It’s obvious from the way Henrietta Tsui speaks that she entered the art world after over a decade climbing the corporate ladder. Forthright and pragmatic, the pioneering gallery owner has as much to say about the economics of Hong Kong’s burgeoning cultural sphere as she does about the skills, concepts and relevance of the artists she represents.
“I still love finance, and the stock market, and property,” she says. But her first love was always art, ever since she attended after-school drawing and painting classes as a child. She had actually dreamed of one day becoming an artist, but her father vetoed that plan owing to fears that it would not be a sustainable way of life. But since leaving the banking sector in her 30s to start her own gallery, life has gone full circle. “I really enjoy what I do, I was always really into art, and art making,” she says. Tsui speaks with a breathless enthusiasm that carries her through the interview on what is a rather nerve-wracking day. It’s the opening of her first show at the highly anticipated H Queen’s, the new art-centric Queen’s Road skyscraper by architect William Lim that has drawn some of the world’s top players in contemporary art.
Bright, hardworking, and ambitious, Tsui has run Galerie Ora-Ora since 2006, after she completed an MBA in entrepreneurship. Over the course of the space’s history, Tsui built up a brand for herself, bringing in popular international artists, which made the gallery stand out in a cultural landscape that was much less diverse than it is today. She also found a knack for picking up emerging local and mainland Chinese artists, who she says she is delighted to have grown up with as a gallery. Among them are mainland ink artists Peng Wei and Zhang Yanzi, who continue to feature in her roster of shows in Hong Kong and abroad. Some of the local artists she represents include Halley Cheng and Hung Keung.
In those early years, Ora-Ora stood on the quaint steps of Shing Hing Street, and it was soon joined by other small galleries. The wave receded when rents rose and the galleries decamped for cheaper neighbourhoods. For Tsui, it didn’t make sense that the galleries would disperse – she thinks that art spaces thrive when they work together and in close proximity. “It started to feel a bit lonely,” she recalls.
That ethos of collaboration over competition drove another venture spearheaded by Tsui: the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association, which she founded with fellow gallerist Karin Weber in 2011. It was a year when more and more commercial art galleries were moving into Hong Kong, including blue chip institutions like Gagosian, Ben Brown Fine Arts and de Sarthe.
Even more big names were added to the roster in 2012, among them White Cube and Galerie Perrotin. When Art Basel bought the upstart Art HK fair in 2013, it was a game changer for Hong Kong’s gallery scene. “When we first started the Gallery Association we wondered whether to make it for just local galleries or have it as broad and inclusive as possible, and we went for the latter option,” she says.
Moving back into a space with a host of peers is a very welcome step for Tsui, though not an easy one. The rent is high and the pressure is on. “Some people think this is a big leap forward for us, [but] we have to watch ourselves, it’s really tight,” she says. Indeed, Ora-Ora is the only Hong Kong gallery that has taken the leap, except for Pearl Lam Galleries, which already boasts multiple outposts and is a veritable empire in its own right. With the likes of David Zwirner joining the H Queen’s flock, alongside Hauser & Wirth and Pace Gallery, the bar for quality, popular and acclaimed works will be rather high.
Does Tsui feel intimidated by her new neighbours? With a banker’s bravado and an entrepreneur’s delight in new challenges, she says no, seeing the arrival of big international players piling into Hong Kong as only a positive thing for the city. She likens the art market to a basket of fruit, with collectors eager to buy a diversity of works. “This isn’t a zero sum game,” she says. But does it worry her that a huge bulk of the art seen by the public are works hanging on walls for the purpose of being sold? Not so much – she does have a business to run after all.
What does disconcert her is an increasing trend of collectors, who are getting younger and more nimble, relying on their own taste and research to buy directly from artists. It’s an activity called “taobao-ing,” meaning to seek after treasure, a moniker shared with the hugely popular Chinese e-commerce company. “That’s a road to destruction,” she says, rather emphatically, adding that part of the service she provides as a gallery owner involves hiring researchers and writers, contributing to Hong Kong’s still-nascent art ecology.
Looking at her watch and egged on by an assistant, Tsui politely asks to end the interview to give time for her to prepare for the preview and opening of Ora-Ora’s show. Called Screaming Books, it focuses on the cross section of art and literature as explored by mainland Chinese and Hong Kong artists. The theme is a testament to the gallery’s designs to promote artists who connect with the literary and cultural traditions of their forebears. Among the works featured is a series of video art pieces by Hong Kong new media artist Hung Keung, displayed on old TVs that welcome the visitor into the space. It’s a bit of an outlier among the many paintings referencing old scholars.
This addition to the show, which is rather intriguing, speaks to Tsui’s increasing interest in new media, after years focusing on ink art. For Keung, who attends the opening looking cheery and gleeful, pleased to see his work on show at H Queen’s — one of the first Hongkongers to be displayed in the building — video art has always given him an outlet for exploring and expressing complex emotions that he struggles to verbalise. One award-winning video piece in the series speaks to that endeavour. Produced in the run up to the 1997 handover, it shows people kissing the air, in an eerie, reversed sequence. Keung made it while he was living in the UK, asking his subjects to “show their love to their country.”
The reversal of the footage reflects his own sense of unease, shared by many of his peers, about the changes awaiting his city. Fast forward 20 years and Keung is reflecting again about more changes to his city and region. And, again, those feelings are complex, though he is not without optimism about the cultural scene here. “This is a great time to be an artist in Hong Kong,” he says. “And no, I’m not threatened by the international galleries coming in. How boring would it be if all the galleries here only showed Hong Kong artists.”