Is Hong Kong a desert for artists?
There is a fantastic buzz in the air in the lead up to Le French May, the auctions and the Hong Kong Art Fair. Yet something is amiss. While Hong Kong garners international acclaim and press coverage for its record-busting contemporary art sales, little attention is given to our city’s local artists. Then again, where are they?
Despite the foundation some 20 years ago of a tiny-but-active gallery scene in our city, the government has been slow to catch up with private initiatives. Generally speaking, public institutions are the driving force behind any city’s artscape, but in Hong Kong it has been predominantly art galleries and non-profit groups nurturing local talent. The government has done little to reverse this trend.
Auction powerhouses Sotheby’s and Christie’s have been key instigators in the establishment of Hong Kong as the world’s third largest art market, yet neither auction house has been quick to include Hong Kong artists in their Asian contemporary sales. Indeed, an Asian contemporary art specialist from Sotheby’s told me that ‘the quality is just simply not there.’ Perhaps this glaring exclusion can also help to identify why Hong Kong artists have not enjoyed the same commercial success as their China-based counterparts. In truth, our local artists completely missed out on the wild surge in contemporary Chinese art throughout the 2000s.
Hong Kong’s Chu Hing-wah has been painting for 60 years and his traditional ink paintings have often reflected subject matters related to his work as a psychiatric nurse. His remarks are direct, but poignant. “Chinese artists are too strong at the moment,” he says. “How can you compete with them? The artists in Hong Kong need more support if they want their art to flourish high up like China.” Agreeing with this statement, young firecracker Ho Sin-tung, who although more than 30 years Chu’s junior and tackles similar subjects in her work, says ‘many Chinese artists are far more aggressive than Hong Kong artists’.
Speaking separately with Ho and Chu, I found that both touched on the serious economic hardships of surviving as an artist in Hong Kong. Particularly difficult is the cost of a studio – a small, cramped studio will cost you around $8,000 per month. It’s clearly a major factor for the severe lack of native artists, and those that do follow their passion usually have full-time day jobs, which both Ho and Chu feel detract from the quality of the art produced. The sheer economic cost of being an artist in Hong Kong has thus resulted in our huddled talent being relegated to ‘far flung’ locations in Kwun Tong and Chai Wan, which do not generate the same pedestrian traffic and commercial visibility as traditional stronghold locations in Sheung Wan and Central.
The solutions are not simple, nor are they clear. But as more international galleries branch out to Hong Kong, our local artists should do what their Mainland cousins did in the 1990s – scream, shout, push the envelope out and get noticed. My honest advice? Strive on with intensity and perseverance. Hong Kong may be a grassland, but it’s definitely not a desert.