Poly Group;HK’s burgeoning art consulting industry

Article by Skate’s Art on China’s Poly Culture Group

 Beijing  |  30 July 2015  |  AMA  |    |  

In an article on the general state of the art market, Skate’s makes a note on the Chinese market, focusing particularly on the state group Poly Culture Group.

Poly Culture Group is the third largest auction house on a global scale in terms of transaction volume. It operates in three sectors; art sales being its primary domain. Nevertheless, the deceleration of the Chinese economy and speculation against the Chinese art market has resulted in diminished performance of the group in this segment. In 2014, while Poly Culture has recorded an overall growth in its revenues of 12%, revenues generated by sales only increased by 4%. To counter this trend, Xu Niansha was nominated as Chairman of the group, bringing important experience gained through the management of tourism and entertainment. Additionall, Poly Culture has conducted a massive political investment: in 2014, the group invested nearly $500 million in the Chinese art market, exclusively purchasing Chinese art.

Poly Culture is a company affiliated with the Chinese government. It oversees three sectors: art sales, theatre, and the cinema. The two latter sectors have seen important growth over the course of 2014 (37 and 17%, respectively).

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Amanda Sheppard speaks to the city’s art consultants, old and new, about the burgeoning consulting industry and its future. Additional reporting by Jasmine Chan

To those outside the field, art consultancy looks to be relatively straightforward. The consultant meets with a client (either private or corporate), they are given a brief and then select artworks to meet the needs of the patron. Yet to reduce the field to such a conceptualisation would not only be reductive, but also wrong. Art consultancy as an industry is one that is inherently fluid. It’s not uncommon for consultants to leave their positions to become art dealers, and vice versa. Consequently, it’s a profession difficult to define. With this in mind, it’s no wonder the term is often confused with associated fields. So we ask the industry insiders themselves: what is art consultancy?

“An art consultant looks after the art, whatever form it takes – a painting, sculpture, video installation, photographic study. All of those things involving an artist,” says Sarah Gordon, director of Canvas Art Consultants. As well as Hong Kong, the international consultancy firm also maintains offices in the United States, Singapore and Australia, servicing private and corporate clients, including five-star hotels. Gordon tells us that it is precisely the adaptability we spoke of earlier that defines an art consultant. “You need to be able to cross over. You need to be able to talk to an artist about their work. You need to know your way around a spreadsheet. You need to have some creative flair, have seen a lot of art, and you need to understand how to discuss art.”


Residential project by Canvas Art Consultants
Image: Zammy Miqdal & Tony Lai

Gordon’s musings are echoed by Ka Kee Pyne, a consultant turned gallerist. For Pyne, the position of consultant requires ‘across-the-board knowledge of the art market, the art mediums, and the nature of a piece in its potential environment, framing, installation and conservation’. Pyne was a consultant with Sandra Walters Consultancy and is now preparing to open her own gallery in Sai Ying Pun, Ka Kee Gallery of Objects, which hosts its inaugural exhibition in September.

Art consultancy is often conflated with interior design, but we are told that this should not be the case. Pennie Leung of the newly founded Cat Street Consultancy explains that consultants do not furnish a space. Rather, they should be seen to ‘provide a service for interior and exterior spaces by uplifting the environment with complimentary art pieces’. Explaining the relationship between the two, Gordon quotes Michael Bedner, founder of interior design firm Hirsch Bedner Associates: “interior design is like the dress; artwork is like the jewellery,” he says.

The task of outlining and iterating your tastes and commissioning a consultant may be daunting to a first-time buyer. As such, the line between creating and defining taste can be a thin one, but it is most certainly one that is tread carefully. Is it possible to overstep the mark? According to Pyne, “Taste has to be acquired, learned or informed. It is very personal and subjective. I don’t see how one can create taste if there is an essential lacking of artistic instinct.” Rather than fashioning a style out of thin air, Gordon tells us, the role of a consultant is to bridge the gap between collectors and creators.


Sculpture by Nathalie Decoster – project by Sandra Walters Art Consultancy 

The art market is thriving in Hong Kong. Not only is it one that is financially viable and profitable, but it is also one that harbours a strong creative output. Gordon cites an impressive balance in the presence of big named international galleries and local galleries. She further   alludes to the collaborative nature of the galleries through the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association, and the continued development of the M+ museum, which is scheduled for completion in 2019.

The professionals respond almost as if in unison on one point – art is big business in Hong Kong. Despite attendance at this year’s Art Basel having been lower than the last, Pyne says sales were strong. The fairs promote the awareness of art and living in the city, she says. “The fairs [Art Basel and Art Central] saw more new collectors and young people buying art. This is a positive trend.” Hong Kong is no longer seen as a growing art scene – it’s well and truly alive and kicking. But while art buying is on the up, we can’t help but question whether this is a trend impacting wider society or existent collectors. When the question is posed to Gordon, she responds that, simply put, everybody buys art. “It’s right across the spectrum, from Joe Schmo looking to brighten up his apartment to serious collectors.” 

This is not to say that the success of a gallery is guaranteed. Frankly speaking, you’ve got to offer what people want. As a well-established gallery in Hong Kong, Leung and the Cat Street Gallery are looking to do that. The gallery focuses on international contemporary art, and showcases a wide range of emerging and established artists. This includes the likes of social media artist Murad Osmann, who became an internet sensation with his #FollowMeTo series, featuring girlfriend Natalia Zakharova leading Osmann and his camera around the world.


Residential project by Cat Street Consultancy
Image via Architecture Limited

Galleries going in-house and establishing their own consultancy firms is a growing, though by no means new, trend. The most recent example of this is the Cat Street Gallery and the newly affiliated Cat Street Consultancy. Director Pennie Leung explains, “Having the expertise and existing relationships with artists and clients seemed like the perfect addition to the gallery.” The newly established consultancy will service corporate clients both in Hong Kong and abroad, as well as private clients and those in the hospitality industry. When asked about the consultancy’s key tenets, Leung explains that they ‘aspire to offer a fresh perspective for each and every project to create truly inspirational spaces and environments with art’.

Are all galleries diversifying as a result of choice, or are some acting out of financial necessity? Is the power of the gallery becoming less obvious? Having served as a consultant and now a gallerist, Pyne is in a unique position to comment. “[Many galleries] are moving vertically inside the buildings in Central or out to Wong Chuk Hang. The diminishing visibility of galleries on the traditional strip along Hollywood Road and Wyndham Street may affect operators, but they are combating this by relocating together.” Pyne cites Soho 189 and South Island Art Hub as successful initiatives. 

Ultimately, the role of the consultant is to translate the vision of the patron into a physical, artistic presence, whether they bea corporation or a private client. As a reputable art hub in its own right, the industry in Hong Kong is likely to continue to grow and thrive, and to appear on the radar of many a Hongkonger, Joe Schmo or otherwise.

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