As Hong Kong presents ART HK 12, its fifth international art fair - now under the Art Basel franchise and expected to draw even more visitors than the 63,500 last year - it is also celebrating its transformation into the de facto art capital of Asia. Thanks to an unprecedented boom in China’s art market and a growing demand for Western art (Christie’s Hong Kong sold £225 million in a week last autumn), several influential international galleries have opened permanent spaces timed to coincide with this year’s fair.
‘There is palpable excitement about how the art scene is developing,’ says ART HK director Magnus Renfrew, who believes the combination of location, language, reputation and international culture has contributed to its status as an art hub.
Just a decade ago, the city was relatively provincial with a weak art infrastructure compared to traditional art centres. But recently a handful of galleries have introduced a rare pedigree of artists to the city. Ben Brown Fine Arts, which recently extended its Andre Fu-designed space, last week launched an exhibition by Italian artist Alighiero Boetti; the White Cube gallery, which staged a successful opening in March, unveiled Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom’. Meanwhile, the Gagosian Gallery has spent its inaugural year treating Hong Kong to Damien Hirst and, this month, Andreas Gursky’s first Asian exhibition.
The newest clutch of blue-chip galleries will likely up the ante still further. Parisian dealer Emmanuel Perrotin opens his vast 17th floor Galerie Perrotin with ‘The Nature of Need’, exhibiting the work of American neo-pop artist KAWS. ‘It is the perfect time to be opening in Hong Kong,’ says Perrotin. ‘The market is very exciting and we have a space that allows us to show exactly what we want.’ Striking interiors by Andre Fu make full use of the harbour views and natural light. ‘For me, art spaces are about creating experiences, so we flipped the circulation to the window side, creating free movement along the full-height windows,’ says Fu. ‘It is a quite subtle but effective use of the space.’
Spurred on by exponential growth in Asia, Sotheby’s is opening a sleek 1,400sq m gallery in Pacific Place, designed by local architects Richards Basmajian, and taken the entire fifth floor as an auction and lecture hall. The spaces were micro-designed with flexibility in mind. ‘Even the windows have panels to hang pictures,’ says David Richards. ‘With Sotheby’s the art works vary dramatically from traditional to cutting-edge modern, so the space had to be simple by necessity but details such as flexible lighting were critical,’ The gallery opens on the 19th May with ‘Hong Kong Blooms In My Mind’ by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, as well as an exhibit of French landscape painting from the19th and 20th centuries.
Also this week, Pearl Lam’s eponymous gallery presents its inaugural exhibition of Chinese abstract art, re-examined by contemporary-art scholar Gao Minglu and Paul Moorhouse, curator of 20th-century portraits at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Says Lam: ‘Contemporary abstract art is usually regarded by the West as second hand and derivative, but the Chinese see it differently. This exhibition will show a different perspective.’ The 350sq m new gallery in the Grade II-listed Pedder Building has temporary walls to create bespoke spaces for each piece. ‘The next exhibition will change completely. Windows will appear,’ says Lam, who was drawn to the building’s high ceilings and its paradox: ‘Outside is old but inside is new.’
Simon Lee Gallery opens this week in the same building with an exhibition of new works by American artist Sherrie Levine . Designed by Belgium-based Bataille Ibens, the gallery carries over the aesthetic of the Lee’s London gallery and acts as a project space. ‘We are adopting a different model to the conventional gallery,’ says Asia director Katherine Schaefer. ‘During the rotations in our space, mediums will range from painting, drawing and sculpture to multimedia installation and film.’
It’s not yet clear what benefit these international players will bring to Hong Kong’s emerging art community. Although they clearly have the potential to reshape the cultural landscape, local gallerists and collectors like Calvin Hui, founder of 3218, a loft-style contemporary gallery in Hong Kong’s Wong Chuk Hang district, have mixed feelings. ‘Many people say Hong Kong is the number one art market and there are a lot of opportunities, but I am still concerned about the size of the market. Tiny galleries will still find it hard to promote art.’