Market

Amid a Feverish Market for Her Prismatic Paintings, Japanese Art Dynamo Etsu Egami Is Keeping a Cool Head


It’s only a few weeks into 2023, but Etsu Egami can already confirm that it has been a great year.

The 28-year-old artist just returned home to Chiba, Japan, after her sold-out solo exhibition soft-opened Whitestone Gallery’s new space in Singapore during the city’s art week; her works on show at the Taiwanese gallery’s booth at the recent ART SG also found eager buyers. She is now back in her studio in her hometown, busy preparing for a series of upcoming museum projects and showcases locally and abroad. Indeed, Egami is already looking at a full schedule in the coming weeks and months, and her eyes are set on the global stage.

“I want more Japanese artists, woman artists, and Asian artists to be seen in the international art world,” Egami said of her strong motivation to go global, speaking to Midnight Publishing Group News via a video call from her studio.

While there have been a lot of great artists from Japan and Asia throughout history, she noted, the number of them known internationally remains small. Having featured in exhibitions for nearly a decade, and reaching notable acclaim—including a spot on the Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 list in 2021—Egami’s fierce determination to develop a career outside of Japan “is only natural.”

Etsu Egami

Etsu Egami at artist talk with curator Tan Siuli at the opening of her solo show at Whitestone Gallery Singapore. Courtesy of Whitestone Gallery.

Japan’s Ascendant Star

By the sounds of things (and with a look at the data), going global is going to be a very achievable new year’s resolution—her hard work is already paying off. Egami’s paintings, created with thick lines of colorful brushstrokes, have amassed a solid following since her debut in 2015; she has shown paintings in major art cities from Paris and New York to Seoul, Beijing, and Taipei.

Prices for her paintings floating in the secondary market have skyrocketed since 2021, making her one of the art market’s fastest-rising stars from Asia, widely recognized as a key artist of the third-generation postwar Japanese art. Her work has already entered the collection of institutions internationally, including CAFA Art Museum in Beijing, Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, and E-Land Foundation in Seoul.

But Egami’s rise in the market also means that she has also become a target of flippers—a fact that upsets the artist. According to data from the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database, most of her top 10 auction records were for works that had a three-year hold or less, including her current record, which stands at HK$2.9 million ($366,921; all sale prices include fees), for a 2021 diptych sold at Holly’s International (HK) Auctions’s sale in May of last year. This was followed by the sale of painting Rainbow-2022-t-10 at a Holly’s Hong Kong auction in November 2022. The work, which achieved HK$1.3 million ($168,931), had been exhibited at Tang Contemporary’s Seoul space only a few months prior. On Saturday, January 28, Japan’s SBI Art Auction will put a small 2021 painting up for sale. (The auction house gave the work a rather low-seeming presale estimate of ¥700,000 to ¥1.3 million ($5,100 to $9,400), but SBI appears to have a track record of holding their estimates to an approachable level.)

“[My artworks] are like my children, so I hope the work can stay with people for much longer,” Egami said when asked about how this heated secondary market affects her. She is working with her galleries to try to keep things under control: they have imposed a five-year non-selling agreement, and are extremely carefully to weed out uncommitted collectors.

She is grateful for the attention, though, and hopes that it is sustainable. “I really appreciate that people love my work and collecting it,” she said. “I hope people can see the messages in my work, why I make these works, and the stories behind them. I also hope more people can spend time with my work, allow their imagination to flourish, and show my work rather than just keep them in the storage. I want people to focus on my art.”

Etsu Egami Whitestone

Etsu Egami’s works at Whitestone Gallery’s booth at ART SG 2023. Courtesy of Whitestone Gallery.

International Influence

To understand Egami’s art, one must trace her practice back to her high-school days. Growing up about 25 miles east of the center of Tokyo, in 2008, she experienced a transformational change when she was exposed to Chinese contemporary art during the Beijing Olympics.

“It was a big shock to the Japanese art scene,” recalled Egami of the televised Olympics, which were hugely popular in Japan. It widened her view—she had grown up loving the work of Japanese modern painters such as Sotaro Yasui and Ryuzaburo Umehara. But, for a long time, she felt that there has been a gap between the Japanese pre- and postwar art, and the exposure to Chinese contemporary art was a light-bulb moment. “It seemed to bridge this gap,” she said.

She studied oil painting in China, at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, before eventually completing her MFA there in 2019, studying under Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong, one of the key Chinese contemporary artists who was among the art market darlings about a decade ago when the genre was the most highly sought after from east Asia.

When she first studied abroad (in China, but also in Germany), she noted that experiences of culture shock and the miscommunications of being a foreigner deeply impacted her, especially those that went beyond words. Non-erbal cultural cues and subtexts puzzled her the most. “I realized that it was not a problem of language,” she noted. “Language is a tool of communication, but at the same time, it’s also the barrier.”

This miscommunication became a major source of inspiration in her paintings. Her style further evolved during a period spent in New York in 2020, as part of a Japanese governmental residency for outstanding artists. During those months, she witnessed the turbulent lockdowns, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the rise of targeted attacks against Asians.

These revelations brought about her ongoing “Rainbow” series. Some of the works from this series have sold well at auctions, according to Midnight Publishing Group Price Database records. “The importance of diversity and coexistence gave me the inspiration of the rainbow,” she said. “They are lines that do not mix with each other, but they are in various colors running parallel to each other. This is my single dream and hope, and has become my painting language.”

Etsu Egami

Etsu Egami, Rainbow-2022-W-42, on show at the artist’s solo exhibition “Incessant is the change of water where the stream glides on calmly: the spray appears over a cataract, yet vanishes without a moment’s delay” at Whitestone Gallery Singapore. Courtesy of Whitestone Gallery.

A Big New Year

This year will likely be a turning point. For one, a striking monumental diptych from her recent Singapore show with a title inspired by Japanese classical text Hōjōki, has been acquired by a foundation that is building a yet-to-be-announced private museum in Singapore. The work is a visual ode to honor the primitive nature and spirituality of feminine power through the artist’s signature brushstrokes in a warm color palette.

“I’m very happy about this,” the artist said of the major acquisition, adding that she also met a lot of collectors from the region during her time there, including those from Malaysia and Indonesia. “It’s nice that my work can be placed in a collection that will be open to the public,” she added.

And even though it is largely private buyers chasing her paintings, Egami’s work will nevertheless reach a wider audience in the coming year. The painting Rainbow-2021-T-1—the work that set her auction record—is included in the third edition of the China Xinjiang International Art Biennial, which opened earlier this month. She is also working to expand on her medium, and plans to spend a residency creating a site-specific audio-visual installation for a group show set to open in late February at the Museum of Modern Art in Japan’s Gunma prefecture. For this project, the artist researched the history of Daruma dolls, modeled after a Buddhist monk who was widely known as the founder of Zen Buddhism.

Also in the pipeline are institutional exhibitions, one planned for London during Frieze week next fall, and another at a yet-to-be-announced museum in Shanghai; at both, she plans to stretch beyond painting, including experiments with photography, sound, and sculpture. Her work will also make a fair presence at Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Geneva, both with Tang Contemporary, according to the artist.

But Egami is happy to let her representatives take care of sales while she delves deeper into her art. “The galleries will be handling the market side of things so that I can focus on my work that questions about society or my feelings,” Egami said. “I want to try something new.”

Etsu Egami

Installation view of “Incessant is the change of water where the stream glides on calmly: the spray appears over a cataract, yet vanishes without a moment’s delay,” solo exhibition of Etsu Egami at Whitestone Gallery Singapore. Courtesy of the artist.

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Hope Runs High at the New Art SG Fair. But Slow Early Sales Cast Doubt on Whether Singapore Can Lead the Region’s Market


The long-awaited opening of Singapore’s ART SG fair, which finally took place this week at the Marina Bay Sands, is significant for many reasons. The first is that as one of the early fairs in an already busy art calendar, its results can set the tone for the year. Second, as those in the art world are keen to explore new markets, the fair’s debut is a test to see if this city-state in Southeast Asia can bounce back from the dramatic cancellation of Art Stage in 2019 and become a key market hub in the region alongside Hong Kong and Seoul.

The first two days of the fair, which opened to VIPs on Wednesday, showed some promising signs. Excitement was palpable in the (hot and humid) air this week, especially since the event’s debut had been postponed four times before. A notable crowd traveled to Singapore for the event, helped by the recent relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions in the region as even China had dropped its zero-Covid policy (albeit very abruptly), with Hong Kong following suit and opening its borders.

Art lovers journeyed not just from neighboring Southeast Asian countries, but also from South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China, and Japan, as well as from Europe and beyond. While in town, many indulged in local delicacies like pepper crab and chicken rice and partied until almost dawn at the local nightclub Marquee. Collectors seen on the ground include: Swiss mega collector Uli Sigg; Patrick Sun and Alan Lo from Hong Kong; Alain Servais from Belgium; Noh JaeMyung from South Korea; Singapore-based Linda Neo and Albert Lim and Nathaniel Gunawan; and the controversial collector and museum founder Michael Xufu Huang from China.

Art lovers taking snap shots at Sullivan+Strumpf's booth at ART SG. Photo: Vivienne Chow.

Art lovers taking snapshots at Sullivan+Strumpf’s booth at ART SG. Photo: Vivienne Chow.

“Southeast Asian collectors are excited about the fair, one that is finally happening in our neighboring country Singapore, which is a hub for the region,” said Manila-based Timothy Tan, one of the collectors who flew in to attend the fair. “Some of the international galleries exhibiting are new to collectors from the region and they are interesting.”

Tan pointed out that buyers from the region tend to focus more on art originating locally, but this is beginning to change. “More are open to collecting works from other places. [ART SG] is a nice gateway to meet the galleries,” he noted.

But perhaps more importantly for an art fair, some galleries were reporting sales, albeit they were less robust than those typically seen at major contemporary art fairs in the West, Hong Kong, or even Seoul. The art market outlook for 2023 may not be as grim as some industry insiders in the West had predicted—or at least not in Asia. It seems Southeast Asia—a region largely overlooked by the West but where deep-pocketed collectors have quietly bought art for a long time—may be a conducive market after all, especially now that Singapore is experiencing an influx of Chinese money.

Rich elites reportedly have been fleeing mainland China and Hong Kong amid the increasingly unpredictable socio-political and geopolitical environment. The number of family offices in the city-state has gone from 400 in 2020 to 700 today. “ART SG has arrived at a perfect time,” said Leo Xu, a senior director at David Zwirner in Hong Kong.

Tomio Koyama Gallery. Courtesy of ART SG.

Tomio Koyama Gallery. Courtesy of ART SG.

Of the 160 galleries from 30 countries and regions featured in the inaugural edition of ART SG, nearly half have shops outside the Asia-Pacific region. The rest have locations across the region, from Japan and South Korea to mainland China and Hong Kong. Around 20 operate in Singapore, and less than 10 in Jakarta, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur. Prices of works on show were diverse, ranging from a few thousand to over a million dollars—a very high price point for the region.

Exhibitors spanning two floors of the exhibition center were assigned to categories similar to most major art fairs. There was a main galleries sector; a “Focus” section for presentations of solo or duo artists or thematic exhibitions; “Futures” area to showcase galleries under six years old; and “Reframe,” which focuses on digital and crypto art.

Some collectors commented that the basement floor, which was where most of the big galleries were located, reminded them of Art Basel Hong Kong. The Art Assembly, the team behind ART SG, is the very same crew that launched ART HK in 2008, which was then sold to Art Basel’s parent company MCH, becoming Art Basel Hong Kong in 2013.

International blue-chip galleries all reported sales during the first two days. White Cube, for example, said it sold 17 works on the opening day alone, totaling around $3 million. Notable sales from the gallery include: Anselm Kiefer’s 1981 canvas  Dein Goldenes Haar Margarete, which sold to a collector in Indonesia for €1.2 million ($1.3 million); Antony Gormley’s cast iron sculpture Nerve (2020), priced at £450,000 ($549,144); a David Altmejd sculpture ($60,000, sold to an Australian); two editions of Tracey Emin’s bronze Belligerence (2014), which went to European and Asia collectors for £95,000 each ($115,930); Christine Ay Tjoe’s paintings Soluble Integrants ($165,000, sold to a buyer in China) and Docile Black 3 ($260,000, sold to a Hong Kong collector); and a work by Marguerite Humeau (£65,000/$79,320, sold to a buyer in Taiwan).

Jaume Plensa sculptures on show at ART SG 2023. Courtesy of ART SG.

Jaume Plensa sculptures on show at ART SG 2023. Courtesy of ART SG.

The Museum MACAN in Jakarta bought two works by the late artist Ashley Bickerton for an undisclosed sum from Gagosian. Pace sold several pieces, including those by James Turrell ($950,000), Keith Haring ($250,000), Lee Ufan ($150,000), and Louise Nevelson ($105,000). More than half the works on David Zwirner’s booth found buyers, including pieces by Neo Rauch, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Wolfgang Tillmans, totaling more than $2.5 million.

Lehmann Maupin, which just appointed former deputy director of the Asia Society Museum in New York Ken Tan as its Singapore-based director, placed works in local collections. Tammy Nguyen’s Our Ministry (2022) sold for $90,000 to a private collection in Singapore, while four new works by Mandy El-Sayegh, priced at a combined total of $335,000, went to different collections across Singapore and the region.

The U.K. gallery Unit London, which amassed a strong following in Asia during the pandemic through its social media channels, made its fair debut in Asia, selling out its two-artist booth of works by Hong Kong’s Stephen Wong Chun Hei and Seth Armstrong from Los Angeles, priced between $10,000 and $30,500. One of Wong’s paintings went to a Malaysian private collector, who is a trustee of several institutions across the world.

“It is our first time here in Singapore… Many local collectors were already aware of our program as they’ve engaged with the gallery online for the last few years. But we have been delighted to meet lots of new collectors that really span all age groups—from very active budding collectors in their late 20s through to the more senior collectors who are interested in diversifying their collections of Southeast Asian artists,” Unit London’s co-founder, Joe Kennedy, told Midnight Publishing Group News.

Works by Hong Kong artist Mak2 on show at de Sarthe's booth at ART SG. Photo: Vivienne Chow.

Works by Hong Kong artist Mak2 on show at De Sarthe’s booth at ART SG. Photo: Vivienne Chow.

Regional galleries also reported sales. Whitestone, which recently opened a new space in Singapore, sold out all its pieces by the hot young Japanese painter Etsu Egami, priced at $10,000 to $30,000. WOAW Gallery, which also just inaugurated an outpost in the area, sold works by James Goss, Jon Burgerman, and Charlie Roberts for prices ranging from $9,000 to $22,800. Hong Kong’s De Sarthe gallery, which opened a space in Arizona last year, sold works by Mak2 and a painting by Zhong Wei, for prices ranging between $10,000 and $30,000. Artworks by young Singaporean artists Faris Heizer, Aisha Rosli, and Khairulddin Wahab, priced between $5,800 to $9,500, found buyers at Singapore’s Cuturi Gallery.

“The Southeast Asian market has been too rooted in their own local culture, but change is happening. Collectors have the desire to embrace what’s happening on the global stage and in international art,” noted dealer Pascal de Sarthe.

However, some regional dealers reported that sales have been slower than expected, Midnight Publishing Group News has learned. They still made sales, but to existing clients in the region rather than to new ones. While the VIP day and vernissage were packed with visitors, the aisles felt much more spacious on the second and third days. Some collectors took more time to make their purchases, especially those contemplating works by Southeast Asian artists new to them.

neugerriemschneider's booth at ART SG 2023. Courtesy of ART SG.

Neugerriemschneider’s booth at ART SG 2023. Courtesy of ART SG.

This led some to question, despite the amount of wealth in the city-state and the region’s potential growth, if the collector pool in the region was big enough to sustain a fair of this size and a growing art market.

Many dealers, however, chose not to speculate as they wanted to see the fair and its co-founder Magnus Renfrew—a highly respected figure in Asia’s art scene—succeed.

“For a first-year fair, I think it’s got off to a very good start. The sales have been okay. My feeling is that there’s going to be activity right up until 5 pm on Sunday,” Renfrew told Midnight Publishing Group News. “We are really expecting things to be happening throughout the upcoming days. The energy has been positive. People feel welcomed by the city, and that there’s a sense of the potential for the future. This is really just the first step.”

While sales have traditionally been an important benchmark for an art fair’s success, a new barometer is needed for fairs in Asia, especially for young fairs in young markets, Zwirner’s Xu pointed out.

“For example, established, active collectors may know about us, but not the younger ones. That’s why we want to do the fair—we want to reach out to those who buy cars, shoes, Street art, and NFTs, and introduce them to other kinds of art and other galleries. This is a conversion process,” Xu noted.

ART SG runs through Sunday, January 15, 2023.

 

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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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Simon de Pury on How the World’s Top Fashion Houses Have Worked With Artists to Create a Red-Hot Market for Collaborations


Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.

In 2019 I conducted an auction in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, to raise funds toward protecting the dwindling population of snow leopards. Included in it was a clutch bag by Olympia Le-Tan. There was spirited bidding, and to my own surprise the price had climbed up to $90,000 by the time I sold it to a very elegant lady in the room.

A few days after the auction, OLT’s cofounder Grégory Bernard asked me to curate a collection of clutch bags for them. I accepted, as at a number of galas and special events I had been struck by the originality of these accessories, which reimagine classic book covers and art, and were invariably worn by the most interesting women. Olympia Le-Tan managed to create an exquisitely crafted fashion accessory that looks as good when in use or when simply lying on a coffee table.

I was a great admirer of Olympia’s father, Pierre Le-Tan, whose illustrations graced the pages of numerous publications, including the New Yorker, Vogue, and the New York Times Magazine. He was also a connoisseur and eclectic collector. I had the privilege of being the auctioneer for the sale of part of his collection at Sotheby’s in London in 1995.

Tête de femme avec un chapeau à pompons, OLT X Picasso.

Tête de femme avec un chapeau à pompons, OLT X Picasso.

Before giving thought as to which favorite album or book covers to select, I felt the dream would be to choose works by the greatest artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso. I called Almine Rech Picasso to discuss the idea. She put me in touch with the Picasso Administration, for whom OLT prepared a detailed proposal. The embroiderers and stitchers started the search for the finest silk threads that would faithfully render the color range of the original works. Little did I realize that, after it was agreed, it would take months for each clutch bag to be produced. OLT will therefore come out every few months with another Picasso clutch in limited editions of 77.

This fun project made me reflect on the cross-fertilization between the worlds of art and fashion. The greatest fashion designers were at all times naturally drawn to art. It is therefore hardly surprising that some of them figure among the greatest collectors. Picasso’s seminal 1906 masterwork Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which is one of the quintessential works hanging at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), used to belong to the French couturier Jacques Doucet, who bought it in 1924. Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino Garavani, Giancarlo Giammetti, and Hubert de Givenchy are not only part of the pantheon of fashion but are also some of the most significant collectors and tastemakers in the world of art.

Despite that, there were clear borders between art and fashion. For an artist to do work for a fashion brand would have been seen as a perilous exercise.

The actual game changer was Bernard Arnault, the chief executive and owner of LVMH. Under his leadership, the designers of his main brands—above all Louis Vuitton and Dior—have instigated some of the most successful collaborations between artists and fashion houses to ever take place.

When a big retrospective of Takashi Murakami took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, not only did a number of paintings include the LV logo, but one room was devoted to the bags the artist had created for Vuitton, and they could be purchased then and there in the museum. Those manning the cash register must have been thrilled, but it made the soi-disant defenders of high art cringe.

Models hold Louis Vuitton bags designed by Richard Prince at the Louis Vuitton cocktail reception celebrating the Richard Prince exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum on January 8, 2007 in New York City. Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images.

Models hold Louis Vuitton bags designed by Richard Prince at the Louis Vuitton cocktail reception celebrating the Richard Prince exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on January 8, 2007, in New York City. Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images.

I am an unconditional admirer of Richard Prince, so when Marc Jacobs chose him to design a series of Vuitton bags covered with his jokes and nurses, I was ecstatic. The bags were released gradually, and the chief salesman at the LV store on the Champs-Élysées had the power to decide who was worthy of acquiring them. I would show up after each new release. He would ask me, “Did your wife like it?” I was not married at the time, but did not dare to admit that I was buying them for myself. The prices for Prince’s paintings were rising steeply, so while the bags are not exactly cheap, they were clearly more affordable than his canvases. I still have them wrapped up, and have actually never opened them.

The collaboration between Yayoi Kusama and Louis Vuitton helped towards establishing her in the art-world firmament. While the bags she created for the brand were being sold, her original paintings were being presented on the VIP floor of the Vuitton store on Bond Street in London. I was particularly fascinated by little plastic figurines of the artist herself. I was desperate to get my hands on one and used all my contacts, to no avail. I was told that they would all be destroyed once the display was over. I don’t know whether this really happened, but I have not come across any such figurine since. KAWS managed to do collaborations to satisfy both his “high” and “low” fan bases more or less simultaneously, when he collaborated with Dior and Uniqlo. I tried my luck at Uniqlo to get a T-shirt for my youngest daughter, but they were all sold out.

A general view during the Louis Vuitton And Yayoi Kusama Collaboration Unveiling at Louis Vuitton Maison on July 10, 2012 in New York City. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage.

A general view during the unveiling of the Louis Vuitton and Yayoi Kusama collaboration at Louis Vuitton Maison on July 10, 2012, in New York City. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage.

I always felt that the work of Kenny Scharf was undervalued. His current collaboration with Dior has changed this. There has been heated competition for his works in recent auctions. There again are wonderful plastic sculptures created by Scharf for the Dior shop windows around the world. Here as well, I was unable to acquire any of them. Urs Fischer has also decorated the Vuitton window displays around the world. There would be a red-hot collector’s market for the temporary display objects the main fashion brands use for their collaborations with artists.

For his collaboration with the Vuitton brand, Jeff Koons used some of the biggest brands of art history: Da Vinci, Titian, Rubens, Fragonard, Boucher, Turner, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Manet, and Monet. Not only did he employ some of their best-known works, as he did in his gazing ball series, he also plastered their names in metallic capital letters across the accessories. The LV logo had a JK logo symmetrically placed across it, and a Koons rabbit in leather was attached to each bag. It was a brand splashing brands on a brand. In 2014, I auctioned a Koons sculpture inspired by Picasso’s Blue Period work La Soupe, which had several Hermès Kelly bags hanging on its arms. The proceeds went to a United Nations campaign for vaccination—we could use such a campaign now!—that was supported by Svetlana Kuzmicheva-Uspenskaya.

In the nearly 20 years since the initial cooperation between Takashi Murakami and Vuitton took place, such collaborations no longer ruffle the feathers of “serious” art lovers. On the contrary, the wider reach and recognition the fashion world is a must for any artist wishing for mainstream notoriety. With at least 40 percent Asian buyers in the main international contemporary art auctions, this is not surprising. After all, many of Asia’s mega-malls, notably in Japan, have been cultural dynamos, staging art exhibitions since the 1960s. As a believer in contemporary culture overall, I applaud the blurring of lines between the worlds of art, music, fashion, architecture, design, photography, and cinema.

Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company and is a private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury

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How One Dog-Eat-Dog Market Proves That the Art Industry Really Doesn’t Have to Be That Way (and Other Insights)


Every Wednesday morning, Midnight Publishing Group News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.

This week, a reminder that we live in a world of our own making…

 

COMPETITIVE INSTINCT

Let’s talk about art-market psychology. As a gateway, consider this excerpt from a brilliant story published in a major magazine last week:

“The more popular the gallery is on the internet, the more clout they have,” says Molly, a collector in New York. “If you have a really good social-media presence, you can throw your weight around.” (The clout goes both ways: Posting about your new acquisition on Instagram is an indirect way of broadcasting that someone out there deemed you morally worthy enough to be chosen.) She inquired about eight artworks in six weeks from about five different dealers, only to be continually rejected. She finally got an interview with a gallery whose prized exhibition she had seen on social media. They asked to tour her apartment over Zoom. Fine. They asked for her references. Great. But then they asked if she would pay for an expensive art handler. She asked if she could wait—not only was it during the height of COVID, but the cost of the sessions with the handler could be close to $1,000. The person she was dealing with said over email that artworks were investments and suggested she look elsewhere. “I was like, ‘This is so art world,’” she says.

Nice microcosm of the art market in 2021, right? I suspect many of you are nodding your heads, rolling your eyes, or smirking in knowing agreement with Molly about now. Maybe some of you have even been through a similar experience recently, as speculative demand surges in the primary market for emerging talent thanks partly to the rich getting even richer during lockdown. Absurd that it’s come to this, isn’t it? 

I expect a smaller number of you actually read this passage in its original context in the last nine days and are now trying to recall where that was. But if you’re having a hard time making the connection, don’t blame yourself. The reason is that this was not actually a story about the art market—at least not directly. 

Instead, it was a story about the maddening difficulties of trying to adopt a rescue dog in the Empire City during the pandemic, written by Allie Conti for New York magazine. I just swapped out exactly 14 of her original 184 words. Here’s the actual excerpt, this time with the text I replaced in bold:

“The more popular the rescue is on the internet, the more clout they have,” says Molly, a writer in New York. “If you have a really good social-media presence, you can throw your weight around.” (The clout goes both ways: Posting about your rescue dog on Instagram is an indirect way of broadcasting that someone out there deemed you morally worthy enough to be chosen.) She inquired about eight dogs in six weeks from about five different rescues, only to be continually rejected. She finally got an interview with a rescue agency whose cute dogs she had seen on social media. They asked to tour her apartment over Zoom. Fine. They asked for her references. Great. But then they asked if she would pay for an expensive trainer. She asked if she could wait—not only was it during the height of COVID, but the cost of the sessions with the trainer could be close to $1,000. The person she was dealing with said over email that dogs were investments and suggested she look elsewhere. “I was like, ‘This is so Brooklyn,’” she says.

I’m not just doing this because it’s an especially wild example of economist Tyler Cowen’s mantra that there are “markets in everything.” I’m doing it because Conti’s story runs rampant with meaningful parallels between what she calls the “pandemic puppy boom” and our current moment in the art-market cycle, where galleries’ waiting lists for hot young artists are again extending to the length of Medieval scrolls, sending prices soaring on the few works rapidly resold at auction. That means it’s the perfect time to sniff around the lockdown-era tussle over rescue dogs for a scent that can lead buyers away from ruin.

Genevieve Figgis, Untitled (Lady with a Dog) (2013). Courtesy Susan Barrett.

Genevieve Figgis, Untitled (Lady with a Dog) (2013). Courtesy Susan Barrett.

SHARED BLOODLINES

I won’t belabor the Business 101 consonance between the market for in-demand artists and the market for COVID-era canines: huge demand for a small supply of desirable assets. The primary motivation in the realm of rescues, of course, was what Conti terms “a lonely, claustrophobic year in which thousands of white-collar workers, sitting at home scrolling through their phones, seemed simultaneously to decide they were finally ready to adopt a dog.” 

The result in New York was a competitive ambush. Practically overnight, rescue shelters that typically received about 20 weekly applications in the Before Times were bombarded by hundreds of new hopefuls every seven days. Conti relays that up to 50 would-be adopters sometimes faced off for the right to take home a single furry friend. 

More interesting, however, is a related complication of this specialty market: what econ geeks would call a lack of price elasticity. Conti declares early in the piece, “The rescue dog is now, indisputably, a luxury good, without a market pricing system at work to manage demand.” In other words, no matter how many people wanted the asset, its cost never changed. These are adoption agencies, after all, not for-profit breeders willing to capitalize on the emergence of a seller’s market. 

To the everlasting astonishment of people I know outside the art trade, the same is true in the primary market for hot artists. A willingness to overpay gives collectors no advantage, because the system is designed to keep the price fixed regardless of the number of interested buyers. Wealth has a tendency to become necessary but not sufficient. Which means, in turn, that some other mechanism must sort the many candidates into winners and losers.

The mechanism is status, an attribute that gatekeepers in each of these two markets can only ever judge subjectively. In the rescue sphere, Conti cites the example of Zainab, an applicant who has “a leadership role in public education,” a master’s degree, and (in Zainab’s own words) makes “good money”… but was deemed unworthy of 60 (!) different dogs by various rescue agencies. Her breakthrough came when she leaned into her status, creating a multipage résumé that “features testimonials from high-powered friends, including local elected officials.” 

I’ve never heard of collectors deploying this tactic with art dealers in their pursuit of sought-after works, but how different is it really from communicating your institutional ties, your other acquisitions, and even which other art-world names you summer with? Assuming they operate south of the tier where a dealer already knows their reputation on sight, any savvy buyer will be sure to drop data points like these when in pursuit of a fiercely contested acquisition. What is that if not a kind of résumé?

The power of reputation extends into the virtual realm too. Particularly among younger demographics, your online presence increasingly functions as a living testament to your art-world status. Who pays attention to you? Who actually engages with you in public view, and on what terms? What else is in your collection, and are there clues as to how you got it? Where do you travel, what do you do while you’re there, and who do you do it with? This supplementary info can help fill out the reputational picture with details you might not be able to suss out through the art-dealer whisper network. 

As Conti expressed in the excerpt I used to open this column, social-media clout isn’t just a one-way mirror either; it acts as a multipurpose marketing tool. Your social media-affirmed status helps you get the prized asset in the first place, and then advertising that you got the prized asset boosts your social media-affirmed status higher… which in turn increases your chances of getting the next prized asset, and on and on, in a feedback loop of specialty market navel-gazing. What a time to be alive.

Visitors pass in front of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat entitled Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump on May 7, 2010, at Art Basel. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images.

Visitors pass in front of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat entitled Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump on May 7, 2010, at Art Basel. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images.

NATURE VS. NURTURE

I can’t decide whether I’m more relieved or depressed to be reminded that the art industry isn’t the only arena hosting these phenomena—and further, that they spread beyond even other collectible markets like design objects, fine wine, classic cars, and sports memorabilia. Their prevalence underscores that we humans (or at least, we humans in rich capitalist communities) almost can’t help but do this nonsense. As Gimlet Media’s Lydia Polgreen put it on Twitter in reaction to Conti’s piece…

Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist and conflicted dog owner Conti spoke to, concluded that the pandemic puppy boom is “driven by a reflection of human narcissism and neurosis,” and if that description isn’t an evergreen one for much of the art establishment, I should probably retire as an analyst immediately. 

The counterpoint, however, is that it doesn’t have to be this way in any market. For proof of this fact in the COVID canine gauntlet, consider Defector cofounder Tom Ley’s response piece “If You Really Want a Dog, You Can Get a Damn Dog.” 

The crux of Ley’s argument (which is more sympathetic than I expected from its headline) is that even in New York, there are dozens of dogs waiting to be adopted from city-run shelters uninterested in the status-based shenanigans of many rescue agencies. Conti’s subjects plunged themselves into the cyclone by fixating on a handful of suppliers with gale-force marketing resources and high visibility among a large-enough demographic of pretty successful, very online New Yorkers (doubly ironic, he emphasizes, because rescue organizations with enormous Instagram followings often just source dogs from the city-run shelters anyway).

You don’t need me to tell you that the same tunnel vision afflicts many, if not most, art collectors during a bull market, but it’s worth emphasizing that they could probably satisfy their art thirst through far less humiliating venues. Assuming, that is, that a meaningful art experience, not a guaranteed status bump, is the endgame. 

At one end of the spectrum, you have more and more artists selling directly to consumers seemingly each day, and each year seems to produce more and more sales channels with light-touch industry infrastructure that are geared toward removing the elitist stigma around collecting. For example, take the Other Art Fair, an international slate of annual in-person and online fairs championing affordable works in cities from New York to Los Angeles to London to Melbourne. Many of the fair’s attendees “have never purchased art before in their lives,” according to director Nicole Garton. “They are looking for a home in the art world, and so a lot of what we do at the fair is to help put people at ease and empower them to explore their own tastes, while having a fun day out.” 

The environment tends to be as important as the artwork when it comes to bringing the art market back down to earth. Just as at kindred spirit Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean’s No Commission fair series, artists double as the exhibitors at the Other Art Fair. Some are “as excited and nervous as the visitors themselves” because they’re showing their work for the first time, Garton said, and all of them tend to be “eager to chat with anyone who shows an interest in their passion.” This aspect transforms the art-discovery process into something vastly more welcoming than the smashmouth status game of the traditional system.  

Collector and producer David Hoberman contemplates Kennedy Yanko's sculpture Anoint (2019) inside Kavi Gupta's booth at Felix 2020. Photography by Tim Schneider.

Collector and producer David Hoberman contemplates Kennedy Yanko’s sculpture Anoint (2019) inside Kavi Gupta’s booth at Felix 2020. Photography by Tim Schneider.

There is support for a more fraternal approach farther up the industry hierarchy too. This weekend, the latest edition of Los Angeles’s homegrown Felix art fair returns to the cabana-bedecked patio of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Cofounder and veteran collector Dean Valentine stresses that he and his partners in the venture, L.A. dealers Al and Mills Morán, did not intentionally launch Felix to counterprogram the traditional fair model. But he did acknowledge that “every year, with every art fair, it was getting harder and harder to look, to have meaningful conversations, to have an experience” in what often feels to me like the art market’s answer to the cubicle farm. 

“Fairs have become high-speed, high-pressure shopping,” Valentine continued. “We wanted to build something that was a bit more low key, a bit more human.”

Felix’s venue does a lot of the work on this front. “It’s a lot easier to talk hanging by the Hockney pool with a drink in your hand than on a crowded aisle in a convention center, and looking at art in an actual room is a much more immediate and intimate experience than in a fair booth,” he said. (He added that the fair’s braintrust had ideas about how to push the sensibility even further than in past editions, but that COVID restrictions forced them to table those prospects until it comes time to plan the fair’s next February edition.)

And then of course there’s the financial side of the equation. Aside from the true whales, budget constraints limit every collector’s options. But the need to work within your limits can be a golden opportunity rather than a fatal flaw. As Jeffrey Deitch told me for a story on fractional ownership this spring, “If you want to participate in art, there’s great art at every price range.” You just might have to search harder and be more deliberate about what you’re really looking for. 

Or maybe not, according to Garton. 

“Nowadays, it’s fairly common for people to encounter art outside the context of the traditional art world in their everyday lives—from street art, to music videos, to brand collaborations selling at a local box retailer. Art is everywhere, and people naturally gravitate towards the things they love and find inspiring,” she said. “Ultimately, while some broader trends may be influenced by the top of the market, people are trusting their own instincts and buying the art that speaks to them.”

Mr. Doodle at the launch of "Sense of Space" a multi-room sensory art experience in Exchange Square in London in 2018. Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Broadgate.

Mr. Doodle at the launch of “Sense of Space,” a multi-room sensory art experience in Exchange Square in London in 2018. Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Broadgate.

Personally, I think that’s as true of first-timers sliding a few hundred bucks directly to an overwhelmed artist at the Other Art Fair as it is of moneyed East Asian collectors bidding works by Mr. Doodle out to the farthest reaches of space at major auction houses.

So maybe you can’t pay up for a unique work by a canonical great without handing over your life to a loan shark. Maybe your status level won’t win you a fresh-from-the-studio piece by the next scorching-hot twentysomething gallery sensation. Maybe you aren’t even interested in, say, an editioned print by a respected mid-career artist offered by a friendly poolside dealer at Felix. 

That’s okay! In fact, I’d argue that the best outcome for the long-term, full-body health of the art market is for a bunch of art lovers to be compelled to expand their viewfinders beyond the establishment channels, the sizzling names, and the hyperbolic headlines. 

So the next time you feel discouraged by cutthroat competition or discriminating dealers in a status-drunk art market, don’t make the same mistake as the upwardly mobile Brooklynites laser-focused on rescue dogs. What’s available elsewhere is just as deserving of a loving home.

[The Cut | Defector]

 

That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember: if you hate the rules of the game in front of you, choose another one.

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