With a few exceptions, Hong Kong contemporary art collectors prefer to keep their impressive collections hidden, for fear of disclosing their equally impressive net worth. Contrast that with all the private museum owners in the mainland who proudly put their taste on public display.
Well, Hallam Chow wants to encourage other local connoisseurs to share their works with the public, and is doing so by donating five pieces to the M+ museum.
Chow, a lawyer with White & Case, admits he wasn’t being totally altruistic when he offered works by Jompet Kuswidananto, Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Eko Nugroho, Sopheap Pich and L.N. Tallur to Pauline Yao, the museum’s lead curator of visual art.
“I have just moved to Beijing, because of work, and I didn’t want to take everything with me. So I decided to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. When he moved from Hong Kong to Switzerland, he donated a part of his collection to the then City Hall Museum and Art Gallery,” Chow says, on a recent visit to Hong Kong.
His main motive, however, was to persuade the city’s collectors to play a role in shaping Hong Kong’s cultural sphere. “Collecting is about making acquisitions. How is it different from buying Hermès handbags? You should develop tastes and influence others. I admire my grandfather as a collector, but I am even more impressed by how he took his love for monochromes to the West and influenced collectors like Sir Percival David,” Chow says.
His grandfather was none other than Edward T. Chow, the legendary dealer and collector, and Chow wants to do his bit to continue the family’s legacy alongside cousin Nicolas Chow’s work as head of Sotheby’s Chinese Works of Art department. “I don’t want my family, the Chow family, to be known only for buying and selling. I am not saying this out of disrespect for auctioneers, as their work is also cultural promotion. But there are other ways to promote culture, too, and that’s what I am interested in,” he says.
The five works are by South and Southeast Asian artists born between 1968 and 1977, an area rarely associated with Hong Kong collectors. “I was a collector of Chinese art but I realised it was important to see Chinese art in the context of Asian culture. I also think that the cultural influence of Southeast Asia is underestimated. So I started collecting art from the region four or five years ago,” he says.
In 2006, Chow set up the Luo Zhongli Scholarship Award, to support Chinese artists as they leave school. The award is named after the painter of Father (1979), that un-airbrushed, realistic portrayal of a peasant’s weathered face that became a milestone of modern Chinese art.
Context is everything, which brings us to Chow’s bigger project. He belongs to a school of collectors who wish to untether the appreciation of contemporary Asian art from the Western viewpoint. He threatens to do unspeakable things if “another Chinese academic quotes [American art critic] Clement Greenberg”.
“We shove Asian contemporary art into Western notions such as pop, abstract expressionism and so on, but Asian art developed along a very different route. I think it is the mission of today’s collectors, and M+, to find a more Asian way of looking at art,” he says. What that means is that M+ must not become a mini Tate or Museum of Modern Art, but a unique establishment that can turn Hong Kong into a cultural centre rather than what he terms a “cultural entrepot”.
At the end of the day, collectors only have a public role to play if their tastes are, indeed, inspiring. Chow is scathing when it comes to the flock mentality of today’s nouveau-riche art buyers.
“I had a very interesting conversation with this famous Western collecting couple. The wife said to me, ‘Some Chinese collectors wanted to follow us around in an art fair to learn about choosing art. Hallam, I would never let them do that. Letting them in would be like having them watch me and my husband have sex in the bedroom!’” he recalls.
Collecting is a very personal thing, he says, and each person should develop their own taste through trial and error. “This sort of collector just wants to make sure they don’t invest in the ‘wrong’ things,” he says. “It’s like how we discuss the stock market with friends over a game of mahjong.”