Top art dealer David Zwirner looking to open gallery in Hong Kong

Zwirner, named third most influential in contemporary art world, with galleries in New York and London and representing artists such as Jeff Koons, sees city as ideal place for his first gallery in Asia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 January, 2016, 1:23pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 January, 2016, 4:59pm

David Zwirner, one of the most powerful art dealers in the world, is looking for a place in Hong Kong to open his first Asia gallery.

“A couple of years ago, we thought we would just come to the art fair. Now, I’m convinced we need a gallery here,” said the founder of the eponymous New York and London gallery during a whirlwind visit to meet local clients.

Christopher D’Amelio, senior partner in the gallery, said it wanted to have a permanent presence in Hong Kong “as soon as possible” after witnessing a steady growth in its Asian business.

To cultivate awareness of the 51 artists it represents, and demand for their works, the David Zwirner Galllery wants to be able to put on exhibitions in Hong Kong and engage in dialogue with Asian clients outside of the art fairs. Massimo De Carlo, the Milan and London gallery, also announced recently that it will open a third branch in Pedder Building, Central, in a space previously occupied by Ben Brown Fine Art, which has decided to downsize. MDC will launch with a solo exhibition by Chinese artist Yan Pei-ming on March 21, during Art Basel week.

The arrival of Zwirner, named the third most influential person in the contemporary art world by ArtReview magazine, would be a big vote of confidence in the long-term prospects of the Hong Kong art market amid economic uncertainty and growing competition from other cities in the region. Among the artists he represents are Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama and Richard Serra.

The years 2011 and 2012 saw a flurry of major international galleries, such as Gagosian Gallery and White Cube, open in Hong Kong after auction sales in the city doubled from 2009 to 2010. But there have been few additions since Pace Gallery opened in 2014.

One reason is the dearth of good gallery space, especially compared with what Zwirner is used to. In New York, for example, he had a new, five-storey building with 30,000 square feet of floor space put up in 20th Street three years ago so that he could put on museum-quality shows.

“We are spoilt. We have large galleries that in some instances we’ve built from the ground up. What I’d like to have is a space that inspires artists. But that is difficult in Hong Kong, so we might start with something modest,” Zwirner said.

He said he had yet to find a suitable space and was prepared to wait for Hong Kong’s retail rents to fall further.

It is only because Hong Kong is by far the easiest place to trade that he would put up with the high cost of opening a gallery in the city and the space restrictions. The gallery believes it can find much better properties in Beijing and Shanghai, with the latter becoming more attractive in recent years because of the proliferation of private museums and the establishment in 2013 of a tax-free zone. But opening a branch in China is less urgent than setting up shop in Hong Kong.

“For now, both us and our clients find it much easier to transact in Hong Kong than in mainland China. But for us, I know we’d like the sort of space that we can find in the mainland,” said Zwirner.

Singapore, another Asian city where there’s been a proliferation of art market activities, is not yet on Zwirner’s radar. “It’s a perfectly interesting market but to us, it’s a secondary market,” he said.

The art market veteran predicts 2016 will be “complicated”.

“America has an election – that’s not good, there’s instability there. The auction houses are very weak right now. Chinese economy is decelerating. All kinds of external pointers suggest we will have a rougher year,” he said.

This was a good time for the art market to focus on quality again, he said. “One problem in the art market is too much art that maybe is not of the greatest quality, but fetches too high a price,” Zwirner said.

Artists who had relied on the support of auction results alone would see their works become less popular compared with those who had “real careers”, he said. “If you get a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Tate Gallery in London, and they acquire your work, then one can assume that your career is real. That’s an objective criteria,” he said.

As an example, he cited Ai Weiwei as an artist who has a “real” career. “He really hit international fame as a dissident. When he was put into prison he became a worldwide celebrity and then people discovered his art. Be that as it may. He is widely collected by major museums and he just had a major show at the Royal Academy. I think it’s a healthy career,” he said.

Zwirner will bring a wide selection of works by their artists to this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong. The gallery is presenting a group of artworks by Isa Genzken, a major name in Germany, in the “Encounter” section of the art fair. The works are free-standing sculptures she made in 2015 for her Schauspieler (Actors) series.

The gallery’s booth will feature, among others, new works by Belgian artist Michaël Borremans, who will also visit Hong Kong during the fair.

Zwirner and MDC’s confidence in the Asian market is in contrast to Ben Brown’s decision to reduce its footprint in Pedder Building, the colonial landmark which only became a popular address for galleries after Brown’s arrival in 2007.

Amanda Hon, the gallery’s new managing director, said the decision to give up some of the space to MDC was made in the face of a slowdown in the Chinese economy, as well as the growing importance of art fairs. “We do eight fairs a year and the right audience tend to go to the fairs more than to galleries. We still have a major space in London and we thought we didn’t need such a big space here, which came with huge overheads,” she said. A New York native who speaks Cantonese, Hon was recruited by Brown to look after the Asian business as well as help the gallery expand in North America as the market turned more bearish in China and Europe, she added.