It's Sunday afternoon in Beijing and a gaggle of art lovers and curators are outside the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA), engaged in a heated debate. It's the last coffee break of the day and they know they haven't got long - they deliver their views with passion. "It was great, you couldn't have bought that moment," says Bill Condon, founder and chairman of the Multitude Art Foundation, his eyes lighting up with the memory. "To see that energy in the discussion - the whole ethos of what we're trying to do is to create that kind of energy."
That heated discussion outside the mainland's bastion of modern art came at the end of the inaugural Multitude Foundation Art Prize weekend last month. Five Asian artists each received US$20,000 and the opportunity to exhibit at UCCA. Condon established the prize with Colin Chinnery, the UCCA's first director and an artist himself.
"The idea of an art prize really appealed to me. Not as a glamour prize, but as something with a bit more substance," Condon says. "We came up with the idea of … [a] prize that moved around Asia every year, but that was underpinned by a … discourse programme which would bring together contemporary thinkers to look at the relevance of art and culture in a massively changing geopolitical environment and to create these dialogues in different regions of Asia."
The congenial Irishman says artists are the focus of the prize and it's structured around supporting them. "The heroes are the artists and they should be treated in that manner. We are not asking them to donate work. We'd really like them to come, but it's not a prerequisite."
Condon, who has made Hong Kong his home since 2001, isn't an artist himself but enjoys the buzz of working alongside creative people. He spent his early career in advertising in London as an account manager at Davidson Pearce (the agency behind the PG Tips chimps) and Lowe Howard-Spink (that famously got Dudley Moore for the Tesco campaign).
After 12 years in the ad world, he decided it was time for change and moved with his English wife to Beijing. After a two-year stint in the capital, consulting for a Japanese publishing firm and setting up an education website, they relocated to Hong Kong. An entrepreneur at heart, he took to the city and now considers it home - his two children were born here.
"I enjoy the build-up to setting up something - you are constantly learning, you are constantly pushing boundaries, there's no room for complacency," he says.
When he arrived, the Irish Chamber of Commerce was little more than a network. Condon worked with others to help create a proper chamber and last year founded an Irish chamber in Macau as well. In 2004 he ventured into the restaurant business, setting up Thai restaurant Chedi on Elgin Street, and was also involved in property. These ventures as well as wise investments mean that he's been able to devote a considerable portion of his time to philanthropy.
The first such opportunity came in 2005. At the Matilda Hospital with his young son who was in for a minor procedure, he heard a child crying in the next room and put his head around the door to discover an 18-month-old boy all alone. He learned the boy was an orphan and had been brought to Hong Kong for surgery, the doctor and nannies all offering their time for free.
"The surgeon, Dr John Ngan, was also treating my son. He had co-founded an organisation called MedArt that ran a China orphan outreach programme and I said to him that if he ever needed any help to call me - and he did. I was heavily involved for five years and chaired the fundraising committee," says Condon, who has stepped down from MedArt to focus on the new Multitude Foundation.
The inspiration for the prize is the Silk Road, which allowed the transmission of religions, ideas and concepts over the centuries. The cornerstone of this is the ability for ideas to move around - and that's what the Multitude Art Prize will do.
Roughly dividing Asia into five regions, the prize will be run in five-year cycles, staged in a different part of Asia each year. The curators and judges will be different each year to keep the prize fresh. "We have a panel of curators who have their finger on the pulse of what is happening in different locations. They know who is doing what, they are professionals. They nominate the artists and those nominations are judged by a different group," says Condon.
"It's been a learning curve," he says with a grin. "We were bringing art in from all over the world and then we realised that in order to clear customs in Beijing we'd need to pay a deposit for the value of the artwork, which was 500,000 RMB - you get it all back, but we still hadn't budgeted for it."
And there was another surprise. They had budgeted for five winners - US$20,000 for each as well as covering flights, accommodation and a stipend to attend the opening ceremony to Beijing - but then he got a call from Multitude co-founder and director Chinnery. "He said the good news was that we had chosen the winners, the bad news was there were 15 artists," says Condon.
This year's winners were Yao Jui-chung (Taiwan), Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan (Philippines), Jeon Joon-ho and Moon Kyung-won (South Korea), Raqs Media Collective (India) and Ha Za Vu Zu (Turkey).
Condon hopes the prize will be able to commission new work from artists in the future. "I see this as evolving. It will evolve based on the feedback from contemporary thinkers, from artists, from museum directors as we move this around."
The Multitude Art Prize exhibition is at the UCCA in Beijing until June 16