Over the past five years, Hong Kong’s art scene has gone from a smattering of independent galleries lining the streets of SoHo to being the biggest art market in the world. This astounding transformation is now being complemented by a further maturing – one seen already in other world cities, such as London and New York, and being emulated in Singapore, which is hatching its own creative culture – of venues that challenge the notion that art can only be experienced in a gallery setting and force us to reassess how the creative endeavour fits into our lives.
Duddell’s, in Central, Hong Kong, blends a restaurant and bar with exhibition spaces, and Konzepp, in Singapore, follows its Hong Kong parent branch in being a shop and a space for designers to meet, share ideas and collaborate. In London, the curating agency A Space For Art transforms non-traditional exhibition areas such as restaurants into art galleries. These enterprises blur the boundaries between community, retail and art spaces. But are they exploiting the global passion for art, or are there bigger values at work? Konzepp, despite having expanded to Singapore, is no money-making machine, according to co-founder Geoff Tsui. “Konzepp is not that successful from a typical business standpoint, where the main focus is monetary,” Tsui says.
“Locally, we’re facing the issue of high rental. But when Willie [Chan] and I conceived the idea of Konzepp, making a lot of money was never part of the equation. Whatever earnings we make go right back into purchasing new designers’ products.”
Tsui’s partner, Willie Chan, is the superstar manager who guided the careers of Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung and Daniel Wu.
The Singapore branch came about when Tsui and Chan were approached by distributors they were working with who loved the concept of Konzepp and wanted to bring it to their home city.
“Singapore’s art and creative scene is becoming more vibrant,” Tsui says. “The government is giving the scene a lot of support. Extending Konzepp to other cities around the world makes the collaborative part much easier and quicker.”
Collaboration has always been key for Konzepp. The shop has space for designers or, indeed, anyone, to sit back with the free Wi-fi and work, be inspired by the items – everything from shoes to bicycles to scented candles – on sale, and meet other creative types during the regular events and parties. “We provide a space where people can gather,” Tsui says. “The heart of Konzepp really is collaborations and building up a community, having a place where people can meet aside from Starbucks and see international designers’ products that are fresh and inspiring.”
Konzepp has a DJ booth, and their Organik Soul parties have become a signature gathering night.
There are talks by people from different industries – many creative professionals such as artists, illustrators, musicians, directors and scriptwriters, but also finance experts and real estate agents.
“Design is always subjective, but we try to be as objective as possible. We look for brands that have a story: how it developed, what inspired the designers, how engaging are the products and how will they inspire others. Our aim is to showcase individualistic style. We don’t want to conform; we want to slow down and appreciate some of the cool things around us.”
While Konzepp relies on sales of its “artworks” to keep things going, Duddell’s has an entirely different business model. None of the works on display – neither the third-floor, 20th-century brush and ink paintings from the Hong Kong-based MK Lau Collection, nor the rotating, guest-curated exhibitions of international modern and contemporary art – are for sale.
Instead, income stems from the restaurant and bar, and a small part from memberships.
Duddell’s also has a principal art sponsor (Perrier-Jouët Champagne) to help cover costs of the curated exhibitions.
Duddell’s was set up by Alan Lo, Paulo Pong and Yenn Wong, an art power trio. Lo has been instrumental in developing Hong Kong’s art scene, being on the advisory board of Art HK since its conception five years ago, and he is chairman of the Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design. He is also co-founder of the Press Room Group along with Pong, who runs the Altaya Group and etc wine shops. Wong is the mastermind behind JIA Boutique Hotels and trendsetting restaurants in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore.
Critics may point out that a restaurant such as Duddell’s, located at an upmarket address and featuring abalone and bird’s nest dishes on the menu, is doing little to bring art to the wider community, but the exhibitions on the third and fourth floor are open to the public and, while most guests do stay for a drink or to eat, there is no prerequisite for dining or drinking at the venue. “We are trying to make the concept sustainable while creating a venue where top quality art from Asia and beyond can be shared with the Hong Kong community,” Wong says.
Duddell’s also runs salon events, some of which are open to nonmembers.
Wong says Duddell’s is a response to the landscape for art that has changed dramatically in a short time in terms of artists, art and infrastructure.
“We felt that people who appreciate art tend to also appreciate food and wine, which is why we thought it natural to create a place that will connect art and people in a fresh, new way – allowing art masters and novices alike to embrace and develop the new cultural context adopted by Hong Kong,” she explains.
Even in other countries where a rich cultural context has been in place for longer, novel ways to redefine art spaces continue to be developed.
In London, an interesting curating agency called A Space For Art has been set up to link artists and galleries with non-traditional exhibition spaces. The company is hosting the works of renowned British photographer Terry O’Neill at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze Grill.
Natalie Baerselman le Gros, curator and artist liaison at A Space For Art, says the motivations behind the company are simply to provide alternative spaces for the display of art.
“The exhibition of art in restaurants and hotels is not a new practice. However, the curatorial approach we take towards each venue ensures that the art we place is eye-catching and conversation-starting, with an accessible price point.”
The service is available to London’s galleries. A Space For Art takes a commission on each sale. “We facilitate the buying of art by bringing it out of galleries to those that can afford it but are perhaps not inclined to visit a gallery or art fair.
Artworks become substantially more accessible to the hundreds that pass through these venues every day, enjoying greater exposure than they would in a storage facility or the studio,” Baerselman le Gros says.
Whether it is to support creative collaboration, to revel in a newfound cultural context, or to make art accessible to a new sales market, art spaces today are being redefined in myriad ways. As the global passion for art continues unabated, there is every likelihood that endeavours such as Konzepp, Duddell’s and A Space For Art will be just the beginning of the journey to challenge our preconceptions of art.
PAINTING THE TOWN
While venues around the world are challenging traditional notions on the display of art by rejecting the boundaries between gallery, retail and community spaces, a recent event at Konzepp Hong Kong blurred the lines between public and private.
Australian street artist Anthony Lister came to Hong Kong at the end of last year for the opening of his first Asian show. Geoff Tsui and Willie Chan of Konzepp invited his manager to give a talk at the store, and when he spoke about the lack of graffiti in Hong Kong, they asked Lister to paint the shutters of Konzepp.
They then invited Lister home to do a painting on the rooftop of their Clearwater Bay home, and to do a painting on Chan's car.
They also worked together on a wine product: producer/agent Chan also runs a wine business, so Lister produced three label designs and box packaging for a limited edition of 100 bottles of Anthony Lister x Konzepp for Corley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2005.