Commerce may still be king in the city, but a dynamic arts scene is finally flourishing alongside it.
Each year, as spring begins to extend its muggy grip over Hong Kong, anyone with an interest or stake in the world of contemporary art braces for impact. Since the mammoth Art Basel was added to the city’s roster of art fairs in 2013, a former trickle of art-related events has become a flood. In March alone, the city hosts three major fairs—the Asia Contemporary Art Show, Art Central, and Art Basel—virtually simultaneously. This year yet another, the Harbour Art Fair, was added to the mix.
What was once “Art Week” is now looking more like a year-round condition. May brings the Affordable Art Fair. There’s a Hotel Art Fair each summer; every fall welcomes Fine Art Asia, Hong Kong Art Week, and a second incarnation of the Asia Contemporary Art Show; and the now two-year-old Ink Asia, which focuses exclusively on the ink paintings common to many Asian cultures, takes place over three days in December. The aircraft hangar–like Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre houses many of these events, but each is accompanied by a host of lower-profile auctions, pop-ups, and parties that course through the city’s hotels, bars, and exhibition spaces, keeping them humming until the wee hours.
The proliferation of art fairs has become an “incredible experience for any visitor,” Asia Contemporary Art Show director Mark Saunderson tells me one afternoon high above the streets of the Sheung Wan district in his Fabrik Gallery, where limited-edition prints by Keith Haring and Damien Hirst grace the walls. “It opens an opportunity for people who wouldn’t normally consider sitting in front of art to be engaged and participate. It’s art at its most public.”
Having enough art-related happenings to choke the calendar of any creative socialite also creates dilemmas: is it better to concentrate on one event or plan a marathon run through several? Which is the best for spotting artistic up-and-comers? And (for me, anyway) how exactly does one score an invite to one of Art Basel’s exclusive after-parties?
Perhaps the even bigger question is, just how did Hong Kong get here? After all, the former colonial entrepôt cut its teeth on trade and finance rather than cultural pursuits. The local art market is relatively small, and the kind of spaces that galleries (and artists) crave is hard to come by.
But Hong Kong has always been a crossroads and has never lacked for money, which—if we’re being honest—probably vies with inspiration as the top artistic fuel. Proximity to mainland China, along with the city’s tax-free status and peerless logistics, have made it a natural focal point for the burgeoning Chinese contemporary art market; Hong Kong has grown into the world’s third-largest art auction center after New York and London. Now it seems the city is gearing up for a broader regional, even global, role, and rather than a clearing house, it aspires to be an art capital in its own right.
The biggest concrete manifestation of this ambition is still a work in progress: the government-backed West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), a 40-hectare patch of reclaimed land jutting into Victoria Harbour in the shadow of the International Commerce Centre, the tallest building in town. If completed as envisioned by 2026, the district’s scope will be truly stagger-ing. It will include M+, a mammoth museum for “visual culture” housed in a latticework shell designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the team behind London’s Tate Modern; a Chinese opera center; theater facilities; a grassy “Freespace” for outdoor events; and, in a late, highly contentious addition, a branch of Beijing’s Palace Museum. Few could accuse the project of lacking vision, but it has been dogged with controversy since it was launched a decade ago, subject to delays, cost overruns, and disputes over transparency and the influence of commercial interests.
In typical Hong Kong fashion, none of these issues have stopped the march of the bulldozers. Visit the site today and you’ll see that it’s very much in the construction stages, with cranes arcing overhead and drills pounding away under the subtropical sun. Yet it is steadily taking shape and already warrants exploration. A network of bike paths has been laid out, a “nursery park” showcases local flora, and musicians serenade visitors to the Freespace on weekends. M+ itself might be a couple of years away, but in the meantime there’s the M+ Pavilion, a low-slung structure with reflective external walls that hosts smaller-scale exhibitions drawing on the museum’s already considerable collection.
In the container-like project office that’s been erected on site, Duncan Pescod, WKCD’s CEO and a 32-year veteran of the Hong Kong civil service, admits there is much more to be done. But he also says the district has “already had an immense impact through the government’s and the community’s commitment to elevate Hong Kong as a globally recognized cultural destination. Without this support, none of what has been achieved to date—Art Basel, growth and interest in the auction houses, the entire evolution of Hong Kong as a cultural venue—would have happened.”
He adds that M+ is being groomed as an internationally iconic facility on the lines of New York’s Museum of Modern Art or the Tate Modern in London. “We have to capitalize on what makes Hong Kong unique: the mix of East and West, the openness of the economy, and the opportunities for free expression.”
At the same time, he says the district is conscious of its local mission. A quarter of M+’s collection will be devoted to Hong Kong artists, while a trailer kitted out as a traveling studio dubbed the M+ Rover makes frequent rounds of communities and schools. It also promotes local talent at international events, like sound sculptor Samson Young at the 2017 Venice Biennale. “In the end, a museum is not an edifice; it’s about engagement.”
Initiatives such as these may help address a recent imbalance of sorts. The first thing that will strike some visitors exploring Hong Kong’s current art landscape is just how much of it is imported. There are, of course, a number of well-established local venues—Connoisseur Art Gallery comes to mind—that cling to their locations on Hollywood Road. There are also a few stalwart homegrown spaces that veer toward the experimental, chief among them Para Site, founded by and for local artists 20 years ago and still going strong in a cavernous industrial building in Quarry Bay. But most of the recent buzz has been about leading international galleries setting up Hong Kong branches to reach well-heeled Asian clientele.
The list of arrivals over the last few years reads like a who’s who of the global art elite: Ben Brown, Gagosian, White Cube, Lehmann Maupin, Massimo De Carlo. Many of these galleries have clustered in the Pedder Building, a stately neoclassical mid-rise that’s one of the last pre–World War II structures in the central business district. Roaming the Pedder’s nine floors on any given day is the equivalent of a crash course on contemporary art trends. On a recent visit I took in the bold brushstrokes and layered colors of celebrated British painter Howard Hodgkin at the Gagosian before nipping downstairs, where the icy landscapes of China’s Qiu Shihua at Massimo De Carlo were juxtaposed with the vibrant pigments of Brazil’s Vik Muniz at Ben Brown’s next door—and left with my head spinning.
There’s no question the formidable resources of these galleries and the sheer volume of exhibitions taking place at any one time has given the art scene an incredible injection of diversity and vibrancy. Some are even known to showcase local artists on occasion. Nonetheless, their international pedigree and artist rosters, and the shortage of local names at fairs and auctions, has caused some to surmise that Hong Kong is reverting to its old role as a trading hub, rather than developing into an arts destination proper.
This characterization is a tad unfair, and the higher-profile projects and openings sometimes obscure the equally interesting venues emerging outside the glare of the spotlight. A good example can be found far from the glittering streets of Central in Sham Shui Po, a somewhat down-at-heel district on the Kowloon side best known for its electronics and fabric markets. These are still a patient browser’s delight, but they have been joined by a number of art spaces that have set up shop in nearby tenements—entirely local, largely free of commercial considerations, and, in some cases, determined to break the gallery mold.
The aptly named Things That Can Happen, set in a residential walkup on Apliu Street, is equally likely to stage exhibitions of politically charged work by local artists like Tang Kwok Hin, host impromptu “dialogue circles” on emotional themes, or run classes for the area’s sizable refugee population. It serves as a studio and residence for working artists and also contains a charming, multilingual library of books that have inspired members of its community. The venue “is a response to the dominant art market, the international ‘white cube’ galleries that risk confining creativity because everything looks similar,” says co-founder Chantal Wong, who is also part of the leadership team at the nonprofit Asia Art Archive. “It’s the role of art to explore beyond those boundaries.”
Fueled by relatively cheap rents, Sham Shui Po seems to be gaining a critical mass of venues that could put it in the running for the city’s next unofficial art district. A few blocks up from Things is the similarly maverick 100ft. Park, a “micro-space” with irregular opening hours; and the far larger Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, a former factory repurposed as a “multi-disciplinary” arts facility with dozens of studios and workshops.
While Sham Shui Po may be blossoming, “I don’t think it’s ever going to be Central,” Wong concedes. And that may be for the best, so that it can contribute something very different to Hong Kong’s cultural patchwork. Regardless, there is a healthy appreciation even among emerging artists for the opportunities created by the city’s big-budget projects and events. “There are more art patrons now than ever,” Wong says.
Hong Kong’s main challenges for artists, galleries, and museums—particularly those operating without government or corporate largesse —are similar to those facing other enterprises in the world’s priciest property market—stratospheric (and still rising) rents, and a lack of available space in which to pursue or promote a craft. These realities, notes ink painter Oscar Chan, the current artist-in-residence at Things That Can Happen, effectively force many galleries to stick with the most commercially viable work, if only so they can afford their digs. “It’s not really a risk-taking culture,” he says. “Galleries have to do what they know will sell.” And since, as Wong notes, “studios are still the root of creative activity,” there are worries whether art can continue to thrive at the grassroots.
The burst of activity that accompanies the city’s art fairs—while welcome—also doesn’t necessarily translate into a steady market. “Eyeballs are vital in this business, but Hong Kong doesn’t really have a gallery-going culture,” says Saunderson of the Asia Contemporary Art Fair. Throw in punishing rents, and many galleries are “moving up [to the higher levels of commercial buildings] or out.”
Still, there’s no doubt that all the funds, energy, and focus being poured into the arts constitutes a seismic shift in Hong Kong’s priorities. Projects like West Kowloon are unlikely to resolve the tensions between culture and commerce that have always existed here, and could take years to cement Hong Kong’s claim to creative capital status. But until that time, there will still be plenty for visitors to take in, or even take home.
3/F Pedder Bldg., Central; 852/2522-9600
G3, Chinachem Hollywood Centre, 1 Hollywood Rd., Central; 852/2868-5358
7/F, Pedder Bldg., Central; 852/2151-0555
148 Wing Lok St., Sheung Wan; 852/2525-4911
30 Pak Tin St., Shek Kip Mei; 852/2353-1311
4/F, Pedder Bldg., Central; 852/2530-0025
3/F, Pedder Bldg., Central; 852/2613-8062
West Kowloon Cultural District; 852/2200-0000
1/F, 220 Apliu St., Sham Shui Po; 852/6143-7029
22/F, Wing Wah Industrial Bldg., 677 King’s Rd., Quarry Bay; 852/2517-4620
1/F, 98 Apliu St., Sham Shui Po; 852-2406/9800
50 Connaught Rd., Central; 852/2592-2000
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Hong Kong’s Creative Edge”).