I n 1973, Hong Kong was still a British colony, its borders closed to mainland China. Waves of refugees poured in from regions such as war-torn Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Planes roared low over cramped quarters housing myriad small industries. Fifty years on, Hong Kong is an international centre for shipping and finance, with a skyline that glitters with glass skyscrapers. Across the water in Kowloon stands the imposing, ceramic-tiled façade of the newly opened M+ Museum, which houses a world-class collection of Chinese and international contemporary and Modern art.
Sotheby’s has been present throughout this reinvention. In 1973, it made history as the first international auction house in Asia by establishing an office and holding inaugural auctions in Hong Kong. Its first-day sales of Chinese works of art made a then-record $2.3 million, mainly driven by Japanese buyers. (Sotheby’s had considered opening in Japan, which had undergone a post-war economic transformation, but found the import and export of art mired in red tape.) A New York Times article described the sale as a great success in a territory where, it disparagingly said, “no-one [had] ever thought of starting an art museum”.
Now, Hong Kong is at the heart of Asia’s radically transformed culture scene. In the 50 years since Sotheby’s arrived, the region has developed its own diverse, distinctive arts scene – one which is now also influencing the West.
Few regions have changed as dramatically as Asia in modern times. In 1972, Japan was the world’s second-largest economy, following the ‘Japanese economic miracle’ that began in 1945. The rise of Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong started later, in the 1960s, driven by rapid industrialisation and export-friendly policies. Reforms at the end of the 1970s kickstarted what would become the inexorable rise of China as a world economic power. Hong Kong, as an established international business centre, has benefited most from this growth.
“Hong Kong has been a significant bridge for eastern and western cultures for more than a century,” says Felix Kwok, Sotheby’s head of modern art, Asia. “It has the advantages of a simple tax system and financial infrastructure. These assets greatly aided it to become the most important international auction platform.”
Visitors, not locals, were the initial impetus to Hong Kong’s art market, says critic and former art dealer John Batten. “It’s forgotten now how Hong Kong’s rise as an art market really started with Southeast Asians holidaying there. Everyone loved visiting from Indonesia and the Philippines with extended families for the [spring] auctions,” he remembers. They were soon followed by collectors of Chinese art, many of whom had emigrated from the mainland and, later on, the Japanese.
“Visitors, not locals, were the initial impetus to Hong Kong's Art Market”
Now, Hong Kong is a truly international art marketplace. Last year’s autumn sale series at Sotheby’s Hong Kong – which features contemporary art, Chinese works of art, luxury objects, Chinese paintings and more – made HK$3.5 billion ($446 million). The territory, which became independent of the UK in 1997, is now part of the second-largest art market in the world.
The region’s economic transformation has been a jagged upheaval, characterised by conflict and protest – much of it captured by Asian artists. Southeast Asian artists began to nurture new postcolonial identities during the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. In 1974, Indonesia launched one of the earliest biennials in the region, which would evolve into today’s Jakarta Biennale. Meanwhile, in Singapore artists such as Cheo Chai-Hiang, Tan Teng Kee and Tang Da Wu started creating more overtly political and conceptual artworks.
But real transformation happened in the 1980s. “This was an important decade in the development of contemporary art in Asia, because of fundamental changes in global, political and ideological conditions,” says Anthony Yung, a researcher for Asia Art Archive. Since its establishment in 2000, the archive has led the scholarship and documentation of Asian art history.
Reform and reopening up to the west in China reverberated throughout Asia from the late 1970s. By the early 1980s, this contributed to new optimism and activism. “In mainland China, the open and reform policy created a social spirit of experimentalism and idealism,” Yung says. Embedded with this avant-garde were the young Stars Art Group. Active until 1983, the group’s 12 members included Huang Rui, Zhao Gang and a young Ai Weiwei. Beijing’s conceptual artists were clustering into communities such as the Old Summer Palace from the 1980s, moving in the 1990s to Songzhuang, still active, and East Village, which cultivated a performance art movement that included Ma Liuming and Zhang Huan.
Meanwhile, in the west, attitudes to non-western art were changing. In 1989, the landmark exhibition Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou posed a challenge to European and American prejudices about the developing world. The exhibition also made a major contribution to raising awareness of Asian art.
Asian artists were increasingly garnering exposure, recognition and legitimisation on the international biennale circuit, which expanded rapidly in the 1990s. “Another major shift in contemporary Asian art was the emergence of large-scale periodic exhibitions,” says Yung. The Taipei Biennial was founded in 1992, the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in 1993, the Gwangju (1995), Shanghai (1996) and Busan (1998) biennales, then the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale (1999), Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial (2000) and Guangzhou Triennial (2002).
“Japanese and Korean artists had paths to legitimacy early on”
“These exhibitions were a result of the popularisation of contemporary art, along with the rapid economic development in major Asian cities,” says Yung. “Governments also started to support contemporary art and periodic exhibitions as a way to brand their cities and countries. These shows provided invaluable opportunities for Asian artists and art professionals to exchange and become part of the globalised art world network.”
Museums Make Their Mark
Perhaps the most potent symbol of Asia’s artistic growth during this period are its museums. Early on at the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art, and National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA), which opened in 1952 and 1969 respectively, Japanese and Korean artists had paths to legitimacy. These paved the way for successive generations, from the Mono-ha and Dansaekhwa schools to contemporary stars such as Chim↑Pom and Lee Bul. In Korea, living artists gained extra prominence after the MMCA moved from its small exhibition space to a larger home in Deoksugung Palace, Seokjojeon, in 1973.
From the 1980s, other governments began investing in institutions to provide platforms for local arts and culture. “In Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s, martial law started to loosen and culture and society also livened up,” says Jun-Jieh Wang, director of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. The museum, which was Taiwan’s first official Modern and contemporary art institution, opened in 1983 amid a whirlwind of cultural activity as the island began to liberalise. “Competitions and international exhibitions turned the museum into an indispensable force in the art scenes,” Wang adds.
Other institutions promoting contemporary art sprung up across the region, including the Hong Kong Arts Centre, established in 1977. The National Gallery of Singapore, meanwhile, has been instrumental in exhibiting Southeast Asian artists since launching in 2015. Early on, says Batten, museums such as the Singapore Art Museum (which organises its Biennale), “made a conscious decision to collect local art and beyond from the region and show that it was good, which gave confidence to the entire scene”.
Today, M+ is doing the same for Hong Kong artists, Batten adds. Launched by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority in 2021, its collection has more than 8,000 objects from 1895 to the present day, with a particular focus on Chinese and local artists and designers. In its short existence it has already become one of the leading museums in Asia, recognised globally, with an exhibition programme featuring artists from across the Asia-Pacific region.
The Importance of Collectors
The significant injection of public funds into museums and biennials across Asia, meanwhile, has been enhanced by the emergence of private collectors and philanthropists. Privately backed museums are still proliferating, especially in China, continuing a boom that began in 2003 with Japan’s Mori Art Museum and Korea’s Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, which opened a year later.
The establishment of MACAN Museum by collector Haryanto Adikoesoemo in 2017, exhibiting international and Indonesian artists such as Melati Suryodarmo and Arahmaiani, shows how important a single collector can be on a regional arts scene. Jasmine Prasetio, Sotheby’s managing director, Southeast Asia, says it “exemplifies the role of a great private, international museum. It was a defining milestone for Indonesia”.
Collectors have also continued to drive the global art market. In 2013, the heavyweight art fair Art Basel launched its third edition – after Basel and Miami – in Hong Kong. “The past decade or so in Asia has been a period of increased globalisation for the art market, prompted by the launch of Art Basel alongside efforts by auction houses and galleries to widen collecting interests in the region,” says chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, Nicolas Chow. “In the past 10 years, participation of collectors from across Asia – whether from Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Japan, Southeast Asia or Korea – has surged in our global sales.”
The development of Asia’s cultural scene has been turbulent and marked by the pace of its extraordinary economic and social change. In 2023, Hong Kong is at another crossroads, with the recent lifting of Covid-19 border controls that severed most of its traffic with both the mainland and the globe, pausing its upward trajectory as Asia’s top art trading platform. Meanwhile, its position at the centre of Asia’s international art world is being challenged by the re-emergence of Japan, South Korea and Singapore, among others, as lively cultural and art market centres.
But this is not a zero-sum game and many believe Hong Kong’s next chapter will be vibrant. Hong Kong has potential to become the Asian centre for contemporary art – not just the market – says Yung, with its “unique arts institutions supported by the civil and private sectors”. Public enthusiasm for contemporary art has risen steadily for two decades. “New art spaces and activities constantly emerge, while university art courses are becoming more and more popular,” Yung continues. “As travel restrictions loosen, we can expect that international artistic, academic and art market activities in Hong Kong will resume, and the role of contemporary art in this city will continue to grow.”
Cover image: Cai Guo-Qiang, City of Flowers in the Sky, 2018. Guo-Qiang has featured in many Asian biennials and triennials, as well as major Chinese institutions.