Art space self-starters blazing a new trail in Hong Kong

A handful of self-starters with alternative visions are broadening the city's arts and music horizons, writes Enid Tsui in the final of a series on influential cultural figures

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2015, 6:40am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 April, 2015, 12:52pm

Pitted against other ambitious Asian cities, Hong Kong has two unbeatable advantages: free speech and its free port status. But it is another endemic trait that has helped bring much-needed diversity to the city's cultural ecosystem: good old entrepreneurial spirit. While high rents and fear of the unconventional can make this a hostile environment for people with alternative visions, some remarkable self-starters have blazed new trails. Their organisations may still be small, but they have greatly expanded the realm of possibility in Hong Kong's cultural landscape.

Asia Art Archive

Claire Hsu set up the research institution in Hong Kong 15 years ago because there were not enough resources available for her master's degree in contemporary Chinese art. She was just 24. The Asia Art Archive helped her finish the degree and then some. It is now the world's largest public collection documenting the development of contemporary art in Asia - a cache of donated exhibition pamphlets, personal effects, audio-visual recordings and books. AAA is also at the cutting edge of digitising a collection that includes a lot of physical material. An example: a high-resolution video of a hand flipping through a collage book created by Ha Bik-chuen, a local artist who died in 2009.

Blessed with an easy charm, Hsu, the step-daughter of Ronald Arculli, is an untiring promoter of the non-profit organisation. In 2002, Jane DeBevoise, former deputy director of the Guggenheim Museum, came on board as president and, in 2012, Hammad Nasar - a respected curator and writer in London - joined as head of research and programmes. The AAA name is spreading across the region as it ties up with local groups to run activities from academic symposiums and workshops on archiving to art education projects aimed at students.

The main challenge for AAA now is to find a new home. The lease at its Hollywood Road office - which it has enjoyed rent-free for seven years - is running out. It had been eyeing the Central Police Station as its new headquarters but lost its bid to be appointed operator of the Jockey Club-managed culture and heritage project. Hsu says the AAA may try and raise enough funds to buy a permanent abode.

Para/Site Art Space

About two years ago, urgent whispers were heard at a gallery opening in Central: "Have you heard the news? Para/Site Art Space has lost the government's springboard grant."

Worse news was to come. Within weeks, the non-profit art centre was told its application for an annual Art Development Council grant was also rejected. Reactions were mixed, then. Some saw the withdrawal of government support as an insult to the arts community. Others thought Para/Site had lost its relevance in an increasingly competitive industry.

When artists Patrick Lee, Leung Chi-wo, Leung Mee-ping, Phoebe Man, Tsang Tak-ping and Sara Wong set up Para/Site on Po Yan Street a year before the handover, the contemporary art scene had little in between the artists and commercial galleries.

"Everything we do today is inscribed in the original mission: a contemporary art institution established by artists, we produce exhibitions that fill in the gaps," says executive director Cosmin Costinas, who joined in 2011.

Perhaps it was a misguided decision by the grants committees, or perhaps the organisation, then 17 years old, needed to be jolted out of complacency. But both grants resumed the following year and now, having just moved into its largest-ever premises in Quarry Bay, Para/Site is in good form.

There needs to be something for mid-sized groups like Para/Site
Cosmin Costinas, executive director Para/Site Art Space

Costinas, a softly spoken Romanian, says the centre has made changes in the past three years to stay relevant. "That meant crystalising our mission. For example, having a highly curated position, taking a critical look at society, not just art, and revealing history that informs the present moment."

The first exhibition to be held in its new 3,000 sq ft space ticks all those boxes.

"A Hundred Years of Shame - Songs of Resistance and Scenarios for Chinese Nations" features works by 19 artists, which aim to subvert official views on nationalism. There is satire here and quirky historical documents, and on the back of the exhibition pamphlet is a proud statement in support of "the democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong". The exhibition, which opened during Art Basel Hong Kong, drew about 3,000 visitors in its first 10 days, and rave reviews.

Still, funding remains a concern. "At the end of 2016, our final springboard grant will run out. As for the ADC grant, it is intended for smaller organisations. There needs to be something for mid-size groups like Para/Site," Costinas says.

Clockenflap

When Clockenflap organisers applied to host the fourth edition of their music and arts festival at the site of the West Kowloon Cultural District in 2011, officials agreed - with a proviso.

It had to be a free event, as the site was a public space then under the care of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

Others might have balked at the prospect; fortunately, founders Jay Forster, Mike Hill and Justin Sweeting went ahead with the move from their previous Cyberport venue to the harbourfront location - it turned Clockenflap into Hong Kong's most successful music and arts festival ever.

The three music fanatics met through work and came up with the idea of an outdoor music festival where people could scream and let loose with impunity.

It's what the government wanted to achieve with its infamous 2003 Harbour Fest, and failed miserably. But Clockenflap proves that when you have an attractive line-up that isn't a joke to anyone under the age of 60, Hong Kong audiences love to party.

Last year's Clockenflap - its seventh - was, by all accounts, the biggest and loudest one yet. Held just after Occupy Central, yellow umbrellas were seen everywhere, musicians gave speeches in support of the pro-democracy protest, and the crowd went berserk when Scottish band Travis sang Why Does it Always Rain on Me?

The festival was allowed to start charging after the site was taken over by the WKCD Authority in 2012 and last year’s edition was attended by about 40,000.

The team seems confident that they can make it work. First, Clockenflap needs to be bigger. Construction work in West Kowloon means the festival is likely to move to a new venue in Kai Tak this year.

Hill says the plan is to have concurrent events at multiple venues around that area so more tickets can be sold. Next, prices need to go up. A three-day pass costs HK$1,280 at Clockenflap. The Fuji Rock Festival in Japan - one of the region's most successful - charges double that. Another plan is to take Clockenflap abroad.

Fine Art Asia

In 2006, a Hongkonger decided to change the way a very old business was conducted: the antiques trade.

"I'd opened my own Chinese furniture gallery in 1999 and I wanted to find a more effective way to increase dealers' exposure to international collectors," says Andy Hei.

Hei was born into the business. His father is Hei Honglu, a prominent antiques dealer who took him on as an apprentice when he was just 17, in 1986. The young Hei went around the world meeting buyers and searching for elusive items with his father and Robert Ellsworth, the storied American dealer who had a close partnership with the senior Hei.

Hei says the antiques trade needs to explore new models. "The internet means that if there's a good piece out there, everyone will know about it instantly," he says.

His wife has a background in organising conferences, and the two decided to bring the antiques fair concept to Hong Kong.

The 10th edition of the fair last October had about 100 exhibitors displaying HK$2.8 billion worth of art to 23,000 visitors. Last year, Fine Art Asia partnered with Guardian Beijing, a branch of the auction house, and held a fair in the capital. Hei says it emboldened FAA to consider taking the fair elsewhere in Asia.

Asia Contemporary Art Show

Contemporary art shows come and go. Not counting the multinational Art Basel, countless side events have fallen by the wayside. But not Mark Saunderson's hotel art fair, which the former president of Global Sources launched in 2012 with two ex-colleagues.

Detractors had sneered, saying the format was long considered out of date, but the show turned profitable by its second year.

His astute business sense says the economics of hotel fairs make them appealing to galleries that want to test the Hong Kong market. For US$10,000, they get a hotel room that serves as both accommodation and display space during the four-day fair that focuses on mid-range works - a cost which can be covered by just a couple of sales.

The last fair in March attracted about 11,000 visitors.

The show also hosts a website that exhibitors can use each show to sell remotely. Saunderson sees potential for an overseas version of his fair.