New to Hong Kong’s art scene comes veteran art gallerist Massimo De Carlo, who made his venture into Asia by opening his first gallery in the region in Central on 21 March. Despite the art market slump and the slowdown of gallery openings in the city, he remains positive that Hong Kong is the evident choice of location for business in the new continent.
It’s not hard to see why De Carlo feels this way: art week in Hong Kong has arrived, bringing along with it multiple art fairs, shows, talks and cocktail parties. The media are ringing with news about the major players such as Art Basel, Art Central, the Asia Contemporary Art Show, the Hong Kong International Film Festival, as well as smaller gallery openings and talks by famous artists from all over the world. Hordes of buyers from overseas are entering the city, scaling the fairs for art pieces that may make a good investment or a beautiful status symbol in their homes.
Yet despite what appears to be a flourishing art scene in Hong Kong, as De Carlo tests the waters here, leading observers of the art community suggest that behind the façade of a thriving market is a different picture.
“Art Basel made its Hong Kong debut three years ago and gained popularity in a very short time,” said John Batten, president of the International Association of Art Critics Hong Kong. “Although everything looks great on the surface, this immediate rise has generated a false impression of a strong art scene in the city.”
But bringing with him nearly 30 years of experience, De Carlo is confident about his new gallery opening. The gallerist is very prominent in the international art scene with his inaugural gallery in Milan and his second gallery in London, the latter of which gave him experience with a slowing art market after its opening in 2009. He holds a position on Art Basel Hong Kong’s selection committee board and has observed the Asian market over the years. Surely, his new gallery will easily counter the high rents of the city.
Following Hong Kong’s swelling art auction sales in 2014 where it was twice that of 2010, galleries have popped up all over the city. Some have bravely decided to set up their bases in Central, but others have decided on neighbouring instead in the relatively less expensive Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun. To play the game even safer, there have been openings in industrial buildings in Quarry Bay, Chai Wan, the Wong Chuk Hang area and across the harbour in Kwun Tong.
In Central, the major international names Gagosian Gallery, White Cube and Pearl Lam opened in 2012. Among many other newer additions in the area are Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Lehmann Maupin and Pace Gallery, but there has been a large drop in any more openings since 2014. In terms of relocating for cheaper rents, XXX Gallery is one of several. In 2011, it first opened its doors in Sheung Wan, but moved farther away to Sai Ying Pun in 2013, and earlier this year, it packed its bags altogether to a cheap space on the Kowloon side in Tai Kok Tsui. Numerous galleries like Studio Rouge, previously located in Central, have even closed down completely after less than three years of operation.
And ironically, De Carlo’s gallery took over a space in Pedder Building previously owned by Ben Brown Fine Art, opened in 2007, which decided to downsize in the face of China’s economic slowdown.
Meanwhile, the oldest existing gallery in Hong Kong, Galerie du Monde, is looking to relocate from its Central premises, which it has occupied since its establishment in 1974.
“We want to stay in Central, but it’s turning out to be a huge challenge as there aren’t a lot of choices in Hong Kong,” said Kevin Yang, the managing director of Galerie du Monde. “There are many big limitations in this area especially. Rent is just the first thing.”
Galerie du Monde had previously considered cheaper locations like Wong Chuk Hang, a thriving arts area in the south of Hong Kong Island where many galleries were popping up. But for Yang, it was a no-go, as the traffic there is still much lower than it is on Hollywood Road. Yang applauded Wong Chuk Hang for offering a “better space” but ultimately decided against it as it was “not yet convenient.” He reasoned that most of the gallery’s clients have voiced their preferences for the Central area and that the general public wanted a place to visit conveniently during their lunch breaks. Moving far away from the business hub would mean that these lunchtime visits would cease, eventually become infrequent visits or in the worst case, stop altogether.
“The gallery business is not like opening a bar. The traffic is low because only a small group of people are interested. Holding exhibitions — which are already very expensive on their own — means the gallery space has to have certain qualities,” said Yang. “There are many parameters. It requires a practical ceiling height, a certain wall space and of course, it has to be a certain size.” He went on to list the limitations, highlighting the problem especially for contemporary art works as they often come in large scales that need a lot of room.
“The problem won’t stop — Hong Kong’s government doesn’t support the arts, so we have to fight for ourselves here,” Yang continued. “Another thing is, the gallery business in Asia is all very commercial. The only way to survive is to rely on selling art to fund ourselves, but there are so many galleries and so few buyers. The competition is huge.”
At this point, the retail rent in Central is a minimum of 100,000 dollars per square foot. Furthermore, operating a gallery does not simply entail paying for the space — if a suitable one can even be found in the first place — but as Yang mentioned, there are many additional costs, for example management fees. A gallery business is still a business. The space needed regular renovations and the staff had to be paid.
“When Galerie du Monde was established in the ’70s, the rent was obviously much cheaper. It was around 20,000 a month for three storeys right next to the road in Central,” Yang began to lament, but quickly straightened himself. “But of course, the selling price for an art piece was much lower, too, at around 3,000 to 5,000 dollars.”
Perhaps it has to do with the attitude that Hong Kong people have towards art. On the other side of the globe in New York City, for example, there are many experimental art spaces. These types of spaces are not prominent in Hong Kong. XXX Gallery remains the only gallery showing experimental works, yet one can clearly see how it has fared with its multiple relocations.
Then why do galleries still choose to remain, or in De Carlo’s case, open up in Hong Kong despite its many disadvantages?
“Low tax, convenient shipping of art works, many professionals in terms of transportation, restoration and framing,” listed Yang. “That’s why we prefer to stay here despite the rent. And there’s one good thing about the small space. It’s easily controlled and monitored.”
When asked if Galerie du Monde would move to similar Asian cities if given the chance, Yang shook his head. He said that even if Singapore, for example, lifted its fine art tax, the gallery would still choose to remain in Hong Kong. It had also previously considered Shenzhen. The neighbouring city is now a thriving arts hub with its many galleries, exhibitions and biennales. The attitude of the mainland government is the opposite of Hong Kong’s. To draw in tourists, it supports the arts scene greatly. It had helped develop the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, a former industrial area, into the huge art space it is today — and it has been a success. Many Hong Kong people who are interested in the arts make day trips to Shenzhen just to experience what they cannot at home.
“We actually spent two years researching Shenzhen as a potential place,” said Yang. “But still, the back-up service is different. The customs are different. What we show in the mainland has to be censored. And most of all, the people are different.”
He talked about Galerie du Monde’s previous venture into Macau. The gallery had opened a branch in the mall of the Four Seasons Hotel, taking care to select a space with high traffic. Yet after just five years, it closed down. From what the gallery staff could tell, the main problem was that the Macau audience was simply not ready for contemporary art. The only visitors of the gallery were tourists and not local residents, which was not sustainable in terms of money.
Unlike Batten, Yang sees Art Basel as a good opportunity to foster more public interest in art. As expensive as participating in the fair is, it at least appears to bring in art education. But wandering around Central the weekend before art week kicked off, many galleries were closed in preparation for the week ahead. Would this be because of the shocking price of a booth in both Art Basel and Art Central that costs half a million Hong Kong dollars for a mere few days? And is the public really being educated about art as a whole, or are they only seeing a part of it, only being exposed to big, established names who are able to afford a booth?
Pilar Cano Romero, the curator of Puerta Roja’s current exhibition, spoke about the application process. The gallery had a booth in Art Central.
“Getting into these art fairs is difficult. There is a preview selection, and you must have great artists. Only strong galleries with great CVs make it through.”
It’s all dandy on the surface as masses of people attend the art fairs. But apart from the rich and wealthy, most would not buy the art. And more importantly, apart from the ones really invested in the subject, most would walk away regarding the fair as a day trip equivalent to a leisurely stroll in a park. Perhaps Hong Kong is still much more of a suitable place to make a venture into the Asian market than any other city in the region, but the growth of public interest and education in the area still lags behind the west.
Even leading art dealer David Zwirner, named the third most influential person in contemporary art by ArtReview magazine, is holding back on opening a gallery in Hong Kong despite having been eyeing it for several months now. He has yet to find a suitable space and wants to wait for the rent to fall — that is, if it ever does. But like De Carlo, he sees Hong Kong with more potential than the mainland or Singapore for its easy shipping, and eventually wanted to break into the Asian market in this city.
It doesn’t appear that De Carlo’s gallery opening will persuade other big names to follow suit. And despite the current public interest in art, the craze will die down after a week to a continued decrease in gallery openings and increase in downsizings, relocations and closings. But taking the example of Galerie du Monde’s decision based on experience of over 40 years, as well as interest in the city by many leaders in the industry, it is safe to conclude that at the current moment, Hong Kong is still first choice for arts expansion in Asia. Survival of a gallery is still possible, but perhaps only by established names. And for those big names, there is no predicting when or how long retail rents will take to fall, so as De Carlo’s case: if not now, then when?
Image source: Wikipedia.com