Scene and not heard

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Can an association of art galleries realise its ambitious, idealistic visions? Edmund Lee has his fingers crossed.


Karin Weber and Henrietta Tsui are nothing if not optimistic about the constructive impacts the newly formed Hong Kong Art Gallery Association should have on the industry. The idea of a committee of galleries has been floating around for more than a decade among Weber and her peers – although it’s only at a dinner she organised last year, when she received the unequivocal support of Tsui, that the member-based non-profit organisation really took shape. “It was like a dream. I’m just like this crazy person,” quips Tsui at our interview in mid-October, “whereas Karin is the person with wisdom.” To which Weber humbly replies: “No, I’m only the oldest.”

Amiable though the two gallery owners – respectively of Karin Weber Gallery and Galerie Ora-Ora – and HKAGA co-presidents may be, it remains to be seen if this refreshingly concerted attempt at an industry-wide collaboration will find its full support in every one of its nearly 60 founding members, covering a diversity of local and international galleries that are essentially competitors with a myriad of conflicting interests. The first objective of the HKAGA, which is stated as ‘providing one voice to its members’, will prove to be quite a feat for its founders – if, indeed, the board can find regular agreement between the likes of Gagosian and White Cube and some of their much smaller Hong Kong counterparts.

So do Weber and Tsui really think that ‘one voice’ – a singular voice – will be the answer to their many pursuits? “My dear Edmund,” the former chuckles. “I think that is quite obvious! I mean, we’ve already got one gallery member who made a very poignant comment: look at Hollywood Road. Hollywood Road is a brand name known anywhere in the world for antiques and for art galleries, [but] if you look [at it now], it’s bars and restaurants. There’re three lonely galleries and everybody else has been squeezed out because of exuberant rent. So this member wants to have a dedicated space – a building – for art galleries. The ideal situation would be the [former Central] Police Station. That would be fantastic.”

Tsui adds: “We don’t know whether we’re actually going to get a building but we really need to be heard – because everybody knows but nobody is telling the government loudly and clearly that Hollywood Road galleries are [becoming extinct]. We need an area where we can consolidate because I’ve got a space in Kwai Chung, some have got [spaces] in Island East, Fo Tan and Aberdeen… so eventually people get really lost. We need a dedicated area where everyone agrees that galleries should be growing there – then we’ll work hard to get it and make it vibrant.”

After it was decided that an association would be the best way to find a cohesive voice for the industry, according to Weber and Tsui, informal consultations were conducted among gallery owners with the last one, held around February this year, attended by almost 30 gallerists. “We started out with chairs like this,” Tsui recalls, gesturing an arrangement in rows, “and we ended up in a big circle. That was very moving.” The articles of association have since been drafted and finalised, and the association itself was formally incorporated on August 21. The elected board – which comprises also of Katie de Tilly of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Adriana Alvarez-Nichol of Puerta Roja, Mark Saunderson of Fabrik Gallery, Angela Li of Contemporary by Angela Li, and Sarah Gordon of Koru Contemporary Art – will serve its term until September next year, when a new board will be nominated and voted.

“We want to be an inclusive organisation,” says Tsui of the association’s membership system, which grants full voting rights to Hong Kong-based galleries with at least two consecutive years of operating experience anywhere in the world upon entry, and non-voting associate memberships to those galleries which were opened in the past two years. “Some gallerists were quite scared of the big overseas galleries coming in and perhaps elbowing the smaller galleries aside,” says Weber. “But these smaller, Hong Kong-based galleries have a lot of local experience and the big overseas galleries can learn from us to a certain extent.” Tsui adds: “While they want to learn from us [on] how to tap Asian customers, we want to learn from them [about] how to become professional and how to draft contracts. There’ll be a lot of communication among members.”

Apart from ‘deepening market knowledge and best practices’ among its members through the organisation of talks, seminars and social gathering events, Weber expects the association to give Hong Kong galleries a new-found bargaining power at their overseas presentations. “We’ll be in a stronger position to negotiate about shipping rates, about packing and about insurance.” Tsui is in agreement, citing the idea of forming a ‘Hong Kong pavilion’ at overseas art fairs. “Fundamentally, any industry that calls itself an industry should be represented,” she says. “Chicken farmers have an association and pig farmers do too. If the local veterans are not protected and if there’s no platform for the international and local galleries to mix and learn from each other, eventually it’s very likely that some galleries representing the local scene will be gone.”

Tsui continues: “I personally think that for the gallery industry, the age of working individually has ended. For galleries to succeed in promoting artists worldwide, it’s key that they work together and collaborate. We have a very good opportunity now.” Adds Weber: “We’re so full of plans of what we want to do and achieve. We’re raring to go.”

The Hong Kong Art Gallery Association officially launches on Wed Oct 24. For updates, visit hk-aga.org.

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