Building relationships

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 September, 2008, 12:00am

Events such as the inaugural Hong Kong International Art Fair bring vendors and collectors together to lay some tangible foundations

The growing number of art fairs in Hong Kong indicates an upswing in the local art market and they are proving popular with many galleries, which see them as an alternative way of attracting collectors.

Staying in touch with existing clients while reaching potential new customers is vital for galleries, which can not afford to rely on walk-in buyers to maintain healthy sales.

The inaugural Hong Kong International Art Fair - ArtHK08 - was held in May and showcased works by 850 artists, represented by more than 100 of the world's leading contemporary and modern art galleries from more than 20 countries.

Natasha Cubitt, marketing director of the fair, describes it as a highly successful event. She says the final visitor count of 19,185 exceeds expectations by over 30 per cent.

The fair showcased contemporary and modern art and featured major artworks and artists of the 20th century, such as Picasso.

Local galleries were generally lukewarm towards the fair, with only 12 participating, although most agree that it had succeeded in marketing the art world to local buyers.

Arts Statement Gallery is one of those that did not participate in the fair. 'People at art fairs buy the artwork more for excitement' than for considered long-term investment, says Dominique Perregaux, founder of the gallery. He agrees that the art fair was generally a success and says he will consider participating next year.

John Batten, owner of John Batten Gallery, says he heard mixed reviews of the event. 'I know some galleries that had made strong sales, but I also know of some that did not even sell one piece,' he says.

But Magnus Renfrew, fair director of ArtHK08, says that fairs are not all about immediate sales, and they enable galleries to establish relationships with collectors all over the word. 'Undoubtedly, some people at art fairs will buy perhaps only one piece, but there are other people who are interested in developing long-term relationships with the galleries,' he says.

'In our exhibitors' survey, 90 per cent of exhibitors reported meeting new clients. Key collectors from Taiwan and [South] Korea, top collectors from the mainland, foreigners living in Hong Kong and Hong Kong Chinese; they all bought,' he says.

Furthermore, many people who did not buy at the time of the art fair later returned to the galleries and bought pieces. 'The key function of the art fair is networking with one's clients,' says Mr Renfrew.

Customers are the lifeline of any business, but despite some art dealers being optimistic about the future of the art scene in Hong Kong, a quick walk down Hollywood Road suggests local galleries are relatively quiet.

In the absence of a strong local collector base, and given the city's lack of a vibrant arts culture, one can hardly blame the galleries for focusing more on Chinese contemporary art, which is more marketable but more speculative, to survive.

While the sales generated from the fairs may not be as high as some initially expected, the consensus seems to be that art fairs in Hong Kong can bring collectors and vendors together. Kate Bryan, gallery manager of The Cat Street Gallery, says: 'In terms of our clients, many attended and found it an unprecedented opportunity to view and purchase art. We were very happy with sales at the fair and the huge level of exposure that the gallery received.'

Vanessa Wong Hei-yuet, general manager of the Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery, says: 'The art fair attracted all kinds of art lovers, including sophisticated collectors who like top-quality and renowned artists' works.'

In the future, Hong Kong will host an increasing number of art fairs. December will see the HKIAAF at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, which will showcase an unprecedented combination of both antiques and contemporary art.

Founder and director of the fair Andy Hei Kao-chiang says he has been inspired by the success of other art fairs around the world.

As was the case with the ArtHK08, says Mr Hei, the most important benefit of the fair to the galleries is in enabling them to make direct contact with potential or established collectors. 'Participating in an art fair is better than putting out an advertisement,' says Mr Hei, 'as you are able to be directly exposed to the collectors or potential collectors and speak to them face to face.'

Since its inception in 2006, the HKIAAF has expanded in terms of both the area of the exhibition hall and the number of participating exhibitors.

Mr Hei is optimistic about the future. 'Three to four art fairs are not that many if you compare this to London and New York,' he says. 'I foresee many more art fairs starting up in Hong Kong.'