When Artinfo released the China-focused edition of an article featuring the most influential young players in the art world, the preponderance of Hong Kong-based figures, occupying twelve of thirty positions, was unexpected. Despite the meteoric growth of the art fair ArtHK as a pan-Asian platform, the success of international auction firms Christie’s and Sotheby’s in the city, and the evolution of the downtown financial district as a gallery hotspot, the Chinese art world largely continues to regard Hong Kong as a provincial and utilitarian offshore haven for their own regional art market. But a younger generation of artists, curators, and patrons in the southern territory is rapidly transforming this image into one of a far more international hub, a place of exchange that, like Hong Kong civil society as a whole, is increasingly resistant to narratives of Chinese hegemony. Given the city’s robust upper middle class and longstanding culture of philanthropy, it should come as no surprise that this new generational culture is largely driven by collectors and other patrons.
And, in Hong Kong at least, there is indeed a significant difference between the young collector and the lifelong patron. While there is certainly no shortage of the former, often financial industry types who engage with contemporary art in the nebulous space somewhere between investment and socializing, what really makes the local culture of support for the arts stand out is the level of educational and other activity launched by patrons above and beyond simply making purchases in the commercial realm.
Collector Alan Lau on Buddha's Birthday in Cao Fei's "RMB City,"; Photo courtesy of Vitamin Creative Space.
Perhaps the longest-standing model is the Burger Collection, a private collection with Swiss roots active partially in Hong Kong that commissions, curates, educates, and analyzes to a standard far past all expectations. Foregoing a formal collection altogether, Mimi Brown, advisor to Para/Site Art Space and member of the directorial board for the Asian Art Archive, has decided to pour her energy into Spring Workshop, an organization focused on residencies and other projects outside of the standard exhibition format; its space just formally launched in early August with a year-long activity entitled "Moderations," conceived and initiated by Witte de With's Asia-focused director Defne Ayas and curated by artist Heman Chong. Then, of course, there are the many patrons active in fundraising for flagship nonprofit organizations like the Asia Art Archive. Alan Lau, a collector and board member of Para/Site who has served as the “mayor” of Cao Fei’s RMB City and helped bring Xu Bing’s Forest Project to Hong Kong, sets the tone: “There are many more ‘co-creation’ projects that I have discussed with artists but which never came to fruition. Each one is a laborious effort. I do enjoy it a lot and hope to do more going forward.”
Of course, there are serious constraints to building a collection in Hong Kong, not the least of which is space. Only a select few have devoted purpose-designed spaces to showcasing works or even exhibitions, and the typical Hong Kong collector lives in an apartment probably one-tenth the size of his or her mainland Chinese counterpart. As a redeeming side effect, however, this means that many collectors focus on their own surroundings, often dealing with work on a manageable scale and a direct relationship to their own lives, placing them in intimate contact with artists. Lau, for instance, collects primarily around a few themes he considers personally significant, not least of which is the question of Hong Kong identity. Lawrence Chu takes a different tack, more interested in maturing international artists who reflect the globalized culture in which so many younger Hong Kong patrons are immersed: “I want to support a young artist and have his or her work be recognized; one day, that person may become as influential as Gerhard Richter. I think I collect to explore and to understand what works and what makes people interested. I want to be part of the process to help define new artists and their expressions.”
Patrons William Lim and Mimi Brown at the Spring Workshop event "Guilty Pleasures" by artist Ang Song Ming; Photo courtesy of Spring Workshop.
All of this adds up to a compelling situation: the Hong Kong art scene is dominated by patrons who are building highly personal collections and are motivated to activate their relationships within the art world, creating constructive situations for the maintenance and improvement of the city’s art ecology as a whole. As Brown suggests, “It is a key hope of mine to foster this sort of familial co-enjoyment of art and its makers and their process, as well as its audience and their interests.” With the addition of Hong Kong’s first museum for contemporary art, M+ in West Kowloon, many such patrons are now considering the future. Those who started early with Hong Kong art, like architect, artist, and patron William Lim, are currently in an excellent position to contribute to this conversation over the coming years. It seems likely that, rather than engaging in the empire-building of private museums that has become increasingly common in mainland China, collectors here will be more likely to contribute to and collaborate with a broader arts infrastructure. Spurred on by Swiss mega-collector Uli Sigg’s generous decision to donate a portion of his historically substantial holdings of contemporary Chinese art to the museum, the race is now on to see who will be able to do the same for a comprehensive overview of art from Hong Kong, or perhaps, for the ambitious, East Asia as a whole.
(Image on top: Artist Heman Chong at the "Guilty Pleasures" listening party at Spring Workshop, Photo courtesy of Spring Workshop.)