Artistic licence

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 May, 2009, 12:00am

A week before her final university exams, Nicole Schoeni learned that her father, Manfred Schoeni, a prominent art dealer who owned the Schoeni Art Gallery in Hong Kong, had been found murdered in the Philippines.

'I got a phone call from my mum and for the first three days I was traumatised,' says Ms Schoeni of the experience five years ago.

She was studying in London at the time, and had already made big plans for her post-graduation life.

'The initial plan was to move to Beijing, spend six months there, hang out with artists, perfect my [Putonghua], and eventually work next to my dad,' she said.

With her father gone and a gallery opening in four days, Ms Schoeni had to make the first of many difficult choices.

At 23, the prospect of going home to Hong Kong and taking the reins of the family business seemed almost overwhelming, she says.

'My dad had a very strong personality, amazing charisma and great charm, everyone loved him,' she says. 'I would always be in his shadow, a very shy talker.'

She adds that her prosperous upbringing also made it difficult to accept that it was time to embrace responsibility.

'I was a very spoiled child, I was quite naive,' admits Ms Schoeni, who says her previous job experience amounted to two three-month stints of work, one at a boutique and the other at a catering company. She says her allowance was always raised so that she did not have to work.

All the same, she did what she knew was the right thing to do.

'I jumped on a flight, arrived Thursday afternoon, put on makeup, put on a dress and turned up to the opening,' Ms Schoeni says. Despite her age and inexperience, she bravely spoke to the artists and collectors and assured them that Schoeni Art Gallery was there to stay.

'Since then, it's just been non-stop working at the gallery,' she says. But she is not alone and is accompanied by a hard-working team, and also gets a helping hand from her mother whom she calls her 'guru'.

She says being a young art dealer has advantages, and one is tapping into a demographic that she can relate to.

'One of my personal missions is to start a young generation of collectors,' she says.

From June 19 to July 18, Schoeni Art Gallery will host limited-edition prints of Adam Neate, a renowned street artist. 'They're ... affordable but they still have value,' says Ms Schoeni.

Given her relatively young age, she still faces many challenges, but she says she has managed to win the respect of the people she works with.

'The artists are quite intimidating, especially in China, where there's a hierarchy in terms of age and sex,' she says.

'But now they call me Dai Lo Ban.'

It means 'big boss' in Chinese.