Show and sell
Five years ago, Amelia Johnson placed an advertisement in the newspapers looking for a gallery assistant. 'We got everything under the sun,' the gallerist recalls, 'even a chemical engineer.
'You asked people to describe how they thought the job was going to pan out and they'd say, 'I think it's going to be very nice because I get to sit here and look at paintings.' I was, like, no ... that's what you'd do if you wanted to be a museum custodian.'
Today, the calibre of applications Johnson receives is much higher.
'I had one girl who spent a long time explaining to me all the different ways you can pack up a painting. The fact she knew acrylic dries faster than oil and oil, with the humidity, can take up to a year to dry ... yes, this is all very encouraging. It is at a very low level but encouraging.'
In a city where art is still largely regarded as a hobby or commodity and where most visual artists have to hold down a day job in design or teaching to make a living, even the tiniest show of interest or knowledge of the subject can be construed as progress - the inching forward of a cultural evolution that will, hopefully, lead Hong Kong into an era of enlightenment. Talk of Hong Kong being an 'art hub' is extremely premature. This autumn, as the rest of Asia revels in the euphoria of art biennales and triennales (large curated international exhibitions that take place every two or three years) - the 3rd Guangzhou Triennial, 3rd Yokohama Triennale, 7th Kwangju Biennale, 6th Taipei Biennial, 2nd Singapore Biennale, 7th Shanghai Biennale and 6th Pusan Biennale - Hong Kong remains wanting.
We do have what is called the Art Biennial, which has been run by the government-operated Hong Kong Museum of Art for more than three decades, but it is no more than an open art competition. Rather than upgrading the event to a curated international exhibition, the museum is considering renaming it to reflect its parochial nature.
However, art is not just about art. It's also about status and financial investment, concepts dear to this city's heart. Poised to become the epicentre for the commercial side of contemporary art in the region, Hong Kong will play host to a series of international fairs and major auction sales over the next six months - including Christie's first evening sale in Asia.
The inaugural Hong Kong International Art Fair (Art HK 08), which starts on Wednesday and will run for five days at the Convention and Exhibition Centre, will be watched closely. It promises to be a 'major fixture on the international art calendar' and boasts the credentials to match. Involved are Will Ramsay, the chief executive of Pulse Contemporary Art Fairs, which operate in New York, Miami and London; Andry Montgomery, a large independent group of exhibition organisers, managers and consultants; and Single Market Events, which handles London Fashion Week and The British International Motor Show.
The fair's advisory committee is headed by Charles Merewether, curator and artistic director of the 2006 Sydney Biennale, and includes: Mary Dinaburg and Howard Rutkowski, co-founders of art-project adviser Fortune Cookie Projects; Philip Dodd, former director of London's Institute of Contemporary Arts; and collector Jean-Marc Decrop.
More than 100 exhibitors from the mainland, elsewhere in Asia, Europe, North America and Australia have been selected, including Max Lang, Yvon Lambert, Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Albion, ShanghART and Gallery Hyundai. Works by more than 850 artists will be showcased.
According to fair director Magnus Renfrew, Art HK 08 sets out to net big collectors from around the region, especially those from Taiwan and the mainland, as well as to attract new collectors who are 'affluent and interested in culture'.
'We want this to be a trade show with cultural significance, to give people access to see what they wouldn't otherwise have a chance to see,' he says.
Among the works for sale will be Andy Warhol's Avanti Cars (1962), which is valued at HK$29 million, and Benzhydrol (1996), by British artist Damien Hirst. Also on offer will be plenty of contemporary art by Chinese artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Feng Zhengjie, the value of which has rocketed over the past two years. A set of gunpowder-on-paper works by mainland conceptual artist Cai Guoqiang sold for HK$74 million at a Christie's sale in Hong Kong last November.
While there are numerous art fairs around the region - most notably KIAF (Korea International Art Fair) and relative newcomer ShContemporary, both of which will be held in September in Seoul and Shanghai, respectively - Art HK 08 believes it has the best commercial proposition.
Renfrew points out that Hong Kong is now the third-largest art market in the world, measured by auction turnover, after New York and London. The fact a number of international players - such as Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Gagosian Gallery and Tang Contemporary Art - have set up shop here will help put the city on the collectors' radar. Being at the heart of Asia geographically is another advantage.
What gives Hong Kong the real edge over other Asian cities, however, is its status as a free port, says Renfrew. There is no tax on the import or export of art - unlike on the mainland, which has a punitive tax of 34 per cent. Art Basel, in Switzerland, is a success in Europe for much the same reason.
Andy Hei, founder and director of the Hong Kong International Arts and Antiques Fair (HKIAAF), to be held in October, says the mainland has other drawbacks. 'Final decisions are made by individual officials [rather than being subject to] the law and things get really complicated if more than one official is involved, which is often the case,' says Hei, himself a regular fair exhibitor.
ShContemporary, which drew a crowd of 39,500, certainly created a buzz when it made its debut last September, but it didn't generate the business to match. This year, it has lost one of its driving forces, Swiss art dealer and collector Pierre Huber, who is embroiled in allegations of unethical practices and conflict of interest. Reportedly, Huber put an artwork from his gallery on the cover of the ShContemporary catalogue. He is now banned from taking part in the Shanghai event, which he co-founded with a former director of Art Basel, Lorenzo Rudolf.
Hong Kong's pretensions to being a top art-fair destination have not won universal support. Dominique Perregaux, of Art Statements Gallery in Central, for one, will not be participating in Art HK 08. In his opinion, the event won't help find collectors for the artists he represents, such as the Russian collective AES+F and Japanese illustrator Yoshitaka Amano. The main problem, he says, is this city has no collector base. Traditional art, such as Chinese ink, and antiques, yes; contemporary art, especially western, no.
'This is the real question for me. For the Hong Kong International Art Fair, will they succeed in bringing the big collectors from the region?' asks Perregaux, who set up Art Statements four years ago. 'Korea, Taiwan and Japan have their own collectors and their taste is much more eclectic and they'll buy western art as well. They have a very wide knowledge of contemporary art as a whole, which is not the case in Hong Kong.
'They don't know the names here. [Yvon Lambert and] Eva Presenhuber are extremely cutting edge [galleries]. They are big names in Europe but not known among collectors here.'
Perregaux believes Art HK 08 would do better to position itself as a Chinese contemporary art fair.
A quick check of the sales figures at the auction houses is telling. According to Christie's, buyers from Asia accounted for 86 per cent of its auctions of Asian contemporary art last year. Sotheby's contemporary Chinese art auctions last month saw 76 per cent of buyers coming from the region. Business aside, 'I don't know if people in Hong Kong will see [the fair] as a cultural event. Maybe. I hope so because you'll really need that,' says Perregaux.
Renfrew sees the fair as a cultural trigger. 'We want this to be a catalyst for other events that galvanise people. People can arrange events around the fair.'
Satellite events accompanying the fair this year include Mirage, curated by Sabrina Fung and looking at the play between illusion and imagination through the large-scale installations, video and sculptures of artists such as Homan Ho, Catherine Lee, Esther Yip and Wong Chung-yu. There will also be a one-day international conference, co-organised by the Asia Art Archive and the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, focusing on the role of museums and cultural districts.
'To promote visual culture in Hong Kong is a long-term goal of ours,' says Renfrew, who worked as a specialist at auction house Bonhams, in London, and as a gallery manager in Shanghai before moving to Hong Kong. 'We feel that with the West Kowloon Cultural District opening in 2014, we can perform an important function in developing an audience, which obviously will take a number of years. It will also take a number of years for the fair to be profitable, so we are here to stay.'
Johnson, who attended the Asian Contemporary Art Fair in New York last November and will be joining Art HK 08, believes art fairs provide a platform from which to widen the exposure of the artists represented by galleries.
'Even if you maybe get 10 people who are interested in the artist's work, it's probably been worthwhile from an exposure point of view,' says Johnson, whose charges are a mixed bag of the international, regional and local, including Macau-based Russian artist Konstantin Bessmertny and local installation artist Kum Chi-keung.
But more important will be Art HK's role in putting local talent under the spotlight, she says. 'They're going to have a Hong Kong artist exhibition area, which is especially curated. That is what it is about. It shouldn't just be about selling art. It's about promoting contemporary art. I want to be part of that. They are trying to do what hasn't been done before.'
The HKIAAF, a '100 per cent locally organised event' that mixes antiques and contemporary art, will feature a number of seminars on topics including Chinese ink painting, contemporary Chinese photography and new-media art, as well as a couple of exhibitions, one on Chinese landscape painter Li Huayi.
Just how much of the buzz generated by these fairs will rub off onto the local visual-art scene is yet to be seen. Oscar Ho Hing-kay, director of the cultural management programme at the Chinese University and an independent curator, says these art fairs and auctions only highlight Hong Kong's role as a global intermediary or mediator. Underneath all the internationalism lie fundamental problems that make the local contemporary art scene the way it is today - fragmented and lacklustre.
'From a curator's viewpoint, Hong Kong art is very limited. The same artists often show the same work ... the community is too small. And most artists have full-time jobs,' he says. 'There is a general lack of curatorial will and sensibility.'
Ho says the root of that stems from the government-run museum system, of which he has been a long-time critic. Critical curatorship, where issues or critique are re-evaluated even if there are social or political implications, is not encouraged by the authorities, he says.
'There are many [museum] curators but not much intellectually engaging articulation,' says Ho. 'Our museums are not very strong on interpretation.
'I don't mind failed exhibitions but the problem here is that too many exhibitions are boring and bland. There is a lack of engagement, passion and direction among curators and artists.
'I think museums should allow failure and be more experimental.
'Biennales are very important to elevate local artists and to put them alongside global artists.
They give them a platform to articulate their aesthetics within the international landscape,' says Ho, who was recently invited to sit on a nine-member committee to appoint the next artistic director for documenta, an international contemporary art exhibition that takes place every five years in Germany.
So where does that leave us?
Johnson hopes that, despite being commercial in nature, the bustling activity of the coming months will make a long-lasting impact. 'I feel quite optimistic about the long-term prospect of fine and visual art in Hong Kong and I am not equating that with commercial viability, because I think it's not necessary to sustain [local art] forever.
'I do hope it is not just a fad and I hope it will continue to encourage more people to go and study fine art and become full-time artists; that people see being in the arts as a career choice.
'And I hope this progress will then encourage artists to invigorate, explore and experiment and to see that there is a point in creating their own work.'