The nature of the Hong Kong art landscape has by and large been commercial with the focus on transaction rather than development of art and culture. Progress and development has been defined by economic success, and the pursuit of commerce, and consumption as a leisure activity are arguably what has defined the city’s character until quite recently. This means that the local art scene has been much overlooked and under-developed. The absence of much government support or a discernible culture of patronage for the arts has led to criticism in the past that Hong Kong is a cultural desert. However, much progress has been made in alleviating the cultural malaise and it’s certainly not all doom and gloom.
Arts organisations, run by passionate arts lovers and artists, have managed to thrive in HK and make their presence felt. Asia Art Archive, the cultural cause célèbre of society doyennes and the city’s few collectors, documents the history of Asian contemporary art and organises regular artist talks. But not to be overlooked are Osage Art Foundation, Para/Site, 1a space, Fotanian, and the Cattle Depot Artist Village. Para/Site has been in existence since 1996. Initially set up as an artist run space, today it is a curator-run organisation which has held a number of exhibitions by international artists including Vito Acconci, Ai Wei Wei, and Deimantas Narkevicius, and is active on the international art scene, including participation at the Venice Biennale and Gwangju Biennale.
Osage, which has a gallery in an industrial space of Kwun Tong to showcase the works of Southeast Asian and local artists, also has its own foundation established in 2004 with the purpose of promoting arts in Asia. 1a space, founded in 1998 is another independent non -profit art organisation established by a collective of artists. This year, together with the Burger Collection, developed by art collectors Max and Monique Burger, the organisation will launch a three-year exhibition and research project developed and realised with 1a space, an independent artist-run organisation in Hong Kong.
A recent inclusion to the Hong Kong art non-profit landscape is 'Spring Workshop', which opened last year. Operating without fanfare, this privately funded non-profit arts space is committed to an international cross-disciplinary program of artist and curatorial residencies, exhibitions, music, film and talks. It provides artists with residencies including local artists Joao Vasco Paiva, Samson Young, Lee Kit, Yuk King Tan, Nadim Abbas and Ho Tzu Nyen, as well as international artists Michael Friedman, and Yang Fudong.
What still needs to be addressed is the financial difficulties of being an artist in Hong Kong. Studio spaces are tiny and rents are astronomical. More often than not artists have to continue with full time jobs, making development and constant production of quality art works difficult. These financial obstacles have meant that many artists have relocated to outskirt industrial areas like Kwun Tong, Fotan, and Chai Wan, which are off the commercial beaten track and lack visibility. Hong Kong Venice Biennale representative and one of the city’s most well known artists, Lee Kit, has enjoyed great success with shows internationally, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but last year made the decision to move to Taipei, citing in a previous interview, cheaper studio rent amongst other reasons. It’s a lamentable state of affairs for the city’s creatives, and one that will need addressing in future.
It is hoped that the slew of art fairs cropping up in Hong Kong will bring with them international attention to the local art scene. Galleries and artists alike are taking this opportunity to showcase their works with a number of art related events and exhibitions designed to attract larger numbers of art punters and collectors out to the city’s lesser known art communities. Chai Wan Art Nights will be an art community event showcasing the exhibitions and works of artists and designers in the area at Platform China and 10 Chancery Lane. The Wong Chuk Hang art community will also get on board with an art night during the fair. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for more details.
Although highly regarded in the art community, curator-owned Saamlung Gallery sadly closed its doors recently. That doesn’t stop some of the artists that the gallery’s founder, Robin Peckham, represented from enjoying a very busy year ahead. Nadim Abbas’ installations will feature in an exhibition at the Arts Centre during Art Basel HK this year, while Joao Vasco Paiva will present a solo show at the Goethe Institut -- both curated by Peckham. Meanwhile, Adrian Wong, known for his tongue in cheek and humorous works, has been selected by Art Basel to design the Absolut Art Bureau for this year, to be installed in the Fringe Club.
Although many argue that there is a way to go before Hong Kong can call itself an art capital, Yana Peel, co-chair of Para/Site and advisor to Asia Art Archive, says “there is great hope that the environment for art appreciation will also evolve to include museums and kunsthalles in which culture can be discovered in a non-commercial setting,” and with several cultural developments underway this is slowly set to materialize.
The West Kowloon Cultural District (which includes the museum M+), a HKD$21 million dollar ‘international arts and cultural metropolis’, is scheduled to open in 2017. There isn’t a scrap of concrete or glass erected on the site yet, however, the M+ team has already been busy with a program of mobile exhibitions and public talks designed to engage the wider Hong Kong community without the presence of a building. The museum collection was also given quite a kickstart last year when Swiss collector Uli Sigg donated HK$1.3 billion worth of art works to the institution, which will serve as the backbone of the museum collection.
While there hasn’t been much word yet on the Central Police Station --a non-profit arts hub jointly developed by the HK Government and the HK Jockey Club --plans are for the Herzog de Meuron complex to be built on the heritage site by 2014. High hopes are pinned on both complexes to transform the cultural landscape of the city.
While the last half a decade has been about dramatic commercial growth in the art market there is optimism that the Hong Kong art landscape will be increasingly defined “by burgeoning non-commercial spaces and increased cultural patronage for local artists and institutions,” says Peel. “The commercial forces that have driven Art Basel to seek out a home on HK's shores will hopefully one day define yet one chapter of Hong Kong's story of contemporary visual art, not the whole book!”