There’s still lots of money to be made in the Hong Kong art market. And the big players are coming to town.
In January, almost a quarter of a century after David Zwirner opened his first gallery in New York, the German-born art dealer cut the red tape on his first Asian outpost. Zwirner Gallery was the first major international name to take up a space in the city’s H Queen’s building. The purpose-built art high-rise, located on the main central shopping street, will also be home to a Hauser & Wirth gallery by the time the sixth edition of Art Basel rolls into town in late March. Zwirner takes the credit for introducing his friend and former business partner Iwan Wirth to the building, as well as to his long-time architect Annabelle Selldorf, who designed both galleries. “Clients like convenience,” says Zwirner, an eight-year veteran exhibitor at Art Basel Hong Kong and its precursor. “If you can create a community you do everybody a favour.”
MONOCLE: How does opening in Hong Kong in 2018 compare to New York in 1993?
DAVID ZWIRNER: What I didn’t know 25 years ago was whether there would be an audience for what I do. There was a lot of anxiety, very few funds; it was a different time. And 1993 was the end of a brutal recession in the US so for every gallery that opened, four closed. We took a wild leap of faith. Opening now seems to be a lot easier because we already know that there is an audience for the artists who we show.
M: How quickly has the interest from Asian buyers taken off?
DZ: When we first came here there wasn’t that much interest in the type of art that we were showing. Our gallery focuses primarily on western art, although we do have some incredible Japanese artists such as Kusama and On Kawara. But that changed five years ago and then really accelerated. You want an educated audience that’s interested in learning, reading and understanding the work that we show. And once I realised where the train was going, I thought this would be a fantastic place for a gallery.
M: Was there a specific moment that you realised Hong Kong was ready for a Zwirner gallery?
DZ: We were sitting in a room at Art Basel with a painting by Luc Tuymans and a client came to me and asked questions about the work. I could tell he was intrigued but didn’t know what to make of it. A year later I met him again and he knew everything that Luc had ever painted. I’ve never seen anything like that – it was almost like a dissertation on the artist. Education is considered a premium here and that will make my life so much easier.
M: Did you consider other cities?
DZ: We travelled all across the region and there are many reasons why we should have a gallery in Shanghai or in Beijing but in the end my European heritage won out. Three things come together in Hong Kong: first, you feel the European history. Second, as a native New Yorker I feel a kinship for this crazy city; it’s full of energy. And finally, it’s truly a pan-Asian capital. You can be living all across the region and feel welcome in Hong Kong.
M: Have you considered opening a gallery in Germany?
DZ: Germany is a wonderful place but there’s not that single, really cosmopolitan city. Berlin is great but it’s a young city, it doesn’t compare to London. And, of course, when you have a gallery you also need people who can buy the art that you show. London has the deep pool of clients and institutions that I hope we will find in Hong Kong.
M: Why are you opening another gallery in New York?
DZ: During the next three years we’ll be building a standalone gallery over three floors – and it’s the first time we’ll not be working with Annabel but with Renzo Piano. It’s going to be on 21st Street, one block behind our existing gallery on 20th. It will be a sort of headquarters for us as we’re consolidating our other spaces.
M: Is it possible today for someone to do what you did at 29 years old?
DZ: There is a lot of complaining right now that the larger galleries are squeezing out the smaller galleries and it’s true. We inhabit an imperfect world; we work hard, we want to do the best for artists and in the process we close some doors for young and mid-size galleries. That said, you become a successful gallerist if you can spot talent so I think there’s always room. It is impossible for us, at our size, with 58 artists, to be out there finding the latest talent.
M: Are the good times back in New York or did they never go away?
DZ: I was convinced that we would hit rough waters with this crazy government that we have under Donald Trump but it turns out that capitalism is winning the day – for now. The people who are buying art had a great year – the stock market is up and tax cuts make them richer – so right now there’s a very good atmosphere around the art market. However, with leadership like that, I would be cautious. And I’m excited to spread my wings and be in Asia.
M: Which art fair is the most important for your gallery?
DZ: Without a doubt the most important one is the Basel mothership in Switzerland. That’s the fair where you can really bring anything you want to bring, as long as it’s high quality. There’s no limit to the price point that collectors will potentially pay. Other art fairs max out at certain price points. We love the Frieze art fairs in London and New York, and we love Hong Kong. I keep saying that without Art Basel Hong Kong we would wouldn’t be opening a gallery here.
M: What will the Zwirner Gallery look like at 50?
DZ: In 25 years, the centre of gravity, which is now 100 per cent New York and London, might not have shifted entirely but I feel like there’s going to be a much, much bigger presence in the visual arts in Hong Kong and in mainland China. It just feels like the development is too fast and too unstoppable for that not to be the case. That’s why I’m so excited that we’re here.
“Art is knowledge,” says the mission statement of the Asia Art Archive and founder Claire Hsu has added hugely to both since she got to grips. Hsu and her team began collecting, collating and curating the wealth of writing, criticism and promotional material surrounding the growing production of and interest in Asian art. The archive does a forensic job, placing art and artists in an historical as well as a contemporary context. It is a formidable resource and a way to pick the bust from the boom in this burgeoning region.
MONOCLE: What is the job of the Asia Art Archive?
CLAIRE HSU: Our role is to contribute to and call for a more generous art history to include the recent art from Asia. Art history has predominately been written from a European-US perspective and this needs to be expanded. We do this by collecting, creating and sharing knowledge on contemporary Asian art. We have built the foremost publicly accessible physical library and digital platform of published and primary-source material in the world for research and study. Our role is to ask questions about how art history has been constructed. And what you will find is that these constructions extend beyond the art field into many other disciplines. It’s important to constantly step back and ask why we learn something in the way that we do. We offer a voice that is independent from the market and official national framing.
M: How has the art scene changed since the archive’s inception?
CH: Almost beyond recognition. The mountain has risen by a metre so to speak, and it’s taken a lot of different characters to make this possible. It’s going to change even more in the next decade. We will have a far more robust non-profit institutional landscape and it’s our diversity that makes for an interesting art scene. Some of the challenges that lie ahead are the continuing rising cost of living in Hong Kong and the increasing concern is that the freedom of speech we so cherish is gradually being constricted. How do we make sure we can nurture artists and experimentation going forward and that art is not only experienced in a white cube? But attitudes to art are changing within the community, with more students enrolling in art-related courses at universities and more jobs available in the field.
M: What is the archive’s future?
CH: The future lies in strengthening, building and sharing our collection. To do this we need to be on top of our digital platform and need a permanent home. The price of property in Hong Kong is restrictive for non-profits, however we have an incredible board dedicated to making this happen. And we are patient. We are planning on being around for a long time.
So, David Zwirner tipped off Iwan Wirth and lo and behold, the pair are practically H Queen’s housemates. The Hauser & Wirth space is 930 sq m; a fulsome two floors of the new art high-rise. Besides the space in Hong Kong, the gallery will open offices in both Shanghai and Beijing to administer the burgeoning art fairs and private museums on mainland China. Ahead of the opening of Hauser & Wirth’s Hong Kong gallery, we spoke to co-directors Vanessa Guo (pictured, left) and Lihsin Tsai.
MONOCLE: Apart from the bricks and mortar, what is the first thing you think about when opening a new gallery?
VANESSA GUO: The first consideration is always quality content, from what we show in the galleries to public programming. We think first about what would be relevant to the community and what Hauser & Wirth can offer. How can the content we bring to the public help us integrate with the environment? To make it a two-way street. Looking at our global picture, we want to be in Hong Kong for its strategic position as the centre of Asia but we also take a micro approach and try to work out what we can learn from the residents. It’s about how to be global in our vision but present a unique Hauser & Wirth dna that is relevant to the community.
LIHSIN TSAI: Exactly. We try to think how we can harness Hauser & Wirth’s spirit and passion for local culture and heritage throughout every element of our core business, from a farm in rural Somerset to a gallery in the sky in Hong Kong.
M: How do you pick a maiden show?
VG: We wanted to make the strongest first show possible so Mark Bradford was the obvious choice. He had a stellar year last year and is at the pinnacle of his career. And although he is one of the world’s most prominent artists, he’s still not known comprehensively in Asia. Following his acclaimed presence at the Venice Biennale, we saw that it was the right time to reintroduce him to Asia following his exhibition at Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai nearly three years ago.
LT: Yes. There is also something about the physicality of Mark’s work that speaks to a Chinese audience. The precision of his technique and emphasis on skill is very much appreciated in China. It takes a lot of craftsmanship to make such a strong, textured work from only paper.
M: Are the scene and the market the same thing? How closely are new curatorial discoveries followed by market interest?
VG: We have to remember that Asia is an emerging market, which means lots of growth in the number of buyers – there are constantly new people coming onto the scene. It’s evolving fast and is constantly being reinvigorated. We’ve seen the whole landscape change over the past few years.Not only has there been a tremendous growth in terms of new collectors but there has been an explosion of museums and cultural offerings. Since, in general, the art world in China is less familiar with the western canon, collectors’ tastes are changing as they learn more and begin to appreciate new artists. This means we have to remain agile and work within a constant state of flux. It’s very different from the western world where things are relatively well established.
LT: Yes, this agility suits Hauser & Wirth’s dynamic way of working perfectly. An important point is that we are not guided by the commercial aspects of art; our programme has always been challenging and we prefer to pioneer curatorial discoveries and then let the market follow. We are working closely with curators in China to build up knowledge of our artists and we are confident that this growing network will have greater gains in the long-term.
M: When launching the new gallery, how much of it was mathematics and strategy and how much gut instinct?
VG: It requires both. Iwan Wirth has been running Hauser & Wirth for more than 25 years and many of the most innovative leaps have been based on his intuition. But great instinct like this is developed from knowledge and experience. We’ve been active in Asia in different capacities for more than a decade so we’re confident that we have the right balance between knowledge of the market and the local landscape, and the instinct that sets us apart. Again, at this stage it’s all about operating with agility.
LT: Absolutely. We are very prepared to take on Asia.