Line between galleries and malls blurs as art blossoms in Hong Kong

The line between galleries and shopping malls is becoming blurred as HK cashes in on creativity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 5:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 5:01am

Imagine shopping at a boutique and after selecting the latest fashion pieces - a Stella McCartney dress, a Phillip Lim 3.1 sweater - you go to the cash register and also ring up a contemporary art piece that was hanging by the clothes.

This is possible at high-end fashion boutique Joyce. It recently sold artworks from the German artist duo Herakut that were on display at its Lee Gardens outlet.

Art and fashion have a long history of colliding, but they usually do so in the form of product collaborations - think Louis Vuitton bags that incorporated the psychedelic polka dots of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama in 2011.

But with contemporary art taking on a high profile in Hong Kong, upscale brands and retail malls are attracting shoppers with art pieces beyond a few visual merchandising windows. They are setting up exhibitions within stores or in mall atriums.

It's retail therapy with a side of art.

One of the Joyce customers, who bought a chair, drawing and customised Herakut plate, is a VIP-card holder. He mainly shops at Joyce in Tsim Sha Tsui but had heard about the exhibition and came to the Causeway Bay store to check it out.

Most fashion labels and malls don't expect to get a commission from selling the artworks, seeing them mainly as an effective marketing strategy.

One doesn't have to look much further than the arrival of the inflatable rubber duck at Harbour City, which splashed its way into international media headlines last year.

The public art piece by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman bobbed in the water beside the mall for about a month. Thousands converged on the area to get a glimpse and have their photo taken with the jolly installation.

The number of visitors to Harbour City rose 60 per cent during the month, pushing the number of daily visitors to 300,000, Wharf Holdings executive director Leng Yen Thean says.

Food and beverage outlets in particular saw a roaring trade.

Then there was all the publicity the mall got through social media and the international boost in brand awareness.

Hofman's rubber duck was Harbour City's biggest hit to date, bigger than the Doraemon art exhibition the year before that saw traffic rise 20 per cent.

Leng says Wharf has increased its involvement in art over the years.

"Before we may have done one major show a year and now it is two to three," she says.

In 2011, Joyce hired two art curators to work on the Joyce Gallery initiative, working independently of the marketing team.

Sino Land also has a separate art department, and in 2009 New World Development's Adrian Cheng Chi-kong opened K11, billing itself as the world's first art shopping mall.

"What's happening in Hong Kong is what has been happening in major department stores in London and New York for some time. It is a consequence of contemporary art climbing the cultural ladder," says Lars Nittve, executive director of M+, the museum for visual culture, part of the future West Kowloon Cultural District.

The local arts scene has taken off in the past three to four years.

World-class galleries such as White Cube and Galerie Perrotin have moved in and last year Art HK morphed into Art Basel, putting Hong Kong on the world art map.

"It's a natural thing for upmarket malls to do," Nittve says. "I'm sure it's driven by an increase in traffic and probably also attracting certain visitors. The target audience is the well-educated, upper-middle class."

Hong Kong's dearth of public space has also created a curious set-up whereby malls often fulfil that role. Planning rules say they must include open space for public use.

For example, IFC's fourth-floor garden and Times Square's ground floor piazza regularly host exhibitions.

"The quality of art in public spaces in Hong Kong is getting better and better," says Meg Maggio, a contemporary art dealer and founder of Pekin Fine Arts, a gallery with outlets in Wong Chuk Hang and Beijing.

"I'm amazed when I walk around Hong Kong now and I lived here from 1990 to 1995. More and more companies are willing to invest in public projects and it's less decorative."

The city still has some catching up to do with other Asian cities, partly due to a scarcity of space and partly because the government doesn't offer incentives to developers.

Unlike Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, the local government doesn't hand out tax breaks and other sweeteners to promote art, says Alan Lo Yeung-kit, chairman of Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design and co-owner of Duddells, a restaurant which also has gallery space.

"In Tokyo Midtown there is the Suntory Museum of Art and the 2121 Design Museum," he says. "On the top floor of the main tower of Roppongi Hills there's the Mori Art Museum. In Singapore, developers get space concessions when they commit to promoting Singapore-based artists.

"Hong Kong is very cutthroat in the sense that every square inch counts and there's such premium real estate. It's difficult for the private sector to commit to things without some concessions.

"Rather than taking the role as a patron, art looks more like it's being used as a marketing campaign."

Nittve says promoting art is unlikely to be seen as a corporate social responsibility. "It's directly commercially driven. It's fine. There's nothing immoral with that," he says.

Cheng, who spearheaded the K11 art mall and other non-commercial art projects, says some firms see art as a marketing strategy while others see it as part of their corporate social responsibility and core to their brand.

Branding gimmick or not, some critics think shopping malls are not always the best environment for art to be displayed.

"It's quite tricky for malls to get this right," Nittve says. "Artists don't make art to fit in malls. Artists make works of art for different types of spaces, usually discrete and distant from the ambience of commerce."

But retailers have more leverage because of a lack of exhibition space around the city.

"It's more challenging in a city where you don't have lots of opportunities to exhibit in proper exhibitions spaces," says Nittve.

"M+ has a collection but we don't have a building yet. It will take another four years.

"We struggle all the time to find spaces to do exhibitions. I'm sure this gives malls in Hong Kong an upper hand. Artists are satisfied with less than they would be in, say, in London."

Nonetheless, Wharf Holdings' Leng says galleries are even more businesslike.

"They have rent to pay, they have overheads," he says. "We're doing this as an ancillary use for our mall so we can support young artists without thinking about whether the piece will sell. It goes very well and adds to the shoppers' experience. It's approachable and it's not intimidating."

Over time, with the Central Police Station revitalisation project, M+ and other purpose-built art spaces, will some of the lure of the shopping mall as an art gallery fade?

"It's possible," Nittve says.