Hong Kong’s ascent into the premier league of art centres is gathering pace with rumours that the buyer of the record-breaking $106.5m Picasso “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” (1932) hails from the Chinese metropolis.
Auction house sales there have also smashed records: Sotheby’s sold almost HK$2bn (£179m) of paintings and antiques at its six-day auction in April. The buoyant commercial gallery scene has been bolstered by dealer Larry Gagosian’s decision to open a permanent space in the city. But outside these powerhouses, a duo of Chinese women is shaping Hong Kong’s art scene through innovative, artist-led initiatives that dovetail with the region’s mega-bucks art ventures.
The friends have had similar career paths, sharing a mentor in Johnson Chang Tsong-zung, the erudite curator and critic who towers over the Chinese contemporary art scene after founding Hanart TZ gallery in Hong Kong in 1983. Ng, armed with an MA in cultural policy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, found herself at Chang’s space in the mid-1990s.
For Hsu, Chang was equally important, prompting her to set up the AAA when she was still a postgraduate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in the late 1990s. “My professor at SOAS was not impressed when I proposed that my MA dissertation should focus on late 20th-century Chinese contemporary art. There was very little material, or research: Johnson suggested that I set up an archive, so I packed a suitcase and went back to Hong Kong.”
The result, as Hsu describes the AAA, is a “museum without exhibitions. Contemporary and modern art is not widely taught in schools and colleges here and is only really seen in commercial galleries. AAA is proactive in instigating critical thinking and dialogue and forging networks in the region.”
Schemes include an annual international residency which, in 2009, brought the Delhi-based artists RAQS Media Collective to Hong Kong. But the best may be yet to come with the launch this year of a four-year initiative to incorporate into the archive the world’s most important collection of art from 1980s China, including the collections of artists Mao Xuhui, Wu Shanzhuan, Lu Peng and Zhang Xiaogang and curator Fei Dawei. For its booth at ARTHK 10, AAA has recreated an artist’s living-working space of the 1980s.
Ng’s sentiments chime with Hsu’s ideals. Dividing her time between Hong Kong and New York, where Art Asia Pacific is based, she sees her magazine as “a platform for artists that are not commercially viable [and] to encourage critical thinking. I’m on the advisory board of Art HK, which has become a pivotal international event for the region, but the non-commercial scene must also be supported.”
But there is no doubting the business acumen of the two women. Ng, who cut her teeth in the non-profit sector when she managed the film and new media organisation Videotage in Hong Kong in the late 1990s, turned a profit at Art Asia Pacific in 2007 and 2009 after she bought the publication from artist Zhao Gang in 2004.
Hsu seems just as canny, harnessing private capital through initiatives such as a collectors’ circle of about 20 couples.
There’s more. “We recently put together a vision plan for transforming the central police station compound, a heritage site that dates back to the 19th century, into a contemporary visual arts hub,” says Hsu. This project was launched in conjunction with the non-profit gallery, Para/site. And Hsu and Ng are immersed in another key state project, the West Kowloon Cultural District venture, a gargantuan 40-hectare waterfront development described as “an integrated arts, cultural, entertainment and commercial district”, pumped with state cash (an HK$21.6bn endowment). A new museum on the site, called M+, will focus on 20th- and 21st-century visual culture.
Hsu and Ng agree that Hong Kong, which lacks a landmark public contemporary art museum, desperately needs such a flagship institution. But can the city, awash with private art money, sustain a state-backed venue on this scale? Ng says: “I remain positive about its prospects. But museums are not yet part of the mindset here as everything needs to be profitable in the end.”