Just over a decade ago, Hong Kong was probably one of the last places that would come to mind when you thought of contemporary art. Dubbed a cultural desert, there was only a handful of local galleries and antique shops, lining a single sleepy street. Fast forward to the present day and the city has transformed into a hotbed of artistic activity. “It was unimaginable before, but Hong Kong now has one of the most international gallery scenes in Asia. It’s vibrant and growing,” says collector and art consultant Kyoko Tamura.
Recent years have seen a steady influx of international galleries cropping up across the city. Many are clustered in the Pedder Building, a pre-war construction in the heart of the metropolis, which is now home to Gagosian Gallery, Ben Brown Fine Arts, Pearl Lam Galleries, Simon Lee Gallery and Lehmann Maupin. Last year Italian dealer Massimo de Carlo cut the ribbon on a space on the third floor.
‘It was unimaginable before, but Hong Kong now has one of the most international gallery scenes in Asia. It’s vibrant and growing’
Respected local gallery Hanart TZ also sits among the global heavyweights in the building. Founded by the esteemed scholar Johnson Chang Tsong-zung, the gallery has been showing art from the region since the 1980s. Since Chang moved into the space, he’s mounted stunning shows ranging from other-worldly landscapes by Beijing-based painter Xu Longsen to the cinematic paintings of film stills by local artist Chow Chun Fai. Up the street is another must-see gallery, Grotto Fine Art, which was set up by veteran local dealer Henry Au-yeung in 2001. For years he has given a platform to emerging talent and has a reputation for launching the careers of the city’s top artists.
A second group of galleries has taken up residence at 50 Connaught Road. London’s famed White Cube and Paris’s Galerie Perrotin both opened sprawling spaces in the sleek office tower. “These galleries are putting on amazing shows if you go around and do your footwork of walking and looking,” says long-time Hong Kong gallerist Kate de Tilly, rattling off a list of famed artists ranging from Danh Vo to Anish Kapoor.
Beyond the thriving commercial scene, Hong Kong has a growing number of non-profits and government-run art initiatives
The city has been attracting art stars since the international fair Art Basel Hong Kong arrived in 2011. The fair has been instrumental in creating a buzz around the city’s art scene and putting Hong Kong on the map for art collectors. The rapid growth in the auction market has also turned the spotlight on the city. “There is worldwide support. People are coming out for exhibitions here,” affirms de Tilly, who has observed an increasing number of collectors passing through the city.
“I’m a huge fan of the visual arts community in Hong Kong and am truly in awe,” says Sydney-based curator Alexie Glass-Kantor, who regularly flies into Hong Kong. Known for curating the Encounters sector of Art Basel in Hong Kong, Glass-Kantor says she is also impressed by the gallery scene outside the fair and the efforts of the Hong Kong Gallery Association, a local non-profit that has banded art spaces together to hold large-scale events and an annual art week festival.
Beyond the thriving commercial scene, Hong Kong has a growing number of non-profits and government-run art initiatives. Among the most talked about is Asia Society Hong Kong Center, a former explosives magazine compound used by the British Army in the 19th century, turned into a not-for-profit arts venue.
The fortress-like building is known for world-class exhibitions, lectures, film screenings and performances – most recently it hosted an exhibition for New York-based Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander.
Another creative hub is the PMQ, the former Police Married Quarters. Spanning about 6,000 square metres, the compound has more than 100 studios occupied by designers in fields ranging from fashion to furniture. Interspersed are restaurants, a rooftop garden and an exhibition space that has played host to shows by the likes of London architect Thomas Heatherwick and maverick Chinese artist Xu Zhen.
There is more on the horizon for the art scene. M+, the city’s first contemporary art museum, is due to open in 2019. The institution is part of a government plan, costing about USD $2.8 billion, to create a cultural district in the West Kowloon area. Simon Lee Gallery’s spokesperson Ying Yue Li says it’s fascinating for the London gallery to be in Hong Kong at a moment when the city is shaping its identity as a major art centre. “We thoroughly enjoy growing with the landscape and sharing our experiences,” she says. “It’s an exciting time… and I look forward to [the future].”