Art space owners hope Hongkongers get the gallery-going habit

Pair out to make Wong Chuk Hang gallery a place to show Hong Kong the works of non-Western artists the mainstream market ignores vow they won’t be beaten by public indifference and MTR delay

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 December, 2015, 5:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 December, 2015, 5:46am

Fabio Rossi and Jean Marc Decrop knew back in 2012 that opening an independent contemporary art gallery in Hong Kong would be a challenge. But they didn’t thinkgetting people to visit would be this difficult.

The two veterans of the art market decided to buy a 6,500 square-foot unit in a Wong Chuk Hang factory building three years ago because the price was right and the up-and-coming art district would soon be served by the new MTR South Island line.

Unfortunately, the railway extension has become just one of many delayed infrastructure projects with an elusive completion date.

At the moment, most buses to the area stop in Wong Chuk Hang Road and visitors have to walk along this unpleasant road to the 25 galleries dotted all over the place. A long, continuous row of industrial buildings, all blackened by exhaust fumes, tower claustrophobically over the busy traffic. It’s a challenge finding building entrances designed for delivery trucks, not people.

The location is just one reason for the disappointing footfall. People in Hong Kong still don’t have a habit of going to galleries, says Rossi.

“It’s not like New York and London where there’s such a culture.”

It is a shame that more people don’t go to Yallay Space because what they do is valuable. They specialise in well-established artists from places untouched by the art market frenzy, such as the Middle East, Tibet, Central Asia and Pakistan.

Each show is well researched, a lesson in cultural history and contemporary politics, and nearly always the artist’s first solo exhibition in this part of the world.

For example, the current exhibition is by the Pakistani-born, British artist Rasheed Araeen. Now in his 80s, the ground-breaking conceptual artist is collected by some of the world’s top museums and had never had an exhibition here before now.

At his most mainstream, Decrop would sometimes show works by China artists, but only those of the generation born after 1980, who are less well known than the blue-chip names dominating art auctions.

The Frenchman says he has not represented artists from Europe or North America. He is fed up with how international galleries cater to collectors’ predisposition to invest in the “big brand names” of art, even selling multiple editions of lithographs that are poor substitutes for real art, he says.

The two men are both Europeans, but they have a vision of Hong Kong freeing itself from the shackles of Western standards and becoming a meeting place for artists from non-Western cultures overlooked by the mainstream art market.

Rossi, an Italian who joined his family’s antiques dealership as a young man, has a gallery (Rossi & Ross) in London and was living in New York until 2011, when he and his wife Elaine Ng, publisher of ArtAsiaPacific, decided to move to Hong Kong.

He was tempted by the opportunity to help shape connoisseurship, to play a role in triggering the next big wave in art collection.

“Hong Kong is a great place to be, to be part of the growth in a cultural discourse. Europe and the US are stuck in their ways and there’s no challenge,” he says.

Rossi had branched out into contemporary Asian art around a decade ago and by 2012, decided it was time to set up a permanent gallery in Wong Chuk Hang. He invited Decrop, one of the first Western collectors of Chinese contemporary art, to join an unusual partnership:  They would share ownership of the property but they would run two separate galleries, with each man responsible for his own exhibitions.

“The space would be too big for just me. Also, collaboration is great. It’s good to be able to share the programming and the cost,” says Rossi. The two men do their own things but are united in the same determination to stay well off the beaten track.

For Decrop, his interest in contemporary Asian art started in the 1980s when he was living in Japan as an executive in an oil company. Swapping corporate life for a career in art, he moved to Hong Kong in 1993.

“In the 1990s I built up a large inventory of Chinese contemporary art. It used to be difficult exporting paintings, because the art from that period would come under political scrutiny. So I’d roll them up and fly them to Hong Kong as carry-on luggage. I couldn’t sell them then, and they were cheap. A Zhang Xiaogang would only cost US$10,000,” says Decrop. Last spring, a work by Zhang was auctioned in Hong Kong for HK$94.2 million, including buyer’s premium.

Today, market interest in that generation of artists may have peaked and Decrop wants to introduce collectors to younger Chinese artists who have yet to achieve worldwide fame, as well as artists from the Middle East and Africa.

We’ve been open three years but it’s a 10-year project. It takes time. People ask me if there’s a market for Arabic art in Hong Kong. I say no, but somebody has to start it
Fabio Rossi

This is certainly not a strategy for making short-term profit.

Over the past three years, Yallay Space has shown works by over 100 contemporary artists and most exhibitions don’t make money.

Last year, Decrop put on an ambitious exhibition of eight Pakistani artists. He sourced artworks from collectors all over the world. In the end, he didn’t sell anything and had to send them all back. He lost US$55,000.

“On opening day, we’ll get 25 people maybe. But after that, we get one or two visitors on a good day. I feel bad when artists come all the way here and nobody visits. It is very depressing,” he says.

Hong Kong has its unique challenges but gallery businesses the world over are having a tough time, he says.

“Galleries now have to compete with the many art fairs and private sales held by auction houses. They have big marketing teams and hold cocktail parties. I wonder if only galleries that don’t need to make money will survive,” says Decrop.

Still, he believes there is a lot of potential in Hong Kong’s art market as both he and Rossi have seen more Asian buyers expressing an interest in what they do.

“We’ve been open three years but it’s a 10-year project. It takes time. People ask me if there’s a market for Arabic art in Hong Kong. I say no, but somebody has to start it,” says Rossi.