What will be the next Asian capital of the art market? A Q&A with Hong Kong collector Alan Lo on the direction of smart money

Asia has long been one of the most lucrative art markets in the world. For years, the art world has flocked to Hong Kong, considered the glittering capital of the Asian art market, driven by the principle of “one country, two systems” which has given Hong Kong a degree of freedom in relation to the governance of mainland China. Buyers, sellers and artists have used the city as a base of operations for years to expand into the wider East and South Asian market.

However, continued coronavirus restrictions in the region, as well as shifts in the political and economic landscape, particularly as Beijing tightens its grip on Hong Kong, have caused many traders to look elsewhere in Asia for places to trade. business. Growing art hubs in Seoul, Tokyo and Singapore suggest an increasingly decentralized Asian art market.

But those who remain in Hong Kong, like collector Alan Lo, are adamant that “Hong Kong is not over”. One of the city’s most enthusiastic supporters of the arts, Lo also played a major role in introducing high-end casual western dining to Hong Kong and is a senior advisor to the food and beverage operator based in Hong Kong, JIA Group.

Yet over the past two years, all eyes have turned to the rise of South Korea’s art market, which in the first half of 2022 reportedly grossed around 532.9 billion won (407.6 million dollars), according to a report by the Korean Arts Management Service. The country held six art fairs in the first six months of 2022, indicating strong growth. A key factor in South Korea’s potential is its favorable tax code: the country does not charge import taxes on art or sales tax on any item costing less than ₩60,000,000 (about ₩51,000). $).

Japan is another Asian country with a booming market. In July 2023, cultural entrepreneur Magnus Renfrew’s Art Assembly Group will launch Tokyo Gendai, potentially rivaling the annual Art Week Tokyo, launched in November 2021 in partnership with Art Basel. Others see great potential in Singapore.

According to Lo, as Hong Kong continues to play a prominent role in the Asian art market, it’s healthy to see other Asian cities fostering their own art scenes through more art fairs and galleries.

HONG KONG, CHINA – 2022/07/24: Pedestrians stand along the Victoria Harbor promenade in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong. (Photo by Chan Long Hei/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Is the Hong Kong art market over?

Hong Kong has been through a lot in the past two and a half to three years. Overall he has endured hardship due to the pandemic, but also politically he has suffered since the protests that started in the middle of 2019. It was a very difficult time, to say the least. Obviously, with the borders closed for so long – there is still a mandatory seven-day quarantine imposed to enter the city – it has been an extremely difficult time for the market.

I don’t think Hong Kong is over. In terms of positioning, I think Hong Kong is difficult to replace. That said, he has a lot of work to do to revive himself. We have been cut off from the rest of the world for two or three years. In terms of being a freeport and having a very comprehensive arts ecosystem with auctions, the gallery scene, with the base of collectors and patrons, with non-profit organizations, M+ and museums world-class, it’s hard to find anywhere else in Asia that quite matches this scene. Again, there is a lot of work to do when we reopen.

How has China’s new national security law affected the art scene in Hong Kong?

Politically, yes, with the national security law, it changes the international perception of the city, but I also think it shows more clearly that we are part of China. Just accept this fact. Basic day-to-day freedoms have not changed. Much of Hong Kong’s national security law [officially the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region]is to protect the sovereignty [of China]. Whether [the art] does not address sensitive topics like independence, it seems that the artists are doing well. It’s just my own interpretation. The law is so new. It has only been in practice for less than two years, so it is difficult to give a definitive reading of the situation. Time will tell us.

It is difficult to assess the situation in Hong Kong as we see almost no visitors. It’s been open now for about nine months. There is very little interaction with the outside world. I hope things will go in the right direction especially with our reopening and with the new government in place now. We see the light at the end of the tunnel.

What do you think of the many new art fairs starting in Seoul and Tokyo? How does this change the landscape of the Asian art market?

I think it is useful to see more cities in Asia having art fairs. I don’t think this is a case of just one city taking over most of the Asian art scene. Look at Europe or the United States, it’s not just one city that does everything. As Hong Kong continues to have the role of hosting Art Basel, the world’s first premier art fair, I think it’s good to see other cities hosting new art fairs, which makes the whole much more interesting region for contemporary art. There are tons of collectors in Asia. Don’t forget you have Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.

The sun rises above the Seoul city skyline early on December 16, 2020. (Photo by Ed JONES/AFP) (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

Now everyone is looking to the Seoul market, is it viable? Are there other financial aspects that could make it more favorable than other potential Asian hubs?

Seoul has a good history of patronage and collecting. Everyone is just happy to go to Seoul. It’s the combination of everything: pop culture, food, fashion and art. It’s a very exciting city right now that has really become the place to be in Asia. There also seems to be a good ecosystem with galleries, non-profit spaces, museums and foundations. Language, however, is a big hurdle, so its market is increasingly catering to local Koreans. People are fascinated by culture, including K-Pop, so [they] you don’t mind traveling to Seoul.

What about the new fair in Japan that Magnus Renfew is launching? What is Tokyo’s potential?

Like Korea, Japan has a rich history of patronage and art collecting. It is natural for a new art fair to take root. I’m surprised more isn’t happening in Japan. But having said that, even though Japan is one of my favorite countries, maybe because of the language or cultural barrier, Japan is also quite difficult for foreigners to navigate.

What about Singapore, what are the pros and cons of the market there?

Singapore has had a number of attempts in the past to hold art fairs. There was Art Stage a few years ago, which abruptly ended in 2019, and in recent years there has been SEA Focus. Art SG will launch its first edition in 2023. The problem with Singapore is that it is small and the ecosystem, although it includes national galleries and the Singapore Museum, is driven by a top-down government approach. It lacks non-profit organizations and spaces and foundations run by artists and curators. Having said that, I think Singapore has changed a lot and has attracted a lot of wealth and people. There’s this influx of wealthy individuals – the combination of crypto and tech billionaires. The city is growing and its audience is changing. We used to think that Singapore was Hong Kong’s little cousin, but when you think about it, there are quite a few 5.6 million people living in Singapore, which is a lot when Hong Kong has 7.5 million. . I’m very excited about Singapore, and it could become one of the major regional art centers for Asia. Singapore doesn’t have a free port, which is a downside, and it would be nice to see more collectors here.

People relax along Singapore’s Marina Bay area waterfront with the skyline of the central business district in the background, Singapore, Friday, November 19, 2021. (Photo by Joseph Nair/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Many people and companies have migrated or doubled their Asian business to Singapore over the past two years – from LVMH to Sotheby’s – in part due to its relatively more relaxed covid restrictions. Do you think these people will stay there or reverse course once restrictions ease at home? Why?

I think Singapore is becoming a major hub in Asia for ultra high net worth from all over the world. The government’s post-covid policy is also making it easier to travel in and out of the city-state, which many people are taking advantage of lately in light of restrictions in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. I think this is a permanent change! Hong Kong will continue to thrive when the borders open fully, no doubt, but Singapore is well placed to attract a lot of wealth and talent.

What about Australia?

I feel geographically distant from Australia, but it’s a great country with, I’m sure, a rich history of collecting and a share of world-class museums and institutions. Australia has enough of a market on its own, but I guess the question is that when you’re trying to run an international fair, the location, the context and the audience you’re addressing is the big question when it comes to the ‘Australia.

Given the parameters of our conversation, if you had to guess which city in Asia we will all be focusing on in five years, which one would it be and why?

I think Hong Kong will rebound very quickly when the border reopens. With M+, which opened nine months ago, Hong Kong is positioned to rival New York and London for the top spot in the world.

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