Really art for art's sake?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 May, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong has arrived in the art world's big league. The opening today of ART HK - the Hong Kong International Art Fair - is bedazzling evidence of that.

The city is now the world's third largest auction centre after New York and London, and it is growing in prominence as the 'Asian hub' for international art dealing. 'You have to appreciate Hong Kong has a very robust financial presence globally,' local dealer Anna Ning said.

'After investing in property and stocks, [the Chinese] now consider art as a good investment. Growth is getting stronger year on year.'

And that growth, she added, was reflected in her client base, which included buyers from the mainland, Singapore, Taiwan and Indonesia.

The fair, which has grown from just 100 galleries in 2008 to 260, is now backed by a world player - MCH Group. The outfit owns two of the world's most important art fairs, Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach. And it has bought a 60 per cent stake in ART HK's owner, Asian Art Fair.

But is this new status an indication of the emergence of a discerning art scene?

Or does the presence of so many 'A list' works - especially modern western art - simply represent another investment opportunity for wealthy high-rollers?

Buyers in Hong Kong are known to purchase art in order to speculate. Art that is sold for huge sums at auctions, for instance, can find its way back on the market, sometimes in just two to three years.

Most overseas galleries understand the need to help buyers differentiate between investment and speculation.

But for many people it is still a grey - and sometimes unfamiliar - area to be approached with caution.

Newcomer Glenn Scott Wright, co-director of the Victoria Miro Gallery in London, said he tried to avoid selling to speculators.

He said: 'We want to place the work with bona fide collectors who are buying art because they love the art, and because they see the value in having a piece of art beyond purely monetary terms.'

It was easier in Europe and North America, Scott Wright said, because they already knew so many of the buyers and sellers.

'And if there is someone new,' he said, 'it's easy for us to find out if they are bona fide or whether they are going to be buying the work just to make a quick profit.'

He added: 'The situation in Hong Kong and China is a little bit more difficult because it's largely a leap into the unknown.

'We do have clients in the region who we believe to be quite solid, but ... it's going to be difficult because we'll be meeting new people who want to buy art and we have no idea what their credentials are.

'Clearly, we would like to encourage people to buy art for reasons other than pure monetary speculation.'

Ning, whose six-year-old gallery in Central specialises in modern Chinese art and will attend ART HK for the fourth time, said Hong Kong art buyers tend to be knowledgeable - and their mainland counterparts 'are catching up fast'.

While most still view art-buying more from an investment point of view, 'lately they are adopting a more discerning taste in good art', she said.

Neil Wenman, director of Hauser & Wirth, said some important collections and institutions on the mainland created an excellent foundation for a quickly maturing Asian art market.

'We are very involved with the development of these collections offering our advice from a western art point of view,' he said.

'There is huge potential as new museums, both public and private are opening. We have had several visitors to our Savile Row galleries in London, bringing architectural plans and animation walk-throughs, asking for advice. It's the start of what will be some very important and long- term relationships.'

Nicolas Nahab, director of Yvon Lambert, said it would take time for buyers in this region to understand the concept of art collecting.

He added: 'Collecting doesn't come naturally. It is the result of a learning process, of encounters that make you grow as a collector and that broaden your knowledge on art and builds your individual taste.

'Being myself an art collector, I am aware about how experience nourishes my collection.'

So other than doing business and finding new clients - which remain the top priorities of all exhibitors - some will also take the opportunity to share their experience of art buying and collecting with a new audience.

Dominique Levy, co-owner and director of L&M Arts in New York and Los Angeles, said: 'It seems, at least for the moment, that Asian collectors are much more comfortable buying at auctions.

'And, therefore, even though you end up usually paying more money at auctions than on the private market, there is still the notion, especially in Asia more than anywhere else, that at auctions it's safer.

'So for the moment, for galleries, these art fairs are a way to introduce another way of collecting or buying art, another way of choosing art.'

ART HK's organisers say this year's fair, which runs from today through to Sunday, will be 30 per cent larger than the previous year in terms of exhibition space.

But more than the size, it is the 'stellar line-up of top-tier international and regional galleries' that is moving ART HK several notches up.

Big-hitters L&M Arts, Victoria Miro Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery are joining the throng at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre for the first time, while Yvon Lambert is back after a two-year absence.

Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian Gallery and White Cube have all returned.

The value of the art on sale will also be significantly higher than in previous years.

'We are bringing 10 to12 pieces of sculpture and design, and 15 to 20 works of art,' said Levy, of L&M Arts.

'We have a US$15 million Picasso, we will have a US$4 million [Jeff] Koons and US$6 million Warhol. And we will have a lot of art in between ... from US$4,000 to U$5,000 to US$100,000 to US$500,000.'

Scott Wright said his gallery had gradually been doing more business in this region in the past three years.

They want a stronger presence here to promote their artists - including Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Udomsak Krisanamis and Isaac Julien - and introduce their work to a new audience.

This is also the first time Goodman will be participating in an art fair in Asia. She believes ART HK will allow her gallery to establish relationships with top collectors and curators from the region.

'As the art world has become increasingly global, we feel strongly that having a presence in Asia is essential,' said Goodman, who has galleries in New York and Paris.

Scott Wright said that, ultimately, their number one priority was to promote their artists to a new audience of both collectors and private clients.

But coming to Hong Kong is also about building relationships with curators in the region and exploring possibilities for collaborations with museums, which might be interested in some of the gallery's artists.

For ART HK 11, Victoria Miro Gallery will be presenting works by the prominent Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama.

She will have a major retrospective that will go to a number of important museums in the coming year, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Tate Modern in London and Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

L&M Art promises to offer a 'unique experience' that will excite visitors - a showing of post-war and contemporary art in conjunction with the highest level of designer furniture.

'I'm treating furniture as if they are sculptures,' Levy said. 'A lot of the very well known designers like Marc Newson have started doing - and have always done - furniture with a very small edition, treating them as sculptures.'

Yvon Lambert's Nahab said his gallery decided on a different approach to impress visitors.

He said: 'I am very excited that iconic American artist Jenny Holzer has accepted my invitation to do a solo exhibition for our booth.

'We will be displaying a major LED installation composed of 20 arrays of double-sided signs featured in Jenny's retrospective show, as well as three recent oil-on-linen paintings and two vintage benches from the 1980s. The booth will be minimal but I want to make a real statement.'

As with any art fair, there is no guarantee that the exhibitors will return. Scott Wright said it would depend on the gallery's performance at the fair. He said: 'If we do well, we will be back. If we don't, we won't. It's as simple as that.'

Levy said: 'We are coming, not as a one-shot, but with the idea of developing a long-term relationship.

'And we hope that the fair, knowing this, will put the necessary talent and professionalism and energy into making it an attractive place.'


The amount of revenue from sales, in US dollars, Christie's took in Hong Kong auctions in 2010, a 111 per cent rise from sales in 2009