Gallery owner takes it personally in signing up artists

Before buying any works, gallery owner Catherine Kwai takes the time to find out more about the artists, their characters and artistic philosophy, writes Kate Whitehead

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 October, 2014, 11:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 October, 2014, 11:32pm

Catherine Kwai rarely buys an artwork when she doesn't know anything about the artist. Ideally, she will sit down with the artist, share a meal and have a long conversation about what has shaped their life and work.

"Art reflects a person's inner character, feelings and philosophy. When I talk to an artist, I want to see a connection between their life experience and their teaching," says Kwai, the founder of Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery.

She's wary when she can't see any links in the evolution of their work, as this suggests that they might be following market trends rather than developing their own vision. "You can't change your personality from one day to the next. Real masters really create, they want to break through and go to a higher level, but you can always see the link in their work."

Kwai entered the Chinese art market in the very early days, before there even was a market. It all began in 1986 when her art teacher invited her to join him on a trip to Nanjing. The trip would shape the life of the then young banker. Although art collecting was new, painting was something she'd enjoyed since childhood. "I painted two hours a day and my father encouraged me. I won awards at school, but the day I said I wanted to be an artist he said, 'You can take it as leisure, but you need to study something more practical at university and find a good job'," recalls Kwai.

The sensible subject was accounting and economics and as soon as she finished her degree at UCLA in the US she returned to Hong Kong. It was the early 1980s and jobs in finance were plentiful. She started at Chase Manhattan, married her childhood sweetheart and had three children, but all along she kept up her interest in painting.

I only select the artists I like. If I don’t believe in them, then why should I spend so many hours doing brochures and promoting them?

That first trip to the mainland with her art teacher was an eye-opener. "It was so exciting. There was no free market. At that time, with 10,000 yuan you could buy a house and if you could pay in US dollars cash they'd give you a 30 per cent discount," says Kwai.

With her teacher, she visited the homes of art school professors. They earned just 200 yuan a month and were eager to sell their paintings. Word soon got around about the young Hong Kong art buyer.

"At that time even Fu Baoshi - who is famous now, a top master - sold his work for 10,000 yuan, which was about HK$6,000 at the time," says Kwai. Encouraged by her teacher, who was eager to help the professors earn extra money, she visited the Nanjing school three times to buy paintings. She also began reading about the artists and studying their work.

"After Nanjing I went to Shanghai and from Shanghai they referred me to Beijing - these art collecting trips became my holidays," says Kwai.

In 1991 they became more than vacations. She'd been promoted to the bank's head for the Asia-Pacific region, but the heavy travel schedule was difficult to juggle with a young family so she resigned to set up an art business.

"I didn't know what the art business was. I started at home and had some exhibitions at private clubs - Hong Kong Club, Pacific Club - where I was a member and they were successful," says Kwai.

In 1993 she opened her first gallery in a residential building in Happy Valley. She started slow and spent a lot of time visiting artists and studying their work. Today, her gallery is on prime real estate in Central and the large picture windows looking out onto Ice House Street are a showcase for the tightly curated group of artists she represents from the mainland, South Korea and Japan.

Her success, she says, lies in not following market trends but in carefully selecting artists and sticking with them, even if they go through a period producing less commercial pieces. Sometimes this means she'll buy pieces that can't sell and put them aside for a future retrospective of the artist's work, but this is a long-term strategy that has served her well.

Most of her artists have been with her 10 to 15 years, and she has been intimately involved in their career development, a time-consuming process that explains why she is so picky about taking on new artists. "I only select those I like. If I don't believe in them, then why should I spend so many hours doing brochures and promoting them?"

This year marks her 23rd year in the business and she is working on a book to share what she has learned, a guide on how to appreciate art and the artist's personal journey, and how they fit into the cultural movement of their time. These are lessons she has been sharing with students at universities and in local schools since being approached by the Education Department.

"When I started out, nobody thought of art as a business. Schools would only invite doctors, bankers, lawyer and accountants to speak about career development. Students now want to know about art galleries, museum jobs, and I encourage them," says Kwai.

The Ice House Street gallery is open to all, which provides a chance to be inspired and perhaps go away and read about the artists. "Real appreciation isn't just the surface layer, it's about the artist's philosophy, the concept, why they use these kinds of materials and how they compare with others."

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