A change of art
Let the bad times roll' could well serve as a slogan for Belinda Kruger's business. While auction houses and galleries are taking a hit in the global downturn, art leasing companies such as Kruger's are benefiting from the overall belt-tightening as managers rent rather than buy sculptures and paintings to boost their corporate image. A few bold souls have even seized the moment to start leasing services.
The managing director of Art-lease.com, which also commissions and sells artworks, Kruger says leasing now accounts for 70 per cent of her company's revenue, up from 30 per cent before the financial crisis hit last September.
'Leasing is budget-friendly and it offers flexibility. Once the economy improves, clients can either buy the leased work or commission something that better suits their purpose,' she says.
Kruger's clientele is mainly commercial - hotels, banks and companies looking to add a touch of class to their offices. Many top executives view having art as a badge of success.
'If you have a good painting, it shows that you have good taste and you know about life and culture,' Kruger says. 'A high-quality painting says a lot about who you are.'
Although banks have had to make severe cutbacks, managers can argue that leasing is cheaper than buying, she says.
Kruger, a former property executive, ventured into art leasing eight years ago after identifying a market through designers who complained of clients hanging work that didn't suit their new offices.
Her portfolio includes work from emerging artists and prominent names, and charges range from HK$500 to HK$4,000 a month.
Sala Sihombing and Suzi-kay Jacoel, who work in financial services, also saw an unexploited market in leasing and set up consultancy Artheke to cater to it.
'In Hong Kong, it's either some large companies hiring in-house curators to build a portfolio as a long-term investment or smaller companies using reproduction prints or colour boards to fill up space,' Sihombing says. 'The middle-level market is still largely untapped.'
Sihombing and Jacoel launched their business last month with a two-day exhibition in Central to showcase some of the works they obtained from collectors and artists.
Leasing can help artists raise their profiles while providing art buyers with some extra income, says a collector supplying works to Artheke who declines to be named.
'Personally, my interest in this project with Artheke is to have the work I own displayed to a wider audience,' he says. 'I'm proud of the collection I have built over the past 15 years. I enjoy seeing the reaction it produces.'
Local painter and interior designer Steve Barnes has no qualms about leasing. Not only does it offer a source of income, there's also prestige if a piece is selected for a prime location or major company.
'It doesn't matter to me whether they are rented or purchased - either way it means that people are interested in my art,' says Barnes.
Although his largely non-figurative works suit office spaces, the Briton says the setting isn't a consideration when he paints, but scale is.
'Obviously, a very large canvas can only be used where there is sufficient wall space and might limit its chances of fitting in somewhere.'
Colourful, abstract paintings are the mainstays in leasing because they suit corporate environments better than edgy works, Kruger says. Clients' choices are also determined by other factors, such as fung shui. Auspicious colours such as red and gold, and works associated with water as a symbol of wealth are the most sought after, particularly by new companies.
After consulting a fung shui expert, The Retreat spa put up two paintings in earthy orange and red hues on its cafe walls to add a fire element. Spa general manager Deirdre Mathias says leasing also allows the company to assess whether an artistic style works.
Executive Centre founder Paul Salnikow has long tapped Kruger's service to add points of interest to the 29 serviced office hubs that his company operates.
'With the flexibility of leasing, we can run a programme of regular changes, which works well,' he says.
The company tends to rent oil paintings and buy sculptures and photographs. Some tenants like the leased artworks so much they decide to buy them, which reflects well on the company's taste, Salnikow says.
Kruger has found, however, that law firms can make very difficult clients. 'They have too many chiefs, who all have very strong opinions,' she says. 'Hopefully, leasing provides a solution to avoid disputes because they can rotate the pieces.'
At Artheke, Jacoel hopes the firm's service will encourage clients to broaden their horizons in art. 'When people buy art for investment, they go for something safe like mainland art because it's still hot. But in leasing, people can be more open and flexible,' she says.
With the city's inclination for a quick turnover, it's perhaps unsurprising that leasing periods are relatively short.
'Hong Kong is very happy with change compared to other places,' Kruger says. 'They usually take six months. People in New York, London and Australia tend to keep the leasing period longer, usually two or three years.'
Although art is normally leased for offices, some pieces are selected for the home. Jules Lambe, director of Gaffer Studio Glass, which leases sculptural works, says expatriates sometimes lease art for their homes because they don't know how long their Hong Kong posting will last. It also means there's no risk of having art pieces damaged during shipping when they leave.
Then there are clients who prefer to lease because they like switching the art in their homes the way they change their wardrobe.
Kruger sometimes gets requests for special occasions. 'A few years ago a banker asked for an Andy Warhol work,' she recalls. 'He just rented it for a week to impress his VIP guests at a dinner party.'