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June 13, 2011updated 08 Jan 2016 5:44pm

All’s Fair in Love and Draw

By Spear's

Josh Spero reports from ART HK on whether Hong Kong can be the next cultural capital of the world

THE SIGHT WAS an ominous one. Don and Mera Rubell, two of the world’s biggest collectors of contemporary art, proprietors and stockists of the Rubell Family Collection museum in Miami, had wandered into the black put-up walls of the press lounge at the Hong Kong Art Fair, found a couple of not-very-comfortable seats and fallen asleep, heads lolling backwards, probably exhausted after a flight from Florida. Possibly they were dreaming of Paul McCarthy’s 80-foot-tall inflatable ketchup bottle in the convention centre’s entrance, or possibly they weren’t dreaming at all. But it was the collectors’ afternoon at the fair, now in its fourth year, and the collectors were, well, kipping.

Luckily for ART HK, they did not lack for regional collectors that afternoon — several pieces were sold for significant sums, including Jake and Dinos Chapman’s hellish pigs vs skeletons diorama from White Cube, which had been at Frieze last year. The Rubells’ temporary indisposition was not in itself important, but it was a powerful metaphor: while the Americans slept, the Asian and Australasian collectors were taking their pick.

ART HK (and Hong Kong in general) have facilitated this cultural shift. Hardly known as a destination for aesthetes in the past, Hong Kong now has a powerful art fair whose connection to ‘emerging’ markets is so sought after that 60 per cent of it has been sold to Art Basel, effective 1â¯July; the organisers, however, actively tried to dispel fears of a generic ‘Basel-ification’.

The region itself is ploughing money into developing its cultural capacity: 40 hectares of reclaimed land and HK$22 billion (£1.7 billion) have been set aside for the West Kowloon Cultural District, across the bay from Hong Kong Island, which will have a world-class museum, currently called M+, as well as studios, galleries and auditoria.

The colonial former Central Police Station (prison included), a prime site in the centre of town, has been given to the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which runs all gambling here, for its charitable arm to redevelop with a new Kunsthalle and a new auditorium, as well as more studios and galleries. Commercial galleries are opening up all the time, including big foreign players like Gagosian and Ben Brown, and the governmental arm Invest HK is on the ground to smooth the way.

The fair had all the usual accoutrements of an international contemporary art event: as well as the main drag of global galleries, there was a separate section for galleries showing young artists and for Asian galleries; there were conversations and debates, receptions and parties, dinners and drinks on site and off. The layout of the fair was reminiscent of Frieze and Basel, even if the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre is hardly the charming tent in Regent’s Park.

You might say ART HK was thus of international standard, or you might more cynically call it, as a fellow journalist did, homogenised. This apparent sameness, whether positive or negative, begs two questions: is there in fact anything different, anything e specially local or Asian, about ART HK? And, more broadly, what are art fairs doing to the art market?

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Observing the gallerists at work and the collectors at play, an answer to the first question began to form. The most striking differences were in the greater number of Asian galleries represented and the work the major galleries brought out, which included many more Asian artists than at other fairs; Hauser & Wirth sold all its Zhang Enli and a piece by Bharti Kher. Ben Brown of Ben Brown Fine Arts, who was selling Ron Arad, Helmut Newton and George Condo, agreed: ‘People have, especially in the Western galleries, certainly brought a greater presence of Chinese art than they would bring to the Bologna or the Basel art fair.’

But he had already observed a decrease in the number of Asian galleries: ‘It’s becoming less and less Asian, as the management of the fair have made it more Western, and they have taken out of the fair a certain number of Asian galleries, which provided some local colour.’

Magnus Renfrew, the fair’s director, has driven ART HK from regional start-up to saleable global player in four editions, and he passionately denied that Asian galleries were being marginalised: ‘The division of galleries overall this year is about a 50-50 split between Asia and the West, but galleries from the West take much bigger stands. But I have been incredibly conscious of the risk of making it feel too Westernised.’ This led to the Asia One section, solo exhibitions by artists of Asian origin, with several brilliant discoveries for me: Gideon Rubin’s haunting faceless portraits based on photos from other people’s albums; Lu Hao’s Berlin Scrolls, a 27-metre-long painting on silk scrolls of a Berlin boulevard.

Another trend was Andy and his friends: everywhere you turned there was a Warhol; it seemed as if every other stand had one or more. Most of the Warhols were hardly first-class: Franz Beckenbauer, anyone? Only Warhol’s old friend Bruno Bischofberger seemed to get it: he brought a wall-length canvas of hundreds of Chairman Maos, which at least shows a sense of humour.

To judge by this, it seemed like galleries thought Asian collectors, with whom most have had limited contact, just liked gaudy works by brand-names. (Would Warhol be flattered to be the Versace of art?) Marc Quinn, Anish Kapoor (embarrassingly at three adjacent galleries), Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami were also heavily represented. Pascal de Sarthe, whose gallery was showing David LaChapelle’s latest work, gave one explanation: ‘All the new clients are looking for Warhol. They’re looking for bright and colourful and big paintings.’ If this seems like a contemptuous assessment, it is.

Magnus said this outlook was at least understandable: ‘I think it’s very natural for people to have preconceptions. When I came to Asia I had preconceptions about things that have regularly been undermined, and that have made me feel particularly stupid over the years.’ One such ‘colonial mindset’ was that Asia would eventually be Westernised, which it shows no signs of being.
The way galleries deal with collectors is different, too. At Frieze, the name on the sign is rarely on the stand beyond the collectors’ preview, because in Europe their gallery’s stature and their artists’ names are enough of a draw and because the key collectors do not tend to come after the preview. Here, Jay Jopling attentively attended White Cube through Friday afternoon, and Ben Brown, Simon Lee, Bruno Bischofberger and Monika Sprüth were all prominent presences. (Pictured left: Louise Bourgeois, The Couple, 2003.)

There is a different timetable: while there were plenty of orange dots on Wednesday, dealers reported a steady flow of sales throughout the fair, and some Australian collectors don’t normally arrive until the weekend. A gallerist I spoke to on the flight over said her gallery had last year concluded three major sales on the Sunday afternoon, by which time Frieze is full of children in strollers and art students.

Reputation and flow are not even half of it, however. Although the bright paintings suggest a careless supermarket approach to buying, Asian collectors are disinclined to pick up a work on first glance. Tied in with the endlessly repeated concept of ‘face’ — respect, standing — is the need to build up a relationship with the collector over a period of time. Some gallerists making their fourth appearance at ART HK were more confident in their relationships, which they had also cultivated over the intervening years. Neil Wenman of Hauser & Wirth reported sales to the Chinese collectors who had visited him in London, three or four of whom brought architects’ plans for their private museums in China.

Those expecting to pitch up and be able to sell straight away might have made a few sales but lacked the tighter, more reliable collector-bond which is significantly more important in Asia than anything comparable in Europe. Magnus Renfrew said it was impossible to underestimate the importance of relationship-building: ‘Great store is set in Asia on humility, openness, trust, sincerity — good old-fashioned values.’ And ones, one might add, not normally seen in the art world.

On a much broader canvas, the freedom to display whatever work you like at fairs in Europe and America is taken for granted: nudity, outrageous materials, the politically satirical — there is little mention of freedom of speech because it is assumed. Almost everyone in the Hong Kong art world, however, seemed desperate to assert their freedom of speech, especially since the handover to China and the arrest of Ai Weiwei, as if to prove that they were not under the thumb of China — yet. (The major issue of freedom at Frieze was whether or not a smoking booth installation by Norma Jeane would be allowed in 2008.)

At the press conference Magnus Renfrew, without even being asked a question about Ai, said: ‘We share the concern of the international community that due legal process be followed and hope for a swift and just resolution of the current situation.’ Lisson Gallery, which represents Ai in the UK, had put out a statement before the fair: ‘At this stage we feel we can do more for Ai Weiwei by being present at the fair. By continuing to show his work we build new audiences for it and draw attention to his plight… To withdraw from ART HK and not show work by the artist would make us complicit in the authorities’ attempt to silence him and his supporters.’ (Lisson ended up not actually taking any of Ai’s work for ‘reasons beyond their control’, although they had pro-Ai posters on their stand.)

The Asia Art Archive, which, under innovative founder Claire Hsu, collects books, magazines and artists’ personal archives for contemporary Chinese art, has a small shrine to Ai on open view. Across the water in the Hong Kong Museum of Art, an exhibition had a large photograph of Ai Weiwei.

And on Saturday night, at a party at Yana and Stephen Peel’s house in Stanley, which felt like an end-of-term bash, with serious art-world people cutting loose to Jim Lambie’s DJ-ing, the party favour was a T-shirt with ‘Where Is Ai Wei Wei’ in English or Chinese. All this seemed designed to prove — or test — Hong Kong’s much-vaunted free speech. This striving to speak freely set ART HK apart, making pre-eminent what is presumed elsewhere.
THE SECOND QUESTION of what art fairs are doing to the art market touches on every aspect, from the creators to the collectors to the curators to the galleries. There has been a proliferation of fairs over the past decade: Frieze will be joined by Frieze Masters (work pre-2000) and Frieze New York; Art Basel has Art Basel Miami Beach and soon will own ART HK; the Pavilion of Art & Design has London, Paris and New York editions; Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Melbourne and any number of other cities host fairs on the contemporary circuit. This is all before you get to the biennials, triennials and festivals. The art market is being twisted and bent, like a John Chamberlain sculpture, into a new shape.

Yukiko Suto’s oil, pencil and plaster work on canvas, Roadside Graden 2, 2010

The model before fairs became so important was that artists and galleries would concentrate on their exhibition schedule, a complete body of work made for the occasion; work could be understood by collectors and critics in a broad, unhurried context. The gallery owner’s year would feature long stretches of these shows, with a background hum of sales to collectors. Basel existed, but it was a rare fair in a slower landscape.

A whirlwind — or rather a series of whirlwinds — has put paid to that. Because a fair brings together artist, gallerist and collector in one space for a few days (or, more likely, the Wednesday preview hours), a frenzy ensues. Instead of the flat terrain of those years, there are now dramatic peaks, where all participants congregate and all efforts culminate, with sharp climbs up and precipitous descents. The pattern of sales follows, too, with a much greater proportion of business being done at fairs than ever before.

The schedule surrounding a major art fair conspires: there is the collectors’ preview, the vernissage, the post-vernissage party, the collectors’ dinners hosted by the galleries, the auction houses and brands like Louis Vuitton, the private views (dozens of shows open in London in Frieze Week), the endless drinks parties. It is like trying to pack an entire year of activities into a week. It is exhausting even to consider that an important gallerist or collector this year will go to Basel, Frieze, Miami, possibly Hong Kong and certainly Venice.

Talking to Simon Lee about the new event-driven market in his Mayfair gallery before he flew out to Hong Kong, this was reinforced, especially with auction houses added in: ‘It’s nonstop and it’s frustrating as a gallerist, because our work is to put on free exhibitions for the public, which we do as a means of promoting ourselves and our artists and providing a context in which the public can keep up with the career of an artist. It’s quite dispiriting to have fewer people see shows and they are all flocking and queuing to get into Sotheby’s.’ On the other hand, ‘We do benefit in the art fair event from being able to apply pressure to clients which in a normal gallery environment we can’t do. It’s a little bit closer to an auction mentality — one can say, “Well, I’ve got someone else coming back to look at that.”’

Neil Wenman of Hauser & Wirth said that he was deliberately spending more time now on its exhibition programme to combat the rise of the fairs, which was ‘exhausting: being on the stand is exhausting, let alone then dinners and drinks and events and parties.’
It affects artists, too. Instead of having a clear year or two in which to prepare for their show, they are now summoned to produce art for each fair. At his stand, just after Jay Jopling had taken a collector round it, Ben Brown agreed: ‘Artists are under pressure to give one important piece to each of their galleries which is represented at the fair, and I think as a result, you’re going to get more normal works than great works in a gallery when you walk in on a Tuesday afternoon.’

Stanley Wong, one of Hong Kong’s most versatile artists and designers, saw how it could hinder appreciation of art: ‘If artwork is a social commentary, if it’s a great philosophical matter, is it appropriate to have artwork in the art fair platform?’ Stanley was showing a sofa (which we were sitting on), a coffee table and a bookshelf, which can be put together to make a coffin; he said that in an exhibition he’d be able to show the complete coffin as well. Simon Lee was less ambivalent: ‘The fairs are totally inadequate, and somehow unfair for artists as a context in which to present their work.’

The most popular artists seem able to avoid to a certain degree the market pressure. When I spoke to David LaChapelle  after the ART HK press conference, I asked him whether his work was determined by the fair schedule. He said that he was lucky enough to have reached a level where he could produce the work he wanted when he wanted, but other artists ‘have to produce for the fairs, they have to produce what sells in the market’. (The fact that he was opening a show later that week did somewhat undermine his response.)

Apart from the most serious collectors, this event-driven market is injurious to taste, said Ben Brown: ‘Wealthy people tend to go to fairs and be led by what they see in fairs, rather than learning about an artist from exhibitions from both galleries and museums, and then buying if they like the work of an artist. They tend to think that if they see three examples, they know the work of the artist and therefore if they should buy it or not.’

Serious collectors at least have the advantage, he added, of galleries reserving work for them for the first hour of the fair. Collectors do acquire ‘those visual editing skills which one needs when walking through a fair’, said Simon Lee, but this seems like an accommodation rather than a benefit. Stanley Wong used an amusing analogy: ‘They are in a rush, they pay attention if you’re lucky. I consider it a progress of the back and forth, like a ping-pong table.’

I asked are taken together, the new model of the art market becomes much clearer: fairs tailored to local tastes, mores and customers operating within a more hectic global schedule, the top 150 collectors fêted and invited to a year’s worth of events in a week, the art world crowd of gallerists, artists and journalists whirling through diverse cities, leaving only canvases and champagne bottles in their wake.

Magnus Renfrew, a representative of the new ecology of Planet Art, put his finger on it when talking about the perceived Basel-ification of ART HK: ‘I genuinely don’t think that will happen: they bought the fair because they’ve seen what a success it’s been so far. And that success has been largely dependent on its own character, its own identity, and the fair simply won’t work if it’s going to become just like Basel or just like Miami. But it will raise the profile of the fair immensely: it will help to attract collectors from around the region, but it will also help to attract a global audience. It has to have that international standard of selectivity and quality, but it’s on Asia’s doorstep, it has to be on Asia’s terms.’

Final image: Gideon Rubin, Red Flower (Sailor), 2009

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