Worst and best art galleries for women in Hong Kong, Asia’s biggest arts hub?
Women are woefully under-represented in solo art exhibitions at galleries in Hong Kong, a Post audit reveals. We asked curators, gallery owners and artists why, and what is being done to give female artists more exposure
Women artists have been consistently under-represented in Hong Kong galleries’ exhibitions over the past decade, a period that has seen the city become one of the biggest trading hubs in the world for visual art.
According to a South China Morning Post audit of exhibition records, 24 major commercial galleries with permanent space in Hong Kong put on 677 solo exhibitions between 2008 and 2017, of which 148 – or 21.9 per cent – were for women artists. (The data is based on available information on gallery websites and only includes exhibitions for individual artists, including those shown at art fairs. Art collectives are excluded for simplicity’s sake.)
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International galleries have shown the greatest gender disparity, with just 17 per cent of shows dedicated to women artists.
Ben Brown Fine Art, the first Western gallery to open in the Pedder Building, a historic block in the city’s Central business district, in 2009, has had five solo exhibitions for three women artists (14 per cent of the single-artist shows it has held).
Gagosian Gallery, which arrived in 2011, is even more extreme. Of its 26 solo exhibitions in Hong Kong, only one has featured a woman’s art (Taryn Simon in 2016). White Cube, which opened the following year, has featured women in just three of its 30 solo artist shows (Beatriz Milhazes, Tracey Emin and Rachel Kneebone).
Local galleries fare better on average.
Gallery Exit in Tin Wan, which specialises in emerging Hong Kong artists, has had 22 solo shows for women out of 57 since 2008. Hilda Chan Hiu-kwan, gallery manager, thinks that the fact that the gallery promotes emerging artists explains why its has more female artists than major international dealers who are only interested in the top end of the market, as fewer women artists climb up to that level.
Elpis Chow, 21, a talented oil painter, has her first solo exhibition at Gallery Exit at the moment.
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Hong Kong is Asia’s biggest contemporary art market for a number of reasons: it is where leading auction houses hold their regional sales; most international galleries have their only regional outlets here; and the annual Art Basel fair draws collectors and institutions from all over the world.
The lack of women’s art in the city propagates the illusion that there is more male artistic talent than female. As German artist Georg Baselitz likes to point out, women don’t paint well because they haven’t convinced the market that they do.
Eliza Gluckman, curator of the New Hall Art Collection at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, says the problem with Hong Kong is not that it is necessarily worse than other cities with major galleries.
“But I think indicators show there is a lagging behind here when it comes to the general sea change of asking questions in gender. There has definitely been a change in the UK. It is not happening here. When conversations about it happen, that will be the start of recognising it,” she says.
The disparity isn’t restricted to the commercial space, she adds. It is shocking that no woman artist has been selected as Hong Kong’s solo representative at the Venice Biennale – the world’s most important showcase for contemporary art – since 2007, she says.
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Doryun Chong, deputy director and chief curator at M+, Hong Kong’s future museum of visual culture and the co-presenter of the Hong Kong pavilion in Venice since 2013, tells the Post that he is aware of the issue and will take that into account once the Arts Development Council confirms that M+ will again be invited to lead the selection for the 2019 biennale.
Johnson Chang Tsong-zung, the influential owner of Hanart TZ Gallery, says he first became aware of the gender imbalance in 1993 when people asked him why there were so few women in his “China’s New Art Post-1989” exhibition. To this day, he cannot quite understand why, but points out that he is planning to present women artists in his gallery in June and July and at Art Basel Hong Kong.
“This is purely coincidental and has nothing to do with gender balance. Overall our gallery represents many more male artists; perhaps it is because the Chinese artists we show are mostly from the 1980s and 1990s era when there were statistically fewer female artists. Or perhaps it is because my personal taste leans toward the ‘masculine’. I simply don’t know,” he says.
Gluckman is involved in Murray Edwards College’s long-term research into the representation of women in the visual arts in Hong Kong over the past 50 years, conducted with Asia Art Archive. The college will present an exhibition showing the diversity and influence of Hong Kong women artists at Sotheby’s gallery in Hong Kong from March 5 to 10, in addition to a number of talks and events.
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As part of the project, independent researcher Phoebe Wong has found out that around 80 per cent of graduates from the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s department of fine arts – the city’s most established art school – are female, which contrasts sharply with the 25 per cent representation of women in local galleries’ solo exhibitions.
Gluckman rejects the argument that any decision supportive of women artists is discriminatory against men.
“It is about being fair from the beginning, and being aware that there is inequality and taking that knowledge into the decision you make,” she says. “If you are in a position of power and don’t know of suitable women to include in a show, ask. Otherwise you will just perpetuate the fact that the art world is all about networks.”
The Asia Art Archive and Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, will hold a series of talks on women in art at the Fringe Club on March 10. For details please visit aaa.org.hk