By Reena Devi
With its history as a former British colony, Hong Kong has long been Asia’s dominant financial center, and in turn the region’s main art capital. But the Special Administrative Region has had a tumultuous few years—from a new National Security Law imposed in 2020 to turbulent domestic protests to an ongoing “Zero Covid” policy that has seen its international tourism plummet—that seems to have battered its reputation as Asia’s global metropolis, as other cities like Seoul, Singapore, and Tokyo have seen their stars rise as new centers for the art trade. With these changes, Hong Kong’s arts community has doubled down on the local scene.

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Last month, Bloomberg reported that some of Wall Street’s largest banks, including Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, are pushing for the local government to allow quarantine-free travel as a precondition to attend a finance summit intended to bolster the city’s reputation and set to take place in November. Coupled with major dealmakers and small- and medium-size businesses relocating elsewhere in recent months, Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po told the South China Morning Post in early August that he might need to cut the city’s annual gross domestic product (GDP) forecast, which he attributed to the slow recovery of Hong Kong’s economy following its fifth Covid wave.
Jonathan Crockett, Phillips’s chairman for Asia, told ARTnews these restrictions have indeed “seen a significant proportion of the local art collecting community leave the city in recent months. With it still being difficult for non-residents to visit Hong Kong [and] with the current quarantine measures in place, the auction market has been affected by reduced in-person attendance at auction previews and at the sales.”
Despite those challenges, Hong Kong’s auction market has been experiencing tremendous gains since the pandemic. Last year, Christie’s announced plans for a new and expanded Asia headquarters in the city to open in 2024, while Phillips will be moving into its new Asia head offices in the West Kowloon Cultural District in fall of 2022, next to Hong Kong’s newly opened M+ museum. In July, the Hong Kong Palace Museum (HKPM), a huge new exhibition space for ancient Chinese antiquities, opened in West Kowloon, and in August, the art shipping and logistics firm Crozier acquired Hong Kong–based Integrated Fine Arts Solution as part of its expansion into Asia.
Even still, auction houses in Hong Kong having been reporting record-breaking sales in 2021 and 2022, partly attributed to remote sales, which now include multi-camera livestreams, as well as 360-degree videos and virtual tours for individual lots. “Travel restrictions can be challenging but we are seeing signs that this is easing, and we have been able to adapt to engage in different ways,” said Jasmine Prasetio, managing director for Sotheby’s Southeast Asia.
Crockett agreed that digital advancements helped keep the auction market buoyant and relevant, especially with people becoming increasingly comfortable participating in auctions online, even before the pandemic. Because 35 percent of Phillips’ buyers based in Asia were millennial collectors, he said it was not so surprising that a significant share of its client base, having grown up with the internet, would be able to engage with the art market digitally with ease.
But it’s not just auction houses expanding their presence—and profits—in the city. The past few years has seen a slew of new commercial and independent art spaces, like Square Street Gallery, the Shophouse, Double Q Gallery, Property Holdings Development Group (PHD Group), Odds and Ends, and more, open up.
One such venture is Villepin Gallery, which was founded in 2019 by former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and his son, Arthur. Because it was established just months before lockdown began, the gallery has had to be nimble enough to adjust to “a new normal in Asia’s art markets,” Villepin director Annie Kwok said in an interview. “Hong Kong has always been the international art hub in Asia, but with the trends and emergence of new fairs and galleries in Taiwan, Singapore, and Korea, the individual art market in each Asia city has become more international as well. I think these trends have changed Hong Kong in a way that it makes us look inward to focus more on our local arts community and artists.”
With the recent openings of museums like M+ and the Palace Museum, Kwok added, “The arts ecosystem in Hong Kong now is actually a lot more sophisticated, healthy, and diverse than pre-Covid times.”
There certainly seems to be a shift from banking on Hong Kong’s reputation as an international arts hub and gateway of mainland China to a renewed focus on connecting with diverse, local artists and audiences.
This summer, Odds and Ends partnered with local artist and curator, Eric Kot, to produce a group exhibition “Cookout: Contemporary Condensation,” which featured more than 20 artists and designers whose practices explore the long history of craftsmanship in Hong Kong, and the influential culture of Hong Kong’s public housing estates.
“The exhibition focused solely on native culture that might not be of great interest to our usual ex-pat clientele (who are away for the summer), therefore the opportune timing of this project has allowed us to foster relationships with new, local audience,” said the gallery’s co-founder Natalie Ng, who previously held sales positions at David Zwirner and the now-closed HZ.
At PHD Group, Hong Kong–based artist duo Virtue Village (comprising Joseph Chen and Cas Wong and formed in 2020), had their first solo show, titled “Village Porn,” involving a performance project at the end of the exhibition’s run, featuring LGBTQ+ performers from various backgrounds like dance, sound, theater, and more. In God’s Body drew a strong response from the local arts community because of the performance’s focus on queer aesthetics, a topic rarely publicly explored in Hong Kong.
“This performance also unexpectedly speaks to a wide range of audiences, not just art people, but also performing art lovers, members of the queer community, as well as straight people,” Chen and Wong told ARTnews.
Another exhibition in Hong Kong that attracted quite bit of attention this summer is Villepin’s “The Loss of Human Face?” That show explored the history and evolution of portraiture, with works by Francis Bacon, Adrian Ghenie, Zeng Fanzhi, George Condo, and Yukimasa Ida, especially resonant at a time when people are mostly masked and their faces are ambiguous.
Kwok noted that collectors and visitors from overseas, however, have not been able to truly experience this exhibition because of travel restrictions. “Taking visitors onto a journey, we focus on the curation, design of our space, and the storytelling of the whole exhibition,” she said. “These are elements that you cannot fully experience virtually or through photographs.”
Lower in-person visitorship has been a common theme in Hong Kong as of late, as has been artists postponing their exhibitions at Hong Kong outposts to later dates. Many dealers, however, remain largely optimistic since the city’s new administration, led by Chief Executive John Lee, relaxed the city’s hotel quarantine restrictions for inbound travelers from seven to three days.
“I have seen how quickly cities have bounced back from no travel and while Hong Kong isn’t there yet, I do believe in the second half of this year we will see some big changes and we will see Hong Kong’s international status roaring back to its full glory,” said Elaine Kwok, managing partner for Hauser & Wirth’s Asia operations.
Nonetheless, even as Hong Kong’s art scene is clearly showing its mettle, with Singapore easing indoor mask requirements to Japan allowing entry to tourists not on group tours and more, the city faces heated regional competition in its highly anticipated comeback as Asia’s global metropolis.
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