and portraits. His work is shown in galleries and museums internationally, including the Carnegie Museum of Art and The Hong Kong Heritage Museum, as well as in private and corporate collections.
With his work growing in popularity, notably with his expandable paper sculptures, Li Hongbo has recently enjoyed several successful museum shows, including his solo exhibition at the SCAD Museum in 2015, with another at the National Museum of China in Beijing to take place in late 2016/early 2017. His works challenge the mind to think in different dimensions.
Did you go to this year’s Asia Contemporary Art Show or Art Basel? Post your favorite artwork on Instagram with #momentumtravel.