Anglo-Swiss art gallery Hauser & Wirth will open a branch in Hong Kong next year as it joins a growing list of international dealers who use the city as a base for selling Western art to China.
The gallery will occupy the 15th and 16th floors of H Queens, the William Lim-designed glass tower on Queen’s Road Central built specifically for art galleries and luxury lifestyle brands. The 10,000 sq ft space is expected to open in spring 2018.
“Our Asian sales have doubled each year for the past five years, so we started to look closer at Hong Kong, which is the first, obvious choice in the region since it is a multicultural hub in close proximity to other Asian countries,” says Marc Payot, partner and vice-president of H&W and the person in charge of the gallery’s Asia expansion.
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The gallery will also open offices in Shanghai and Beijing in October this year.
Asia remains a small market for H&W. Payot says the region accounts for around 10 per cent of the gallery’s global sales, up from around 1 per cent five years ago. But the large number of young, cosmopolitan and wealthy collectors bodes well for future growth, he says.
Several “super collectors” in China have signalled to the world that the country, despite its government’s emphasis on traditional culture, is increasingly open to Western contemporary and modern art. Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, for example, owners of Shanghai’s Long Museum, have tastes that run from Amedeo Modigliani to Jenny Saville, and their museum is currently hosting a major Antony Gormley exhibition. Strong Chinese attendance at international art fairs, meanwhile, also reflects that interest is growing.
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International galleries including the Gagosian, White Cube, Lehmann Maupin and Pace Gallery have all set up shop in Hong Kong since the ArtHK international art fair, the predecessor to Art Basel Hong Kong, showed the market’s potential in 2008. Hong Kong is often chosen as a gallery location over mainland China because of its legal system, lack of censorship, logistical advantages, and the absence of import and export duties. Gallerists are also being lured here by the planned 2019 opening of new museum M+.
“M+ promises to be a museum of global importance that will act as a year-round draw for international visitors interested in art and culture,” says Magnus Renfrew, founder of ArtHK and author of a new book called Uncharted Territory: Culture and Commerce in Hong Kong’s Art World. “In addition, M+ will play a vital role in nurturing an audience for the type of art that [major international] galleries sell – which is an art of ideas and not solely a decorative product.”
Renfrew adds that galleries may also hope to see their artists included in M+’s permanent collection, a stamp of institutional approval that will enhance their reputation.
The rent at H Queens, which charges around HK$90-100 per square foot a month, is comparable to what H&W is paying in London and slightly higher than that in New York. Both David Zwirner and Seoul Auction have already announced plans to open their first Hong Kong galleries in the building.
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Payot says that H&W only decided to go ahead with its China expansion after it found two local people to represent them in the country.
“Vanessa Guo, who used to be with Christie’s and has been with our New York gallery since 2016, was ready to relocate to Hong Kong. She will focus on the business side of things,” he says. “We have also been able to hire Tsai Lihsin, who will split her time between Hong Kong and Beijing and focus on artist relations and communications.” The two will be joint directors of H&W Hong Kong, reporting to Payot.
The decision to hire Tsai highlights the close relationship between Western galleries and Chinese collectors, who are both important clients and promoters of their artists.
Tsai is the former girlfriend and collection manager of Qiao Zhibing, the man who is building Tank Shanghai, a large contemporary art centre housed within huge disused oil tanks. Since 2015, Tsai has worked with H&W to put on exhibitions for Martin Creed and Wilhelm Sasnal at Qiao’s exhibition venues in Shanghai.
H&W was founded in 1992 by Iwan Wirth, his wife Manuela and mother-in-law, Ursula Hauser. It currently represents the likes of Mark Bradford and Phyllida Barlow, who themselves are representing the US and the UK, respectively, at this year’s Venice Biennale.
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The gallery currently only has one Chinese artist – Zhang Enli – in its stable.
“Having a gallery in Hong Kong means it will make a lot of sense to look closer at Chinese artists, including ones in Hong Kong, who we can add to our programme,” Payot says.