Is north the way to go? While Hong Kong may be wallowing in its shrinking economy, the bold and the brave are staking their claims in Shanghai and Beijing. In the art circle, dealers are talking about opening galleries on the mainland. After hearing last week of Katherine Kwai's plan to set up lithograph shops in Beijing and Shanghai, I caught up with Manfred Schoeni, who, after a decade of marketing mainland artists in Hong Kong and bey-ond, is going back to where it began.
While Schoeni Gallery in Central is celebrating with a 10th anniversary show starting today, Schoeni Gallery Beijing has just opened its doors in SOHO Newtown, a trendy loft-office-residential development in the centre of Beijing. Schoeni says the capital's contemporary art scene is brewing nicely and wants to get his foot in the door, selling to the thriving expat community and the growing Chinese bourgeoisie.
This business, after all, is about positioning. So he plans to use Schoeni Beijing as more of an 'entry level' art gallery - selling up-and-coming artists with prices under 20,000 yuan (HK$18,900), while still maintaining the Hong Kong gallery as a source for pricey established artists.
Looking at the artist roster for the 10th anniversary show, I take a trip down memory lane myself. Some of the 30 artists, such as Liu Dahong, Wang Yidong and Yue Min-jue, were among the first mainland talents I met when I started writing about the arts in the mid-1990s. Now these guys are recommending promising young artists to Schoeni.
I asked him how he manages to secure exclusivity for everyone he represents (not easy once someone builds a reputation) - and the answer is money. Patronage the Schoeni way means buying the struggling artists' quality paints and canvases, then buying all their works up front (some galleries split profits only when works are sold), and in some cases, putting them up in decent lodgings.
It's a method that doesn't always strike gold, Schoeni reports. One painter he represented didn't move a piece in the first three years, but this is art venture capitalism, I guess. You invest in 10 people, hoping one will pay off enough to cover the others that fail. His investment return is looking good: Wang and Jiang Guofang both did extremely well in international auctions.
Works from China may become the hottest contemporary art exports in Asia but there is one thing I hope can change in this emerging market - out of dozens of painters I hear about in every style and medium, I never hear of any women. Of Schoeni's list of 30 artists, only one, Shu Mei, is female. Maybe when the gallery celebrates its 20th birthday, women artists will hold up half the roster.