Early one autumn evening a crowd swells on a small staircase in Central, fairy lights dangling from the trees above. A drummer, guitarist and pianist — members of young local band RF2 — belted out heartfelt tunes outside Galerie Ora-Ora as people drifted in and out of the venue. “My colleague saw the band busking in Tsim Sha Tsui and literally grabbed them and invited them to play on my street,” says Henrietta Tsui-Leung, the gallery’s founder and co-president of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.
This gathering happened last year as part of the citywide Gallery Walk. It’s one of the many events part of the annual Art Week hosted by the association, a non-profit organisation with members ranging from international giants like Gagosian to longtime local galleries such as Sin Sin Fine Arts.
“I want it to be relaxed and [to] make it accessible, so I like to add street music,” says Tsui-Leung, who is searching for a new band to perform at this year’s event. “The Gallery Walk has never been like a [museum] docent tour – it’s meant to be fun with wine and food.” That philosophy encapsulates the atmosphere of the Hong Kong Art Week, which runs this year from October 27 to November 9, with events and shows in more than 50 galleries. Unlike the austere environment of auction sales, museums and art fairs, the festival offers an alternative platform for contemporary art in the city.
“Auctions and art fairs play a somewhat oversized role in the city’s art market, compared to London and New York,” says Corey Andrew Barr, director of Rossi & Rossi, a London-based gallery, which runs a space in Wong Chuk Hang. “A coalition of galleries helps to balance the scale, so to speak.”
While the association vets galleries to ensure overall quality, they give dealers carte blanche on what to exhibit and how to present it. “The last thing you need is someone telling you whether your art is good or not,” says Tsui-Leung. “We are not a censoring organisation. It’s important that people can show what they want.”
The gallerists on the board of the association also have freedom to experiment. This year, they have invited the veteran performance artist Frog King — known for his outlandish costumes and frog-inspired glasses — to do a live painting on a race car in PMQ, followed a procession through the city streets.
The seed for the citywide event was planted in 2010, when dealers Tsui-Leung and Karin Weber rallied together several galleries to boost sales and to bring people through their doors. After the financial downturn in 2008, they began a weekend art walk called Art Sunday. The association was formed in 2012 and the first full-fledged Art Week was launched.
The association has grown rapidly since then. Though aims to increase footfall in galleries, but its mandate is much broader. “As a unified group, we can do things on a larger scale,” says co-president Katie de Tilly. “Organise better talks, support local artists and fund raise for causes that are important to the association.” She says the association hopes to open people’s eyes to the breadth of the local art scene. “There’s an emphasis on being inclusive.” De Tilly sees galleries as a gateway to Hong Kong’s art scene, including non-profit groups like Para/Site and the upcoming M+ museum. This year’s Art Week will include a two-day symposium at the Asia Society that will explore some of the issues facing art in Hong Kong.
Those types of events are still thin on the ground here, which means that galleries have a particularly important job in educating the public. “Galleries play an essential role in the art ecology of any city, and here in Hong Kong especially so given that the major institutions are in development, or under construction, at the moment,” says Barr. He points to his own gallery’s work as an example: Rossi & Rossi publishes artist monographs with essays by scholars for the benefit of both collectors and the public.
The association hopes to expand the audience for art to younger generations, too. People travelling between galleries during this year’s Art Week will be able to find their way with the help of a new map app developed with iDiscover City Walks. The app offers guided tours that point to interesting spots such as local graffiti walls and cultural heritage sites.
Inside the galleries, several international heavyweights will be on view, ranging from Vietnamese-born Danh Vo at White Cube to Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky at Sundaram Tagore Gallery. At least six spaces will feature local artists, including Blindspot, which is showing rising star Trevor Yeung, and Tsui-Leung’s gallery, which will exhibit Halley Cheng and Hung Keung, among others. Some of the artists will be on hand to chat with visitors during Art Week. “There is something special about meeting an artist seeing their work up front and talking to them – that’s what you get from gallery events. It’s much more personal,” says de Tilly, who is showing acclaimed Thai artist Sutee Kunavichayanont at her gallery, 10 Chancery Lane.
While the association is a non-profit, its members are not – they are commercial ventures with rent to pay. But the board members insist that Art Week has never been about making sales in a time crunch like an art fair; it’s more about planting seeds and drawing new people into the galleries, which may bear fruit in the years to come. Its influence extends both ways, too. This year, the association is launching the Hong Kong Artist Residency Abroad programme, which will use proceeds from the Gallery Walk to provide financial support for local artists wanting to do residencies overseas. “When supporting Hong Kong artists, we have to do something that is sustainable and not a gimmick,” says Tsui-Leung.
There are a number of organisations laying the groundwork to make Hong Kong a nurturing environment for art. A big part of the effort is dispelling the notion that the art world is an intimidating insider’s club. “Building a culture is not just about teaching, it’s about creating a platform, creating opportunities and events for people to bump into each other to get them to start talking,” says Tsui-Leung. “Our objective would be met if there is a good turn out and people enjoy themselves. That’s building a culture.”