ART HK: Is Hong Kong Becoming the World's Next Cultural Capital?

Contemporary art lovers from around the world have swarmed Hong Kong for Asia’s leading art fair, ART HK, which was held from May 17-20 in two halls of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

In only five years, ART HK has gone from being a small regional fair to a must-see venue for Asian contemporary art; playing a similar role to that of Art Basel Miami’s relationship with Latin American contemporary art. That said, the owners of Art Basel acquired ART HK in July 2011. Next year, the fair will be rechristened Art Basel Hong Kong, and its timeline will be changed. Currently its dates are very close to Art Basel’s eponymous fair in Basel, which will occur from June 14-17. While Hong Kong is certainly a burgeoning force in the art world, steps still need to be taken to make it a strong or sustainable presence.

ART HK included stalwarts such as Berlin gallery Arndt, San Gimignano’s Galleria Continua, Hauser & Wirth in its main galleries section. It also had an “ASIA ONE” section for galleries with spaces in Asia, such as Hong Kong’s Blindspot Gallery, Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki Gallery and Taipei’s TKG+, and an “ART FUTURES” feature for fairs established in 2004 or later.

Aside from the 266 galleries that exhibited at ART HK, there were initiatives that brought the burgeoning Hong Kong art scene to the forefront. Hong Kong galleries Hanart TZ, Grotto Fine Art, and Osage had major presences at the fair, while homegrown artist Lee Kit won the $25,000 Art Futures prize. 

Though the fair broke attendance records, its sales were rumoured to be quite flat. Some large sales have been mentioned, but given an uncertain economy, the market was quiet compared to previous years.

Most notably, the arrival of ART HK heralded the openings of new Hong Kong gallery spaces by Paris’ Emmanuel Perrotin and Shanghai-based Pearl Lam Fine Art. The recent openings of internationally renowned galleries White Cube and Gagosian also prove that Hong Kong’s Central district is a key location in reaching Asian collectors.

Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District Authority has also introduced the soft launch of M+ programming this year. M+ is a planned 45,000 square meter contemporary art museum that will be part of the enormous West Kowloon Cultural District development, which is slated for completion in 2031.

However, as of now, Hong Kong lacks a museum or art education infrastructure that encourages the development of contemporary art. Its Museum of Art is a dreary space with lackluster exhibitions (a particularly memorable one involved touching Louvre sculpture replicas). Its Heritage Museum is the location of blockbuster shows, such as a Picasso retrospective and an upcoming traveling Warhol retrospective, but lacks art programming outside its major exhibitions and Hong Kong history-focused permanent collections.

Though auction houses and international galleries flock to Hong Kong, South Korea and Tokyo boast more mature art scenes with state-funded museums, well-regarded domestic galleries, and innovative programming. 

Singapore poses the most competition to Hong Kong: though it suffers from censorship issues, its Singapore Art Museum has hosted well-reviewed retrospectives for pioneering local artists such as Amanda Heng and Lee Wen. Its government has also sponsored the Gillman Barracks, an upcoming art development project that will house galleries such as another location of Pearl Lam Fine Art, as well as Manila gallery the Drawing Room, among others.

Ultimately, while Hong Kong is the center of Asia's art market and its auctions garner the third-highest revenues in the world, it lacks the cache of a London, Paris, or New York. Those cities have far superior museums aside from their art market clout, and though art education has suffered in the recent financial crisis, it continues to be an important part of the cultural fabric in all three. For Hong Kong to truly develop into a cultural capital, it requires more than its markets: it requires an infrastructure.

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Ashley Lee

A journalist from LA living in Hong Kong. Currently working for a B2B financial law publication. Graduated from Wellesley College in 2011.

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