A RECORD 46 commercial galleries on Hong Kong Island will open their doors until midnight for this year's ArtWalk fundraiser next Wednesday. There'll be plenty of Chinese contemporary art on view, but don't expect anything cutting-edge or of great intellectual depth.
However, this isn't a criticism of the popular charity event, which has drawn hundreds on the gallery trail from Central to Wan Chai and Aberdeen. Since its launch in 2001, ArtWalk has raised HK$2.3 million for charities including Aids Concern and Society for Community Organisation. The kind of works on display merely reflects the resolutely commercial nature of private galleries in the city.
John Batten, of organiser Hong Kong Commercial Art Galleries, says the 50 participating galleries and alternative art spaces make up most of the local art scene. The quality of works on offer range from 'good to bad', but rating art isn't what the event's about. 'Some homes are full of kitsch objects,' says Batten, who closed his eponymous gallery last year. 'That's what they like, and that's fine. That's what ArtWalk is about. I'm not an elitist when it comes to art.'
But commercial galleries in Hong Kong lack diversity and the art scene has yet to develop the maturity of major cities in Europe and the US, he says.
'One of the interesting things about the London or New York art scene is you have galleries that are passionate about art. There's a wonderful diversity. They put time and money into a venture and they give it a go for five to 10 years. Those with more money will keep going,' says Batten. 'Everyone here wants to make sure they cover their costs all the time.'
But galleries can't be blamed when rents are exorbitant - particularly around the Hollywood Road and SoHo area. Asia Fine Art, for instance, was forced to move from Central to Wan Chai last year when its landlord almost trebled the rent.
In addition, Hong Kong doesn't enjoy the kind of art patronage the west has had for centuries. In New York, support for the avant-garde dates back at least to the Armory Show of 1913, when modernist styles from Europe such as cubism made their American debut. In the 1950s, the Leo Castelli Gallery promoted artists such as Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg long before they joined the pantheon of 20th-century masters.
Enterprising gallery owners have been able to win over wealthy patrons to almost every new style, and the current boom of art from China, India, and other new markets is no exception. Max Protetch, one of the first New York galleries to show Chinese artists, says the initial support usually comes from trend-setting collectors such as Don Rubell and Marty Margolies, with museum shows and purchases emerging later.
Few art buyers in Hong Kong are interested in art that pushes boundaries. A London-based art pundit, who declined to be named, says purchases in Asia lean towards 'pretty pictures'.
'Corporate art buyers want to identify with their culture so they buy simple 'painterly' art,' she says. 'In Britain, it's different. Here, buyers are purchasing art with a concept - something with a unique message. Most art on the market in Britain and Europe is of that nature.'
In Hong Kong, showcasing edgy, conceptual art and artists is largely left to alternative art spaces or art institutions. Pamela Kember of the Art School brought in performance artist Marina Abramovic last September. And after inviting New York-based video artist Paul Chan to the city last year, Tobias Berger of the Para/Site Art Space recently brought over American conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner for an on-going exhibition.
However, such names remain foreign to most art buyers in Hong Kong and their works are hard to sell.
Batten is critical of how some art buyers assess works in terms of how much they fetch at auctions. 'There's a place for auction houses. But if you try to judge the art scene from the auction houses, that is wrong. That's where Hong Kong is really immature,' he says.
'We need people who don't just go to auction houses. We need people who are passionate about art and seek it out.'
At the Art Statements Gallery, Dominique Perregaux also faults many arts spaces for poor exhibition.
Suitable installation is crucial to bring out the spirit and concept of the works, especially for contemporary art, he says.
That's why Perregaux regularly renovates his space, which stages eight to 10 exhibitions each year. 'For every new show, we have to retouch, repair and re-drill everything,' he says. 'That's essential because you don't hang the new art in the same place as the old one because the size will be different.'
But limited space for exhibition and storage mean many galleries have crammed shows. Sidney Cowell, managing director of Asia Fine Art, says his premises serves as display space and warehouse for about 700 paintings. 'We constantly have to store pictures,' he says.
Despite such constraints, some say that the private gallery scene is evolving. Neelanjan Shome, director of Reflections, is optimistic that galleries can grow without compromising artistically. Business at his space, which specialises in Indian contemporary art, has increased 200 per cent since it opened at the end of 2005.
'We've been able to show a diverse range of art from figurative to abstract, from the masters to newcomers with quality,' says Shome. 'We feel proud that we don't have to show junk work. We're led by the quality of the art rather than pedestrian works that will sell.'
Batten says it takes galleries, collectors and museums to nurture a lively art scene, where the avant-garde can thrive alongside the traditional. But such a complex network will take a long time to evolve in Hong Kong. 'When ArtWalk first started, there was no diversity. There is a little more now, but we need even more.'
Additional reporting by Alex Hannaford in London and David Frazier in New York
ArtWalk, Mar 7, 5pm-midnight, HK$420. Inquiries: 9508 4619