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Urban Muse

As Hong Kong stakes its global claim among the contemporary art world with such fairs as Art Basel, Mark Ellwood uncovers how a growing local legacy is being uniquely fostered.

After buying a controlling stake in a local fair, the world’s most prestigious collecting showcase, Art Basel, arrived in Hong Kong in 2013. Just three years later, the Asian outpost of this storied European firm was such a phenomenon that its entire ticket run of 70,000 sold out; the local tourism board has even dubbed March ‘art month’ in Basel’s honor. Veteran local consultant Alison Pickett, who works with the likes of Swire Hotels, says she’s seen “many art fairs come and go,” but the arrival of Art Basel Hong Kong (ABHK) has further transformed the city into a cultural hub. “Without the handicap of a previously existing or jaded high-profile art culture,” she adds, “Hong Kong has been very open to new experiences and opinions.”

Yet it isn’t just curiosity that’s turbocharged the Hong Kong fair—there are smart commercial reasons for its overnight success, too. Hong Kong is a free port where taxes are comparatively low: on purchases (sales tax is zero) and on incomes (up to 15 percent, versus as high as 45 percent in China). As such, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have booming showrooms here, while PRC-based auctioneers such as China Guardian and Poly have recently opened satellite spaces in Hong Kong to snag a share of this lucrative new market. Those same tax breaks, alongside Hong Kong’s curious, wealthy local collecting base has lured a slew of blue chip galleries to invest in sites here, too. Art fans can view the likes of Galerie Perrotin from Paris, London’s White Cube, and New York-based Lehmann Maupin.

There are slight differences in the way such galleries operate here compared with other global cities, at least according to Nick Buckley-Wood. Tall and with the perfect diction of a British public schoolboy, the investment banker-turned-gallery director works for Labyrinths gallery. This is one of several spaces owned by Pearl Lam, a Hong Kong native who was one of the country’s first major collectors; she now owns a string of spaces across the People’s Republic of China. “Hong Kongers love convenience, and everything here in Central is walking distance and you can get between buildings without going outside,” Buckley-Wood says on a sweltering summer afternoon from his whitewashed, air-conditioned hideaway. Labyrinths is located on the sixth floor of the Pedder Building in the Central district, one of several such gallery-clusters here. Others include the nearby 50 Connaught Road (home to both Perrotin and White Cube) and the brand new Soho 189 Art Lane complex in Sai Ying Pun (where Lam operates another gallery).

Buckley-Wood points out other local quirks. Rather than seeking out edgy or pioneering locales, which he says is so common elsewhere, Hong Kong galleries sit in smaller spaces grouped together in the city center. These closet-sized showrooms cycle through shows faster and more often, usually re-hanging monthly, offering constant freshness. Other differences from New York or London are less tangible. “At the moment, all the art galleries are very collegial. It’s a smaller art world, so everyone knows each other, and we’re all friends, and invite each other to our gallery dinners.”

The local government, of course, is keen to transform such small beginnings into a globally ranked art scene, and, as such, is investing heavily to achieve that goal. It oversaw the conversion of the former Central Police Station, for example, into an arts and historic complex, named Tai Kwun and conceived by starchitects Herzog & de Meuron. Likewise, it encouraged New York’s Asia Society, largely funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, to open its new outpost here, in the Admiralty area. There’s no greater sign of Hong Kong’s rising arts profile, though, than the West Kowloon Cultural District, a sprawling, new mixed-use development that will occupy almost 100 acres of prime land on Kowloon’s waterfront.

When this vast urban renewal project opens in 2020, replete with its own, direct train link to China, it will be home to nearly 20 separate institutions, from a Cantonese opera house to Tate Modern-esque art museums. The highest profile tenant, though, is undoubtedly M+, the quirkily named contemporary art museum. Swiss collector Uli Sigg has already deeded his collection of more than 1,500 Chinese contemporary works to the museum’s permanent holdings. Erstwhile, MoMA NY staffer Doryun Chong is chief curator of this enormous museum. “Hong Kong is in the midst of redefining its place vis-à-vis mainland China,” he notes of his adoptive city which he dubs “intimately cosmopolitan.” Chong has high hopes for the city-state’s future. “Hong Kong is a place of commerce and an enterprising spirit, but the city lacked infrastructure and institutions that were international. Now, a vibrant art scene is coming together.”