The first word is always: 'Wow!' ' The veracity of Gil Schwarz's whispered aside was tested repeatedly as a succession of curious visitors - alerted by reports that 'something was happening' in the art world - made their way to a nondescript tower block next to a flyover in Aberdeen. It was Saturday, during probably the last quiet weekend Mr Schwarz will have at his gallery, Artspace, christened at Friday night's opening party. As a build-up to the big event Mr Schwarz had had a 'soft opening' lasting a couple of weeks - and time and again, he claimed, visitors were staggered by the sight of the gallery's main room: 7,000 square feet stocked with paintings and lithographs by what the publicity material calls, fairly, 'modern and contemporary masters'. A mother and grown-up daughter, several Chinese and Western couples, a shy Chinese delivery man - eyes wide - and a group of gweilo labourers with their boss passed through that day, and the astonishment was almost tangible. 'Wow! Great place for a rave,' said one girl. But size is not everything. Quality counts, and it hangs from the walls in the shape of rare Picasso and Lichtenstein lithographs, Miro, Chagall and Pissarro limited editions, and originals by stars of the late 20th century, such as abstract expressionists Peter Nyborg and Henneberg, pop art giant Peter Max and the mainland's own Walasse Ting. Also represented are Karel Appel and Pierre Alechinsky of the CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) movement. A suspiciously Western flavour is already apparent - but this is all part of Mr Schwarz's crusader's vision. 'We have a broad representation of Western art, but that doesn't mean it's there to be seen just by Western people. We don't usually deal in contemporary Chinese or Southeast Asian art because too many galleries here have been doing it well for years - why compete with them?' Rest assured, Mr Schwarz, 29, half-Danish, half-Swedish and a Hong Kong resident for nine years, is a businessman - his background is retail sales - but the gallery, set up in partnership with lawyer Vincent T K Cheung and restaurateur Tayma Page Allies, betrays his real mission. The ethos seems to be egalitarian, the prices reasonable rather than ridiculous. Mr Schwarz is an artist himself, with a fetching oeuvre of abstract expressionist canvases stashed in a corner. ('I won't be selling them here; it's a big no-no in the art world to market yourself. The only person who ever did that was Picasso.') 'This is a commercial gallery, not a museum. But,' he stressed, 'we want to enhance the art scene in Hong Kong. We're not putting this up to make a million dollars and I'm outta here next year. 'If I wanted to make big money quickly I'd sell two Vermeers a month to clients who never come out in the daylight.' As he warmed up, he expanded: 'We are deprived, in a city this size - we've got to have something, it's not right. We've got the Museum of Art, and that's great, but if you were in London or New York what would you do at weekends? You might go to a gallery and spend time there. I want this to be a destination.' For the indefatigable Mr Schwarz, who with his wife 'worked until four some mornings' to knock Artspace into shape, even having his 'destination' out in Aberdeen is not a problem. 'A large percentage of Hong Kong people on the island live on the south side, 10 minutes away,' he added. 'We want to create a gallery scene, where people can sit and drink coffee and read magazines.' Plans for the 'art cafe' section of the gallery have already been laid, with an area earmarked for 'enjoying the ambience'. And although the exhibits will still carry price tags, one item will be complimentary. 'We won't be charging $15 for a cappuccino,' said Mr Schwarz. 'We did a lot of sums and figured it wasn't worth it. The coffee at least will be free.' But who will be drinking it? 'This isn't set up for just a small part of the population. It's for everybody to feel they have a chance to look at, and buy, a work of art, where they might not have had a chance before. Young Chinese, especially, are looking for a bit of cosmopolitanism,' he said. 'People all over the world want to break away from the traditions of their forefathers, so why should people here be any different? Young Chinese are the cutting edge for other Asian populations, and they're going for Western art, Western furniture.' Looking at the stark gallery, the image of art shoppers grabbing paintings from the walls and loading up wire trolleys is hard to dismiss. In Mr Schwarz's mind, even that has a parallel with the perceived habits of his intended market. 'IKEA tells me a lot about how people shop. They don't have a lot of living space, but they like to make it look good. Young Chinese like to buy nice, accessible things for their homes. And for the bed or sofa they've just bought? Where are they going to look for the art to go with it?' Mr Schwarz is so sure of the appeal his gallery will have that the recession affecting the rest of Southeast Asia seems to have made a detour round his business. But his enthusiasm also elicited what at first appeared a preposterous comment. 'I'm opening the biggest gallery in Hong Kong at the worst possible time,' he admitted. 'Art is the last thing on the budget. But I'm selling even now.' And then, startlingly: 'Visual art is more important to people than clothing.' Asked to explain, he said: 'If it's a choice between another Armani suit and a piece of art, what do you choose?' That sentiment seemed to let slip a pitch to the top end of the buyers' market, but Mr Schwarz was simply forgetting himself: art, he believes, should be for everyone. So besides the Tings and the Nyborgs, he also sells $200 movie posters of Kevin Costner as Wyatt Earp. 'I'm upset at the way galleries here are run,' he went on. 'I'm upset at the way you get judged. A gallery is a clothing store, and if you don't look like a million dollars they don't bother with you. Nobody will feel they're not welcome here, no matter how much money they've got.' As for his own money, Mr Schwarz is already putting some of it where his easel is - in a fully equipped studio off the main room. Installed there will be a series of artists in residence, starting with New York expressionist Georgia Bush, to be followed next month by Henneberg. The studio is intended to give the public access to working artists. 'We'll have an artist of the month, and I want people to get inspiration to paint,' said Mr Schwarz. 'Everybody can paint, nobody says you have to be a painter. If you go to a museum you see lots of dead pieces; here you can see the faces behind them. 'And art is in the eye of the beholder; when an art critic tells you this is not good . . . er, excuse me? 'Everybody has their own opinions. 'I want to take art down to a level where you can talk about it - we're not going to start filling people up with critical bullshit. You can read books for that. Art doesn't always have to be so serious.' (Mr Schwarz even touched a couple of canvases during his ardent exposition.) 'I'm not going to go so far as having a playland, but if kids come and throw paint around in the studio, that's fine.' He is already talking to an European foundation about an exchange programme through which Hong Kong artists will be able to study and work with financial support. He even insists on a fair deal for the artists he exhibits. 'They will get as much as us,' he said. 'We won't charge a cent for showing them, and we'll do all the publicity. We're not trying to take 60 per cent - no one will feel taken for a ride.' In a town where the $ sign is a religious symbol, such altruism is rare. But even if, hypothetically, Mr Schwarz was only halving his prices to double his exhibitors - because he can afford to, because his rent is comparatively low - that would still benefit everybody: him, the artist not priced out of the market, and the customer who can now invest. After a quiet perusal of the gallery, a middle-aged woman of Indian extraction turned at the door and observed: 'Art should be for everybody - not just the rich.'