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Hong Kong’s Evolving Art Scene

The Hong Kong Museum of Art is closed for a $120 million (930 million Hong Kong dollars) renovation, which will add glass atriums to the ground floor and rooftop, giving it much-needed light and space.

Just down the waterfront, the long-delayed West Kowloon Cultural District, WKCD, is finally taking shape, as its price tag ticks up toward $4 billion. M+, the district’s $220 million “museum of visual culture,” is planned to open in 2019 as a 40,000-square-meter venue of the same scale as the Tate Modern in London or Museum of Modern Art in New York. The larger district will house not only M+, but a dozen other cultural venues, including a Chinese opera hall, whose silvery exterior is being erected in a vast and dusty construction site.


The M+ museum is currently being built and will open in 2019, the M+ Pavilion, the first permanent structure to be completed in the District, will host exhibitions until M+ opens.

Courtesy West Kowloon Cultural District Authority and M+, Hong Kong

Meanwhile, the real action is happening at art galleries, private museums and other independently run spaces. From Nov. 15 to 27, the fifth annual Hong Kong Art Week will take place, including a charity art walk through 30 local galleries, highlighting how many new spaces have opened in just the past decade.

When the locally run ART HK art fair was founded in 2008, during the depths of the global financial crisis, few foreign galleries were willing to open pricey overseas outposts here. But by 2013, after ART HK was bought out and transformed into Art Basel Hong Kong, international dealers like Gagosian, White Cube, Lehmann Maupin and Pace had set up shop here.

Magnus Renfrew, who was a founder of the local ART HK art fair in 2008, played a crucial role when ART HK was rebranded to become part of the international Art Basel series.

In his new book, “Uncharted Territory: Culture and Commerce in Hong Kong’s Art World” (2017), Mr. Renfrew describes the boom in new art spaces, institutions, galleries and museums. “This opportunity is not once in a generation but once in a century or more — the chance to create in Hong Kong’s image a forward-looking institution of global significance for the 21st century,” he wrote, referring to initiatives like M+.

Another slate of prominent galleries is expected to open in the run-up to the next Art Basel Hong Kong in spring 2018. A half dozen will be housed at H Queen’s, a new glass tower in the Central business district dedicated to art and luxury brands. Future tenants are said to include New York galleries David Zwirner and Pace, as well as Hauser & Wirth from Switzerland, Pearl Lam from Hong Kong and Seoul Auction from South Korea.

Hong Kong’s appeal as a trading post is obvious. While the city is a part of China and a gateway to that lucrative market, it is also a “special region” with a free economy, low taxes, an openly traded currency and a worldly English-speaking work force.

More important for art, controversial or political content can be openly exhibited — whether at high-end auction houses, or in the graffiti and street art seen at demonstrations like Occupy Central in 2014. This freedom is the reason that M+ became the recipient of more than 1,500 works from Uli Sigg, a Swiss diplomat in China who had collected Cultural Revolution artifacts, as well as pieces from artists like Ai Weiwei.


Pro-democracy demonstrators walk past notes pasted on the wall outside Hong Kong’s government offices on the fifth day of the mass civil disobedience campaign Occupy Hong Kong.

Dennis M. Sabangan/European Pressphoto Agency

Photographs from the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown are also in the collection of M+, a Hong Kong government-funded project.

A few days before Henry Tang took on his new role as the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority chairman on Oct. 1, the veteran politician reassured the South China Morning Post he would support artistic freedom and allow museums like M+ to run independently.

However, as Hong Kong marks 20 years since its handover to Chinese from British rule in 1997, there is soul-searching about Hong Kong’s artistic identity. Celebrity international artists may sell works for millions at auction, but local artists still feel unheard and underrepresented.

“Hong Kong is a big art market, but there’s a huge gap between the art market and practices in the community,” said Vivienne Chow, an art critic and founder of the Hong Kong-based Cultural Journalism Campus, which encourages youth to be involved in the art scene. “People need to tell their own stories, and not just among themselves. We need to work harder at reaching out. We’re at a stage of experiment.”

Maria Mok, the Hong Kong Museum of Art’s curator of modern art, said that there has been a curatorial shift from showing “big brand names, blockbusters, mostly from the West,” to including more local talent and “down-to-earth programming.”

“They might not be showing at Art Basel,” Ms. Mok said of younger, local artists. “But they need to be shown somewhere. We need to let them start, let them go, and then watch them grow.”

Ms. Chow and Ms. Mok were speaking at a seminar at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, a privately-funded institution that has done an admirable job of curating beyond its modest size and purview of covering marine history. Currently, it is holding “On Sharks and Humanity,” an exhibit that includes shark-fin-themed installations, to protest the killing of threatened species for Chinese cuisine delicacies.

Across the road, City Hall was holding “Hong Kong Impression,” which tracks 20 years of rapid-fire urban development and design. The exhibit optimistically includes models of the not-quite-completed West Kowloon. And in the front of the building is a Möbius strip, said to symbolize the “city’s infinite possibilities.”

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