Our annual printed publication – the CoBo Supplement strives to increase awareness by serving as a platform to develop conversations pertaining to contemporary art. This year’s edition, released to coincide with Art Basel Hong Kong 2019, features the opinions and viewpoints of over fifty influential, global art leaders on eleven dynamic topics addressing significant ongoing discourses in the art world. To kickstart on our conversation on the Dominance of Mega Galleries, we bring to you the musings of Leng Lin, Tina Keng, Nick Simunovic and Meg Maggio.
Over the past twenty years, we have witnessed a process of artists being transformed into celebrities through the twin trends of globalization and commercialization of art. Galleries have also pivoted from the city hubs in the traditional markets to hub cities in the emerging markets. Certain economically and artistically influential galleries have broken through the limitations of locality to emerge in hotspot cities of the new art world. Competition between galleries has therefore shifted from competition within single cities to a race for growth across multiple cities. This new emphasis first came from New York, and has since spread to such cities as London, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Seoul.
Most galleries, either in terms of scale, turnover or number of physical sites, do not quite merit the description of “mega.” Though the industry has begun to take on global and expansive qualities over the past two decades, and some large galleries have emerged, the growth of these galleries is still closely tied to certain individual figures. Meanwhile, the business in each location revolves around the finite creative output of certain specific artists. Therefore, in order to break through the operational limitations of traditional galleries, the largest galleries are experimenting with the use of certain non-commercial activities; they do so in order to move beyond the agent model, building their brands to maintain attractiveness and increase sales. They have also begun attracting curators, building research teams and producing publications in order to foster discussion. This keeps their represented artists active and relevant, while also increasing their appeal to other outstanding artists. In this way, they can expand their markets and seek market autonomy.
All competition revolves around the artists. The galleries are using their economic flexibility to rapidly transform themselves, through which they hope to establish a monopoly over industry benchmarks and gain the power to interpret and influence. In this way, they can firm up the market foundations of their artists. The big galleries are using the various means at their disposal to find optimal routes for growth and expansion. Meanwhile, the artists are considering their own cultural value and role in this process. These two lines of thinking and development are not always in harmony, and sometimes there is even a profound contradiction between them. Therein lies the unique dynamic of the art industry.
Ultimately, the art industry is a unique one, and it develops through creative people engaging in creative activities. As the big galleries rapidly grow, this creativity applies not just to artists but to the gallery employees. It seems that for the big galleries, facing this may be the more monumental task.
Thirty years ago, in my first gallery job, I was involved with The School of Paris. Thus, I came into contact with western art history as it was being made. Looking back over Chinese oil painting history, it seemed there was no such clear thread. The 1996 exhibition and catalogue Pioneers of Western Fine Arts in the Early Republican Era was a crucial beginning. When I had the opportunity to establish the character of my own gallery, the focus of my thinking was to view Chinese oil painting from a broad historical perspective. When the world comes rushing at you horizontally, I knew it was time to build vertically. It was time to dig deep down and lay deep roots for life to be able to climb and thrive. Tina Keng Gallery focuses on sifting through Chinese modern oil painting, finding Chinese artists inspired by their own cultural depths, absorbing from the west to produce and refine Asian values. Once we had got to grips with the first generation of Chinese painters, we followed with Taiwan’s first generation of modern oil painters and artist groups.
The emergence of TKG+ marks a move to a yet higher level, as well as the shift from modern to contemporary. The artists presented here all have international perspectives. This generation of young artists is thoroughly engaged with the concepts of cultural output and input. We now participate in art fairs and engage in museum exchanges as we strive to establish a Chinese modern and contemporary art history, and firmly establish Asian cultural values.
As Art Basel Hong Kong, Shanghai 021 and West Bund Art & Design Fair rise and become mature, and Taipei Dangdai emerges, a triangle formation is emerging in the Asian art market. Western galleries are making their way to Asia in search of new footholds, and in affirmation of the economic value of Asia’s cultural industries. I also believe that Taipei is the most likely city to become the next focus of the Asian art market as Hong Kong becomes saturated. I also believe, with even greater conviction, that we must dig deep roots and hold fast to our positions if we are to attract the world to come to us.
The Asian art scene is incredibly pluralistic and democratic, and thankfully becoming ever more so. During the past 12 years in Hong Kong, I have noticed how the programmes of smaller regional galleries have become ever more on a par with those of larger galleries. In many cases, local players are in fact more nimble and effective at finding alternative platforms for showcasing their artists, including biennales, triennials and museum exhibitions. In most Asian countries, local collectors are also fully committed to supporting the success of their local galleries. These factors tend to level the playing field in Asia, to everyone’s benefit.
Our Beijing-headquartered gallery, Pékin Fine Arts, opened a branch in Wong Chuk Hang in 2012, amidst mainly local galleries. This year, Belgian gallery Axel Vervoordt will open in Wong Chuk Hang. Grade-A buildings by Wheelock, Swire, Sino Land and others are opening in our ‘hood, partially due to greater accessibility with a new MTR station.
Do I look at mega-gallery expansion in HK with trepidation? Not at all. I am not change-resistant. Hong Kong’s transformation into a mature art ecosystem is exciting. I am convinced that more galleries mean more competition, higher art community standards, and more opportunities for artists. More galleries, more museums, more not-for-profit experimental art spaces, more artist studios, more university art courses, and it’s all good! In a city that favours finance, manufacturing, trade, and property development, it is refreshing and exciting to see growth in the visual arts.
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