Artists are making an impression

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 October, 2008, 12:00am

The emergence of more galleries in HK has helped build a thriving business

Dressed in saffron robes with backs turned to the viewer, Buddhist monks of Burmese artist Min Wae Aung illuminated a corner of Staunton Street when they came to Hong Kong's Karin Weber Gallery in 1999. But Aung's serene figures could also symbolise the quest for fulfilment that German gallerist Karin Weber has made in a business which she claims puts personal satisfaction before profit.

'Many people think that entering the gallery business will make you rich,' said Ms Weber, the founder of the gallery, now located in Aberdeen Street, which was launched on the phenomenal success of Aung.

'But if that doesn't happen, the important thing is to enjoy it. I want to find pleasure in my work. It definitely pays the bills, but I may never have my own jet and I don't particularly want it.'

While Ms Weber puts the success of the few Hong Kong art galleries that have managed to make a fortune from contemporary Chinese art, down to luck, she points out a side of the business that shuns mass production.

'The difference with artists is that they have an ego,' Ms Weber said. 'We need to know how to stroke their egos. I try to give an artist an exhibition every 18 months to two years. It gives them time to paint.

'Painting is very creative, and we don't think it's a good idea to push artists to paint and paint just because the paintings are selling well. It really isn't an industry like any other.'

This opinion demonstrates how the sourcing process of the gallery business sets it apart from other trades, in which supply might be measured by quantifiable products. In the art world, long-term, mutually beneficial relationships are the basis of the business.

'There has to be a chemistry between the artist and the gallerist,' Ms Weber said.

'Most artists look for a long-term relationship and it takes time to build up the reputation of a young, up-and-coming artist.'

Much comes out of the artist's own sense of self-preservation and concerns about the role and responsibility of galleries that pledge not only to market paintings, but also to build a name into a brand perhaps worthy of enough admiration to copy.

'You can argue that paintings can be copied but if you look closely at any copy, it doesn't have any of the energy or the soul or the passion of the original piece,' said Amelia Johnson, founder of Shin Hing Street's Amelia Johnson Contemporary, a gallery that showcases several innovative artists.

'To me a product sums up something that can be reproduced as a unit form. Artwork is so far beyond that, I can never describe it as a product. When you see how much work artists have invested into each piece, it is a little bit of their soul each time.'

And this usually means more than stocking up products en masse and selling them at a mark-up.

A close working relationship resulting in galleries displaying and taking a percentage from sales, make exhibitions a vital part of marketing strategies.

But as galleries inevitably reflect owners' tastes, they also need to be quiet spaces engaging enough to build reputations, and comfortable enough for people to absorb creative worlds.

'Any gallery that you go to will reflect the owner or the director's taste to a degree,' Ms Johnson said.

'Gallerists either have to have a very good eye and are very natural at it, or have very good business sense. A dealer falls into one of two categories: those who have the eye to pick up artists when they are less known, and those who might not necessarily have the eye but the business acumen, who can market artists when they are already known.'

Without major art museums in Hong Kong to create a platform for talent recognition, gallerists find artists from any possible source, including the internet which makes it easier to scout them out in remote locations. Getting artists also acts as a barometer of a gallery's success.

'I have sourced work from places such as India, Pakistan, Japan, Iran, Australia, the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau,' Ms Johnson said.

'I probably get sent about 10 portfolios a day by artists from all over the world. When you start out, you need to do it all yourself.

'Now I sit and wait for people to come to me. One way of measuring success is when artists start approaching a gallery.'

While the consumer demographic remains divided between serious collectors and home decorators, the emergence of more galleries in recent years has helped build a thriving business - and a promising art scene.

As galleries become more diverse, collectors might start looking for different things.

'There is still a belief that a painting is good because it costs HK$80,000 and was sold in the auction houses,' Ms Weber said.

'But a painting doesn't necessarily have to cost a lot of money to be good.'