National origin irrelevant in contemporary art world, says gallery boss Meg Maggio

Meg Maggio, who is opening a branch of her Beijing gallery in Hong Kong, tellsMary Agnew why Asian artists must fight on global terms

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 11:35am


In the sometimes stifling and self-congratulatory art world, Meg Maggio is a breath of fresh air with her matter-of-fact clarity and muscular assurance.

Four years after opening the Pekin Fine Arts gallery in Beijing, Maggio is under no illusions about the commercial nature of her business: "The art business is 90 per cent about selling art, and if people are not keen on actually selling art and helping to build collections then they are in the wrong industry."

Maggio is now bringing this blend of Bostonian moxy and expertise to Hong Kong. After recently buying and renovating the top floor of a large warehouse space in Wong Chuk Hang with architect friend Alexander Stewart, Maggio will be opening the doors of the local incarnation of Pekin Fine Arts before the year is out.

The savvy and erudite American has been active in Asia since first moving to Beijing in the mid-1980s to practise law. After spending years behind the bars of both Hong Kong and the mainland, she shifted to a career in the Chinese contemporary art world in 1998 when she started working for Courtyard Gallery in Beijing. She opened her own space there in 2005.

Maggio has in recent years made her intentions known in Hong Kong by holding court at five consecutive Hong Kong Art Fairs and curating two major installation programmes at her then-unfinished Wong Chuk Hang space in 2010 and last year.

What she proposes to bring to the growing and diversifying Hong Kong gallery world is an international approach to Asian contemporary art and confidence in its place in the global market. "We [Pekin Fine Arts] have a lot of experience in the international fair and gallery world, and this is the standard we want all our artists to strive for. The work we show has to go beyond the decorative aesthetic that has dominated Hong Kong for so long," she says.

Maggio has long believed that it's irrelevant to define a work by the nationality of the artist in the Asian contemporary market. The idea of lumping together Asian artists on gallery walls and in auction houses based on their origin no longer has any resonance in an increasingly competitive and shrinking global contemporary art market.

She is guided by the belief that the new generation of Chinese and Asian contemporary artists must compete outside the protective umbrella of national identity if they are to maintain the critical and commercial success that has been achieved by their post-Cultural-Revolution counterparts. "I think the days of operating 'China speciality' galleries are over," Maggio says.

"We have always sought to promote an international discourse. All of our artists are taking part in the international conversation. They have international ambitions and they want to be part of the dialogue of international art, and discover where their work fits in the international milieu."

Nashun Nashunbatu, a member of the Pekin Fine Arts stable, is typical of this kind of pan-global artist. Hailing from Inner Mongolia, Nashunbatu completed his undergraduate studies at a mainland university before leaving for graduate studies in Germany. He now lives in Frankfurt and Beijing, where he runs two studios. "This type of [international] artist very much suits our profile," says Maggio. "What I am most excited about, what I have always wanted to do with my gallery, is to create conversations between Asian and international artists. Our role is to create a platform where Chinese and non-Chinese artists can have meaningful discussions."

Maggio doesn't mince words when describing the environment for contemporary art in Hong Kong. "This city is very good at one thing and that is retail. But now, in the art world, Hong Kong has to go beyond the shopping-spree mentality. It's now amassing a standing in the art world. The more international galleries that open, the more the quality of art will improve. I am a big believer in competition."

The choice of Wong Chuk Hang as the location for the Hong Kong gallery reveals Maggio's ability to see beyond traditional art hubs. (Her mainland gallery is located in Caochangdi Village, outside the capital, which was designed by mainland artist and activist Ai Weiwei.) "I love Wong Chuk Hang. The more I learn about that neighbourhood, the happier I am. It feels like a real part of Hong Kong, not part of some expat development compound. I like things that are made from the ground up. I don't like things that are made out of government developments. I get scared. I like to see how things can be grown organically."