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Hong Kong’s Local Art Market Is Flourishing. But Under Its National Security Law, Many Fear an Artist Exodus


Hong Kong’s fall art season started with a bang. Eager collectors crowded into the second edition of the boutique art fair Unscheduled, which took over the vacant former Topshop flagship store on Queen’s Road earlier this month. After a wave of gallery openings, the city’s elite is now preparing for an action-packed slate of auctions as well as the Fine Art Asia fair in October.

The excitement surrounding these commercial events seems to exist in a parallel universe from the anxiety gripping many in the cultural sector and beyond since the implementation of Beijing’s national security law last year. Never before has the vitality of the market felt so disconnected from the everyday lives of Hong Kong people. 

Some see the national security law, which bans activities that government deems related to secession, subversion of the state, terrorism, and collusion with foreign agents to endanger national security, as a stabilizing force after the social unrest that gripped the city in 2019. Others consider the law—and the subsequent mass arrests of pro-democracy politicians and journalists, the abrupt closure of a pro-democracy newspaper, the expansion of the film censorship ordinance, and the disbanding of civil organizations—to be a grave clampdown on freedom in the city. 

Visitors at Unscheduled Hong Kong. Courtesy of Felix Wong and HKAGA, 2021.

Visitors at Unscheduled Hong Kong. Courtesy of Felix Wong and HKAGA, 2021.

This fear has sparked the biggest exodus the city has seen in decades. Although the government does not keep statistics on how many people have left town permanently, figures show that Hong Kong’s population has dropped by 1.2 percent—nearly 90,000 people—since the law took effect last June. 

“Running a gallery in Hong Kong right now is more challenging than doing so anywhere else in the world,” one gallerist told Midnight Publishing Group News on the condition of anonymity. “There are too many considerations, not just about money and space. Artists are leaving. Some have left quietly, or they are planning to. The environment makes it harder to create.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, these challenges have coincided with a flourishing of business in Hong Kong as a new generation of young Asian buyers pours millions of dollars into art. “The business has been going so well over the recent year or two,” the gallerist continued. “Artists may leave, but galleries are staying.” 

 

“Everyone Wants to Support the Hong Kong Art Community”

Even in the shadow of the national security law, the success of Unscheduled, organized by the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association, illustrates how much local dealers are benefitting from a renewed interest in Hong Kong art, which has historically been overlooked by regional collectors. (A similar dynamic was evident at Art Basel Hong Kong in May.)

Homegrown galleries Woaw and Edouard Malingue sold out their solo presentations of work by Charlie Roberts and Eric Baudart respectively. Ben Brown Fine Arts reported strong sales of Miya Ando’s works, priced between $15,000 and $25,000. 

“Everyone wants to support the Hong Kong art community these days,” said Angela Li, whose gallery sold all eight oil paintings at her stand by the young artist Cheung Tsz Hin for prices between a few thousand Hong Kong dollars and HK$70,000 ($8,994). 

The recent commercial success of Hong Kong artists such as Chris Huen, Firenze Lai, and the late Matthew Wong, who was born to a Hong Kong family in Canada and grew up in the city, has helped boost the profile of other local artists. 

Visitors at Unscheduled Hong Kong. Courtesy of Felix Wong and HKAGA, 2021.

Visitors at Unscheduled Hong Kong. Courtesy of Felix Wong and HKAGA, 2021.

“I have a lot more collectors who previously did not collect Hong Kong art but are now interested,” said Kenneth Young, the director of Karin Weber Gallery, which cleverly converted Topshop’s former fitting rooms into mini galleries for its presentation of artists affiliated with the Hong Kong Baptist University’s Academy of Visual Arts.

The inquiries, Young continued, are coming from everywhere: locals and expats living in Hong Kong, foreign collectors who previously collected only Western and Japanese art, and financial institutions looking to boost their holdings. The fact that many of these collectors are considering art in a range of media—as opposed to just paintings—leads him to believe that return on investment is not their only motivation. 

“Maybe they know more about Hong Kong, what has happened in Hong Kong and the art market,” Young said. “A veteran Hong Kong collector tells me, ‘If I call myself a Hong Kong collector, how can I not support Hong Kong artists and Hong Kong galleries?’”      

 

To Stay or Go?

But while collectors may be newly committed to local artists, it remains to be seen whether local artists will remain committed to Hong Kong. 

Reports of a Hong Kong exodus have been making international headlines for months, often accompanied by heartbreaking images of families and friends saying tearful goodbyes at the airport. Emigration has become easier as countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the United States relax their visa policies for Hongkongers. Most people keep a low profile about their departure, announcing their relocation on social media only after they have arrived safely—if they go public at all. 

Twice a day, Hong Kong's virtually deserted airport fills with the sound of tearful goodbyes as residents fearful for their future start a new life overseas, mostly in Britain. (Photo by ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images)

Twice a day, Hong Kong’s virtually deserted airport fills with the sound of tearful goodbyes as residents fearful for their future start a new life overseas, mostly in Britain. (Photo by ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images)

It is understood that some members of Hong Kong’s arts community have already relocated abroad, mostly to Britain and Taiwan. One gallerist told Midnight Publishing Group News that at least half of the artists they work with have left or are planning to leave. “They come from all age groups,” the gallerist said. “Some of them have children.” 

There are no statistics on exactly how many people leaving the city are arts and culture professionals. But a number of prominent media personalities, political commentators, and journalists have fled, as have two of the six directors of the dystopian anthology film Ten Years, which angered Beijing. Jevons Au moved to Canada a few months ago, while Ng Ka-leung recently announced that he has landed in Britain.

Meanwhile, artist and illustrator Lau Kwong-shing, who has published drawings related to the 2019 protests, relocated to Taiwan after his father warned him not to return to Hong Kong. Critics who remain in the city have gone silent and turned down interview requests.  

The mass arrests of pro-democracy politicians—many of whom have been denied bail and remain behind bars before facing trial—this past spring is what prompted artist Kacey Wong to leave the city. He arrived in Taiwan in late August. “Hong Kong has become a red zone,” Wong told Midnight Publishing Group News from his new studio in Taichung. “I’m now in a green zone. [Taiwan] has 100% freedom, like what we used to have in Hong Kong.” 

Wong sees the crackdown as the collapse of the legal system that once made Hong Kong proud. Known for his political art, specifically performances that became fixtures at the city’s protests, Wong has also been named and shamed by the local state-owned media for “glorifying rioters.”

“I’d be really worried about speaking to the media if I were still in Hong Kong,” Wong said. “I could not function normally.” 

Indeed, speaking up can come with a price in Hong Kong. Recently, Canto-pop singer and activist Denise Ho had a performance cancelled by the Hong Kong Arts Centre, which alleged that “public order or public safety would be endangered” if it were to go ahead.

Protests against the National Security Law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020. (Photo by Katherine Cheng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Protests against the National Security Law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020. (Photo by Katherine Cheng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Outspoken members of the Arts Development Council have stepped down, with artist Chris Chan citing fear for his personal safety. Political cartoonist Justin Wong temporarily shut down his Facebook page, while the M+ Museum removed an image of Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen from its website as it awaits authorities’ approval. Five speech therapists were arrested over children’s books that were deemed seditious. The city’s security chief also accused the Hong Kong Journalists Association of infiltrating schools (a charge the association has denied) and demanded a list of its members. 

“My departure is a reflection of a generation of Hongkongers,” Wong said. “This is only the beginning. More people like me will appear in the U.K., Taiwan, Canada, and many other places. Exile literature, exile Hong Kong art, is likely to be big in the future.”

What about the art produced in Hong Kong? “The art market, art fairs will go on. Sales will continue,” Wong predicted. While some artists will opt for coded visual language to address sensitive issues, those who choose to stay are more likely to steer away from political topics entirely, he said. More colorful, decorative works are likely to emerge as a result. 

 

The Future of the Hong Kong Market

Those who choose to remain in Hong Kong—for now, at least—have hope. Willem Molesworth, the former director of de Sarthe and the vice president of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association, is planning to open a new contemporary art space in the city in December. 

“There are more gallery openings now than in the pre-pandemic days,” Molesworth said. “The younger generation are becoming serious collectors. More people in Hong Kong are buying art, period.” 

Hong Kong’s cultural infrastructure has also grown considerably in recent years with the opening of public institutions like Tai Kwun, the revamped Hong Kong Museum of Art, and the forthcoming M+. “People recognize the power of art, to pick up where words fail… given what the city has been through,” Molesworth said. 

Auctioneer Danielle So at Phillips’ 20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design spring auction in Hong Kong. Courtesy of Phillips.

A number of Molesworth’s clients who buy work by established artists from major international galleries are now collecting emerging local artists as well, he said. Plus, the diverse price range of Hong Kong art points to a healthy, growing market.

The broader question, however, is whether Hong Kong’s art scene can remain vibrant under these conditions long-term. “When you take the critical edge away,” Kacey Wong asked, “is it still art?”

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Hong Kong’s M+ Museum Has Removed Ai Weiwei’s Famous Tiananmen Square Photo From Its Website While It Awaits Government Review


The news that Hong Kong’s M+ Museum would not display Ai Weiwei’s photograph of Tiananmen Square in its inaugural exhibition made international headlines earlier this year. Now, the institution has taken another step, removing the image from its newly launched website while it is under review by the authorities, Midnight Publishing Group News has learned.

Pro-Beijing politicians had accused Ai’s Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen (1997)—which depicts the Chinese dissident artist raising a middle finger at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square—of “spreading hatred against China” under the country’s national security law, which went into effect in Hong Kong last June.

Another work by Ai, Map of China (2003), has also been censored online. That sculpture, a 3D map of the country made of wood salvaged from demolished Qing Dynasty temples, aims to celebrate China’s cultural and ethnic diversity. The sculpture and photograph are part of the M+ Sigg Collection, a major Chinese art trove donated to the museum by Swiss entrepreneur Uli Sigg.

Both images could be seen on the beta version of the M+ collection website, but were no longer available when the final site went live on August 10.

“M+ is reviewing the treatment of certain images of works having regard to the advice obtained from relevant authorities including the Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration,” a spokesperson for the museum told Midnight Publishing Group News. “The images concerned are not uploaded pending completion of the review.”

A screenshot of M+'s website, with images of some Ai Weiwei works missing.

A screenshot of M+’s website, with images of some Ai Weiwei works missing.

Many images of works by Ai are accessible on the website, including Still Life, an installation comprising thousands of axes from the Stone Age that was exhibited when the M+ Sigg Collection was first unveiled in Hong Kong in 2016, as well as other pieces from the “Study of Perspective” series, including Bundeshaus Bern (1999) and White House (1995).

Ai questioned the inconsistent treatment of the series. “Why is M+ not showing Tian’anmen but keeping White House?” the artist told Midnight Publishing Group News. (Ai recently wrote an op ed for Midnight Publishing Group News about M+’s decision not to show the work in its opening show.)

Hong Kong’s Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration is responsible for “enforcing the film classification system under the Film Censorship Ordinance,” “controlling the publication of obscene and indecent articles,” and the registration of local newspapers. The government proposed in August to amend the Film Censorship Ordinance, giving the chief secretary, the city’s number two executive, power to revoke any approval given to a film should its exhibition “be contrary to the interests of national security.”

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective: Tian'anmen (1997). M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation, © Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective: Tian’anmen (1997). M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation, © Ai Weiwei.

In addition to the two works by Ai, a number of other objects in the M+ collection are not shown on the website, including some of those by Kacey Wong, who is known for his political art and recently left Hong Kong for Taiwan in “self-imposed exile.” However, some works that might be considered politically sensitive, such as Liu Heung-Shing’s photographic series “China After Mao” and images depicting the summer of 1989 in Beijing following the Tiananmen crackdown, are accessible.

The soon-to-open museum stated that digitization of its 8,000-object-strong collection “is an ongoing effort” and that the collection “will be updated periodically as new works, information and intellectual property rights become available.”

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From Christie’s Big Bet on Hong Kong to Hobby Lobby’s Looted Dream Tablet: The Best and Worst of the Art World This Week


Guarding America’s Pastime – Cleveland’s baseball team has rebranded itself as the Guardians, paying tribute to beloved sculptures that line the bridge leading to the stadium.

Space Jam Kicks Sell for Stratospheric Sum  A pair of Nikes made for Michael Jordan sold for over $176,000 at Sotheby’s.

Pompidou Names New Director  France’s Centre Pompidou named 39-year-old Xavier Rey to lead the museum as it closes for a three-year renovation.

Marian Goodman Cements Succession Plan  The veteran art dealer named five new partners, while she will take on the role of CEO.

Australia Returns Looted Indian Artifacts  The National Gallery of Australia returned 13 works bought from disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is now in prison.

Christie’s Bets Big in Hong Kong  The auction house announced plans to quadruple its sales room and increase auctions three fold in the city.

Viva Venice!  We’re still months and possible mask mandates away from the so-called “art world Olympics,” but here’s an updated list of all confirmed artists headed to the Venice Biennale in 2022.

LA Art Dealer Slapped With Embezzlement Charges  Founder of Ace gallery Douglas Chrismas was arrested on federal charges alleging he stole more than $260,000 from his gallery.

Holocaust Memorial Approved, Despite Criticism  Starchitect David Adjaye’s plans for the London-based memorial got the green light, despite protests that it overstates Britain’s role in saving Jewish people.

Art Dealer Sentenced for Fraud  Former socialite art dealer Angela Gulbenkian was sentenced to three years in prison for her bad business practices.

Hirst Takes a Hatchet to Studio Jobs  The For the Love of God artist reportedly laid off 63 employees, despite taking advantage of a $21 million pandemic bailout.

Authorities to Return Gilgamesh Tablet  The United States is restituting some 17,000 objects including the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet once owned by collector Steve Green to Iraq.

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Hong Kong Collectors Finally Started Paying Attention to Local Artists During Lockdown. But Will It Last?


One of the most talked-about installations during Hong Kong’s recent art week was a colorful changing room inspired by artist Chan Wai Lap’s regular visits to shut-down public swimming pools last year. Fairgoers scoped out Chan’s paintings on the walls while a performer, a young man, changed his clothes and brushed his teeth as if there were no one around. 

Most encouraging to gallerist Angela Li, who presented the ambitious site-specific project at the Art Central fair, was the fact that visitors weren’t just coming by to look. They were also there to buy. Li sold the majority of the works on view at her stand, 80 percent of which were by Hong Kong artists. 

Chan Wai Lap, The Lonesome Changing Room at Art Central. Courtesy of the artist and Contemporary by Angela Li

Chan Wai Lap, The Lonesome Changing Room at Art Central. Courtesy of the artist and Contemporary by Angela Li

This represents a notable shift. Despite Hong Kong’s role as a global financial hub and one of the world’s most important art markets, the city has not historically produced art that collectors consider highly valuable. Few Hong Kong artists have international gallery representation and international dealers rarely show work by local artists at their Hong Kong branches. 

But after a year of lockdown—during which time collectors refocused their energy locally rather than flying around the world to see art—that seems to be changing. While blue-chip galleries such as Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, and Lévy Gorvy have achieved multimillion-dollar sales at Art Basel, work by Hong Kong artists was also moving quickly. 

“Most who bought my work are new clients,” the 32-year-old artist Chan Wai Lap told Midnight Publishing Group News. “They are based in Hong Kong but come from all over the world.” Many of these buyers are young and specifically looking for work by local artists, Chan’s dealer said. 

47 Canal’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021. Photo: © Art Basel

The reduced presence of international players at two of the city’s most important contemporary art fairs, Art Basel and Art Central, meant more exposure for local players. Even regional galleries from outside of Hong Kong, such as Vitamin Creative Space and TKG+, were presenting Hong Kong artists at Art Basel. Many dealers were pleasantly surprised to have sold to new Hong Kong-based clients. 

“Maybe this is a start; maybe the ecosystem already exists,” says Angela Li, owner of the gallery Contemporary by Angela Li. “Regardless, it feels like this is finally happening.”

Over the past year, buyers set new auction records for work by Firenze Lai, Chris Huen, and the late Matthew Wong, who was born in Toronto but grew up and studied in Hong Kong. At Christie’s Hong Kong evening sale on May 24, works by Huen and Wong handily exceeded presale estimates, fetching HK$1.4 million ($177,130) and HK$30.2 million ($3.9 million) respectively. The sale, however, set a new record for Hong Kong painter Yeung Tong Lung, whose painting Staircase (2011) sold for HK$625,000 ($80,514), nearly 3.5 times its high estimate.

Chris Huen Sin Kan, Haze, Doodood and Mui Mui in Shek O (2014). Courtesy of Christie's.

Chris Huen Sin Kan, Haze, Doodood and Mui Mui in Shek O (2014). Courtesy of Christie’s.

Artists and other creatives have historically struggled to maintain a presence in the city due to steep rents, but high-profile institutions such as the forthcoming M+ museum, the Tai Kwun Center, and the revamped Hong Kong Museum of Art—as well as new independent spaces and galleries—offer a growing number exhibition opportunities.

Meanwhile, the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District and art fairs from ART HK to Art Basel and Art Central have helped shift the narrative for private collectors. Hong Kong architect William Lim and his wife Lavina recently donated their Living Collection, which traces the development of Hong Kong art since the 2000s, to M+. Patrick Sun, whose Sunpride Foundation houses an LGBTQ+-themed collection, has been acquiring more work by Hong Kong artists ahead of a focused exhibition in 2022. 

“There have been many outstanding exhibitions on Hong Kong contemporary art in the past two years,” Sun said, citing last year’s “Next Act: Contemporary Art from Hong Kong” at Asia Society Hong Kong Center and “Luke Ching: Glitch in the Matrix” at independent space Para Site. “Perhaps this phenomenon is due to [travel] restrictions, or maybe it is a reflection of the under-representation of local art for a long time. I’m happy to see this burgeoning art scene of Hong Kong talents in all its manifestations.”

The new price points may encourage those who never looked at Hong Kong art to finally pay attention, said collector Alan Lau, chair of local independent art space Para Site and co-chair of Tate’s Asia-Pacific Acquisitions Committee. But for him, the value of Hong Kong contemporary art lies well beyond the market. “Collectors buy works that they can connect with, regardless of where they come from,” he said. “They live here. They love the city, and they have this sensibility.” 

Patrick Sun. Photo courtesy of Patrick Sun.

For the many expats who live in Hong Kong, local art provides a tool to better understand their adopted home. Jacobo Garcia Gil, who is originally from Colombia but moved to Hong Kong 13 years ago, acquired a work by Mak Ying Tung 2 from de Sarthe at Art Basel on Sunday. 

Garcia Gil, who began collecting local art in 2014 when he established his Divide by Zero Collection, says the category now comprises one-third of his holdings. “The artistic expressions seen in Hong Kong art are coming from very deep places in people’s psyches,” Garcia Gil told Midnight Publishing Group News. “There is a strong sense of identity shift and people exploring this transition. There’s an intellectual affluence in Hong Kong.”  

Yuri van der Leest, a Canadian-born collector who has been living in the city for more than a decade, has  also been focusing on Hong Kong art—including work by Andrew Luk, Stephen Wong Chun Hei and Luke Ching Chin Wai—since 2016. “The issues Hong Kongers grapple with are reflected back to me in the art on my walls,” Van der Leest said. “This helps me better understand my home and compatriots.”

Jacobo Garcia Gil at de Sarthe's booth at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021. Photo: © Art Basel

Jacobo Garcia Gil at de Sarthe’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021. Photo: © Art Basel

Hong Kong artists are facing new scrutiny both at home and abroad as anxiety over the implementation of last year’s national security law remains high—and demands renewed creativity. “Local artists are under a spotlight at the moment and this has positive and potentially challenging implications,” Van der Leest said. “We are getting new and exciting and engaging art that we might never have expected or encountered previously.”

Looking ahead, longtime supporters of Hong Kong art hope that the resumption of travel will serve to spread the gospel even further rather than accelerate a return to the status quo. “Ideally, Hong Kong artists should be internationally recognized,” Lau said. “The market may be just one stepping stone and offer them greater exposure and exhibition opportunities.”

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A 1982 Basquiat Is Expected to Fetch Over $30 Million at Christie’s Hong Kong, Setting a Record for a Western Artist in Asia


As auction houses prepare to enter another season with most of the world in lockdown, they are seeking ways to make sure their sales still feel like events. To that end, Christie’s is holding a single-lot sale in Hong Kong dedicated to a pricey painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat on March 23. 

The painting, titled Warrior, is from 1982, Basquiat’s most coveted year, and is estimated to fetch between HK$240 million and HK$320 million ($31 million to $41 million). Christie’s co-head of postwar and contemporary art, Cristian Albu, tells Midnight Publishing Group News that the work, which carries a third-party guarantee, is expected to become the most expensive by a Western artist ever to be sold in Asia. 

The Asian market’s appetite for Western art has been steadily increasing in recent years, and Albu says the auction house was particularly encouraged by last year’s results, which saw a wide net of Asian buyers bidding on work spanning the 20th century, as well as a new world record set for George Condo in Hong Kong in July. 

“Collectors are increasingly making links between traditional artists and Western art history,” Albu says. “I think it’s so important to broaden that idea of building the collection and understanding that Sanyu also gets inspired by Matisse, or that Zao Wou-Ki gets inspired by Soulages and the artists in Paris in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Warrior depicts a full-length figure, sword in hand. It last sold at Sotheby’s London in 2012 for $8.7 million and has been in the same collection ever since. Before that, it had an active decade on the market, having traded hands three times in seven years. During that time, its price climbed some 450 percent. 

The single-lot sale in Hong Kong will kick off for a five-hour marathon day of sales that continues in London with Christie’s 20th-century art evening sale and surrealist art evening sale.

The live auctions will be digitally streamed from salesrooms in Hong Kong, London, and New York, a continuation of the global strategy Christie’s began experimenting with in July 2020 with its four-location relay sale, “ONE.”

The sale will begin at 2 p.m. London time (10 p.m. in Hong Kong, 9 a.m. in New York), an unusually early start for an “evening” sale, in an effort to tempt Asian buyers to stay awake and active throughout the evening while still being late enough for US bidders to have had time for a quick espresso.

It certainly doesn’t hurt matters that Hong Kong’s market seems to be recovering from the impact of the pandemic more quickly than Europe and the US. At Christie’s December 2 sale in Hong Kong and New York, some 17 records were broken for modern and contemporary artists from around the world, including Dana Schutz and Amoako Boafo; it marked the house’s best result in Asia yet.

Hong Kong sales tend to draw a whole gamut of Asian collectors, according to Albu. “I was on the ground for that sale, and the whole web of collectors goes from Taiwan to China, to Hong Kong, to South Korea, to Japan, to Malaysia, Indonesia, to Singapore,” he says.

Basquiat’s Warrior will be on view at Christie’s showroom at Rockefeller Center in New York beginning next week, before it is flown to Hong Kong to be shown at Alexandra House until the sale.

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