WHEN ART HISTORY lecturer Henry Au-Yeung quit his job in 2001 to set up a gallery dedicated to contemporary Hong Kong art, he'd never run a gallery before and local artists were hardly talk of the town. It was his students at Chinese University who convinced him of the need for such a gallery. 'I saw so many young artists there and yet there were no avenues for them [to continue their work after university],' says the 35-year-old. 'There was no one helping them and [they were] so desperate. After they graduated, they didn't know where to go.' Today Au-Yeung's students have more options. Contemporary Hong Kong art is slowly gaining recognition in the local gallery scene, buoyed by artist communities in Chai Wan and Fo Tan, and supported by the likes of exhibitor Para/Site Art Space and research centre Asian Art Archive. Au-Yeung's gallery, Grotto Fine Art in Central, is the first in Hong Kong to promote only local contemporary artists. But a number of smaller ventures, such as YY9 in Happy Valley and Too Art in Wan Chai, have emerged, offering better opportunities to young, local talent - and more affordable art to collectors. Artists Carol Lee Mei-kuen and Alex Heung Kin-fung set up Too Art in the Hong Kong Arts Centre as an experimental gallery. The location has a double appeal: the proprietors appreciate the discounted rent they get from the Arts Centre, while clients appreciate the less intimidating atmosphere. 'People find commercial galleries a bit too high-class and daunting,' says Lee. 'Our location helps remove that psychological barrier to see what's available in the local scene.' Too Art's exhibitions often feature between 20 and 30 artists - and the gallery just sold 14 pieces in one show. Prices are at the lower end, their record sale being $10,000 for a ceramic piece. As the pioneer, Grotto occupies the higher end of the spectrum. Since its launch five years ago, the gallery has doubled the number of artists on its books to 20 and now features a few of Au-Yeung's own ex-students, notably Kwok Ying, who won a Fine Art Award at the Hong Kong Art Biennial Exhibition in 2002. Other artists include ceramicist Fiona Wong Lai-ching and Wilson Shieh Ka-ho, whose traditional Chinese brush-on-silk paintings were featured in a Sotheby's auction last year as well as in a group show at the San Diego Museum of Art. About 80 per cent of Au-Yeung's clientele are veteran collectors taking a renewed interest in local art, while the rest are corporate or individual clients. Au-Yeung says he believes his background has given him a different perspective on how to promote local artists - by building their portfolios and actively seeking out collectors rather than relying on one-off buyers. 'I came from academia so my approach has been very different,' he says. The former lecturer organises eight shows a year and the gallery produces a catalogue on each exhibitor. The artists, aged between 25 and 45, command prices ranging between $20,000 and $50,000. It's a far cry from some of the prices lately associated with some mainland artists such as San Yu, whose Pink Lotus fetched $28.12 million at Sotheby's Hong Kong spring auction - more than five times the estimated price. Au-Yeung is familiar with the major auction houses - he worked at Sotheby's as a client adviser - but he isn't fazed by the price differences or perceptions of quality. 'The auction organisers and dealers know how to raise the prices, but this doesn't necessarily reflect the quality of the art,' he says. Plus, he says the available inventory is shrinking, which bodes well for local artists. 'There is a stable art market in traditional Chinese art,' he says. 'However, these paintings are getting more expensive and fewer of them are available now.' Meanwhile, Too Art's exhibitors have attracted the interest of more established galleries. Katie De Tilly, director of 10 Chancery Lane in Central, decided to sign up Winus Lee Yee-mei and Irene Lau Kwai-ying after seeing their work at Too Art. Five out of the 20 artists on De Tilly's list are either Hongkongers or long-term residents. Most sell for less than $20,000, the exception being Hong Kong-based English artist Simon Birch, who has a growing fan base in Asia and can now fetch up to $75,000 per piece. Inspired by the 798 artist community in Beijing, De Tilly now plans to open a 2,000 sqft branch of her gallery in the former industrial district of Chai Wan, where there are about 10 art studios. She says she hopes the exhibition space will house a cluster of local artists. 'We hope to further stimulate activity outside Central,' she says. 'It should be promoted as a great place to go on the weekend.' There are still some unresolved issues that need to be dealt with before Hong Kong's contemporary art scene can really come into its own. Many in the art community feel that the government isn't doing enough to promote local talent. The Hong Kong Art Biennial in January, for example - a showcase of local art - was criticised for being poorly promoted. The growing interest in local art is yet to equate to sales, with buyers understandably more inclined towards artists with a history, says Richard Yiu Sau-yat, general manager of the Art Beatus Gallery in Central, which specialises in contemporary Chinese art. Yiu says he's worried that the level of output and the calibre of local artists' work will drop if they aren't given enough support. Not everyone is willing or able to commit full-time, he says. 'Many become full-time artists for only two years and give up,' says Yiu. 'This is especially true for young artists who are part-time teachers.' Lee says some developers have started to show an interest in collaborating with local talent, for example through staging exhibitions in shopping centres. But artists haven't benefited from this financially. 'The developers ask, 'Can you not pay?' Usually, they just sponsor the location. The artists are not given any fees,' she says. 'It's just means to promote the mall.' Grotto and Para/Site plan to build international awareness of local artists by promoting their work at art fairs abroad. But the onus, Lee says, is on local artists to launch their own initiatives. A recent Too Art venture - an exhibition of video art by more than 60 artists and creative media students - may carve out new avenues for local talent. 'In some places, like Australia, they are already starting to market video art by selling it with the screen,' she says. 'The entire screen can be put up at home as a form of art.'