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Five People You Should Meet At Art Basel

As Hong Kong cements its place as a global art hub, we introduce the influencers who have helped drive the city’s cultural blossoming

Hong Kong’s history is one of change. As a colonial outpost for the British, it went from supply base to military site to manufacturing powerhouse. Latterly, it’s become one of East Asia’s biggest financial centres.

Now, Hong Kong is evolving again, into an arts and culture nexus that has attracted world-class gallery brands, as well as the travelling cultural circus that is Art Basel. Here we meet five people who’ve witnessed the change first hand and how it has impacted on the city, its people and its global perception.

Mr Alan Lo

Entrepreneur, restaurateur, collector

Hong Kong’s renaissance man seems to be everywhere at once. An architect by training, Mr Alan Lo has parlayed his design knowledge as well as his culinary instincts to co-found one of Hong Kong’s most innovative restaurant empires, the Press Room Group. A keen supporter of the arts, Mr Lo sits on the boards of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, the contemporary art centre Para Site, and Ambassadors of Design. “We need to play catch-up with places such as London, New York and Tokyo,” he says. “We had 60,000 visitors to our deTour design fair last year, which I think shows that the city is ready for arts and culture.”

How has the Hong Kong art scene changed since Art Basel Hong Kong was established?

The real change occurred in 2008, when Art HK opened its inaugural fair. The rebranding of Art HK as Art Basel in 2013 took it to another level. Before that, Hong Kong was simply not on the world cultural map.

What guides your collecting?

The art I collect has to have a certain poetry. It needs to connect to me personally. I have always had an interest in ethnic Asian artists who work abroad, but still maintain a link with home. I guess it resonates with me because I spent many years in America.

What are your hopes and fears for Hong Kong’s art scene?

My hope is that we stay on track to creating an interesting local art scene. A city that relies only on international art fairs just feels a bit faux. The biggest fear is the threat to freedom of speech. Because of the nature of contemporary art, which deals with issues of censorship, it’s important to maintain freedom of expression.

Mr Benedict Ku

DJ, creative director of Buzz Concepts

As a young man-about-town, Hong Kong native Mr Benedict Ku studied to be an architect at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. However, the pull of home proved too strong and he returned to the city and became a DJ and nightlife impresario, forming Buzz Concepts, which is behind some of the coolest spots in town, including the electro club Volar and the lounge bar Lily & Bloom. “Back in architecture school I was kind of the party guy,” he says.

Do you take a keen interest in art?

Oh yes. I went to art school even though I studied architecture. I’ve always loved going to museums, both for the art and the buildings themselves. The sad thing about Hong Kong is that you see a lot of galleries, but there aren’t really any quality museums. Hopefully that will change with M+, Hong Kong’s new museum of visual culture, which is scheduled to open in 2019.

Is there much crossover between the art and nightlife scenes?

I come across a lot of creative people – artists, musicians – and many of them have become very good friends. We collaborate, particularly when Art Basel is on. We’ll commission local artists to create installations in our venues, for example.

How has Hong Kong changed in recent years in terms of the arts?

It’s certainly a lot more exciting. The ex-pat scene is getting interesting. It’s gone beyond finance and banking, and we’re now getting graphic designers, artists, and web designers. They’re joining forces with local talent and generating some real buzz.

Mr Cory Quach

Professor of fashion marketing and management at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Hong Kong

Originally from Texas, Mr Cory Quach studied international relations before moving into fashion as a buyer, product developer and brand developer with DKNY and Urban Outfitters, among others. After completing an MBA he transitioned into academia. “The decision to move to Hong Kong brought together the three things I love most: fashion, education and Asia,” he says.

People talk about fashion and art synonymously, why is that?

Because we’re now seeing fashion as art. Brands are using the art space to promote themselves, with temporary galleries such as the Pradasphere, which came to Hong Kong, as well as the Alexander McQueen and Jean Paul Gaultier museum shows, and so on.

Where do you think Hong Kong stands when it comes to creative pursuits such as art, fashion and photography?

The message I’m getting is that our students come out very technically strong, but there’s a lack of thinking outside the box. SCAD is an American institution, so we tend to work on that more.

Having lived in Hong Kong for two years, what are your impressions of the art scene?

It’s very commercial, of course, but when you look at New York, London or even Beijing you have a broader selection of art. It’s difficult for artists to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Things are changing for the better, however. There’s more support and funding to help young artists.

Mr Ivan Pun

Founder of TS1 art space, Port Autonomy restaurant, Pun + Projects

A pan-Asian entrepreneur, Mr Ivan Pun, the Oxford-educated son of one of Myanmar’s richest tycoons, has created a cultural scene in the former Burmese capital centred on TS1, or Transit Shed 1, a rusting industrial warehouse by a ramshackle jetty on the Yangon River that is part exhibition space and part high-fashion retail venture. Here, a Who’s Who of Myanmar society – ambassadors, hipsters, former political prisoners – mingle among the contemporary art and Proenza Schouler gowns.

Why did you create the TS1 art space in Yangon?

My father is Burmese-Chinese and I’ve been based here for the past four years. The original intention was to establish an inclusive space where the creative community could congregate, with things like experimental music evenings and readings as well as art.

What do you think has driven the art boom in Hong Kong and Asia?

The emergence of Asian collectors has been crucial. Of course, great unifying events such as Art Basel have fostered this interest. It’s sort of like having our own fashion week.

Tell us about your involvement with the Land Foundation, which held a special fundraiser in Hong Kong this year.

The Land Foundation was established by the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. It’s an experimental art and community space in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where artists from around the world gather to create. Rirkrit holds special dinners where he cooks for 100 people or so. I helped out with the dinner in Hong Kong [on 23 March], and we also held an auction run by Paddle8.

Ms Mimi Chun

Gallerist, Blindspot Gallery

Ms Mimi Chun established Blindspot Gallery in 2010, the first major gallery in the Wong Chuk Hang district. She specialises in photography, mounting shows of international photographers such as Messrs Martin Parr and David Boyce, as well as local names including Messrs South Ho Siu Nam and Lai Lon Hin.

Wong Chuk Hang, for those who don’t know, is an up-and-coming creative district in Hong Kong, but that wasn’t always the case, was it?

When we first opened, no one really came to Wong Chuk Hang. There’s a gallery scene in Central, of course, but outside Central, we’ve seen different scenes developing in places such as Wong Chuk Hang, Kwun Tong and Chai Wan because the spaces are bigger and more interesting.

How has the market for photography developed in Hong Kong?

When we started, we had to spend a lot of time and effort explaining the basics of photography, things such as editioning and framing, to collectors. But in the past few years, the market has grown rapidly, thanks to events such as the annual Hong Kong International Photo Festival. We originally called our gallery Blindspot because that was the position of photography in the Hong Kong art market. Now that things have improved so much, we may need to take another look at the name.