Gallerist Pearl Lam on Why the West’s Expansion Into Asia’s Art Scene Might Not Be Entirely Healthy

“ a western concept,” says Lam. “People say it’s an international language. Is it really universal, or is it just another form of colonization?”

Pearl Lam in front of The River Full in Red by artist Zhu Jinshi (The River Full in Red, 2006, Oil on canvas, 290 x 400 cm) Photo Credit: Courtesy of Julian de Hauteclocque Howe
Pearl Lam in front of The River Full in Red by artist Zhu Jinshi. Courtesy of Julian de Hauteclocque Howe.

While the modern international art world that has risen up over the past century or so has largely been dominated by Europe and North America, today it is impossible to conceive of this global field without including Asia’s art community as well. Western dealers have certainly taken note, with a striking number of galleries and auction houses expanding to the region over the last several years (including six this year alone), while fairs such as Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Stage Singapore boast international lineups and increasingly competitive attendance numbers. With so much growth, we tend to think that the gap between the art world of the West and that of the East has all but closed. But is that really the case, or is that just a Western misconception?

Pearl Lam, a powerhouse gallerist who has been instrumental in putting Asian art on the international map, tends to think the latter. In her mind, Asia’s art world still has a lot of catching up to do.

Born in Hong Kong, the daughter of a real estate magnate, Lam decided at a young age that she would forgo the family business in pursuit of her real passions: art and design. Today, Lam operates galleries in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore, and is a trustee and co-founder of the China Art Foundation, which aims to foster global interest in contemporary Chinese art. She’s also one of the most instantly recognizable dealers in the world—a diminutive, magenta-haired woman whose vibrant personality is often matched by the vibrancy of her head-turningly colorful attire.

Lam recently spoke with artnet News about her personal history, the current state of the Asian art world, and the role of an influential museum in an art-world ecosystem.


How did you get started in the art world?

I began by producing pop-up shops in Hong Kong in the ‘90s, but there wasn’t an understanding of what I was doing. Around the same time, I was traveling to Shanghai and meeting artists there. In 1993 there wasn’t a market, so they were just trying to make art for its own sake. Some of them were very poor; they didn’t even have a permanent job. For me, meeting them and learning about Chinese culture turned out to be very rewarding. Around 2003 I decided I wanted to do something about the lack of attention around the Chinese art scene, so when I returned I started working with the museum, mounting shows there. Eventually, I knew I needed a gallery space of my own in China. I opened a design gallery in Shanghai in 2005, and then a fine-art gallery there a year later.

In the 2000s I realized that contemporary Chinese art was defined by the Western perception of it. The reason I wanted to open a gallery was because there were so many different threads of art movements there. I wanted to provide a platform to show different forms and movements.

What were the art scenes in Shanghai and Hong Kong like when you opened your first galleries there, and how have they changed since then?

They had just started the process of becoming what they are now. Around 2005 or 2006—that’s when people started recognizing the Chinese art world. There were a lot of Westerners coming in. Museums were visiting China and bringing groups of patrons and trustees to visit artists and see new works. Chinese art—and Asian art in general—was becoming internationalized.

Today, many Asian collectors own Asian art. But back then there wasn’t really a market of local people collecting. It wasn’t until 2011, when the government began endorsing contemporary art, that locals started collecting. In 2008 there were even art indices that would say which artists were going up and which artists were going down.

Around 2010 and ‘11 you could sense that big enterprises were getting interested in art—that’s when the money started coming in. All these collectors and investors were approaching auction houses, saying, “I don’t really know much about art, so show me your catalog and tell me what is the most expensive.” Then they’d go in and the look at it and simply choose to purchase the art with the highest price tag. Back then, a lot of people just bought art blindly—they wouldn’t even open the crate, and the next day you would find it at the auction house. It was crazy! We had to be careful in choosing collectors to sell to.

Of course, things have changed since then. Around two years ago, a younger generation of collectors started righting the wrongs of that first wave of buyers. Now, when they collect they don’t sell—they keep it. It’s about ego, it’s about the social circle, it’s fashionable, it’s hot.

Most art scenes in the West have traditionally grown slowly over long periods of time, starting with grassroots communities of artists and evolving from there to include institutions and galleries. In other words, the money doesn’t come until much later. However, the art scenes in Asia have developed with a strong focus on the market. Why do you think that is?

You have to understand that auction houses have been there for over 30 to 40 years, whereas galleries are just now becoming permanent fixtures—we didn’t have prominent galleries until five or six years ago. Being an art collector is very much in the Chinese breadth, but after all of the political turmoil the country experienced in the late 20th century, art became an afterthought. China was deprived; commercially there was an embargo by America, and then Mao Zedong died. Some places still don’t have enough food or shelter. In China, when we look at art, we do it because it provides intellectual and spiritual satisfaction. You have to have a vibrant and a healthy economy before you can have a strong art scene or market. Most of these Asian countries, it took them a long time before they reached that state. Investment is an essential part of the equation—when you first start having money, you want that money to turn into gold.

Auction houses have been the voice of the art scene because there is no great museum to fulfill that role. In the West, museums have been integral in shaping the culture, however, in China there is no great museum influential enough to be the voice. Up until now, most of the countries in Asia have not put real money toward the museums. China, in particular—it has many museums, but none of them have a big enough budget to buy good pieces or build a reputable exhibition program.

In recent years, there’s been a major influx of galleries into several major cities in Asia, most notably Hong Kong. Do you think that influx is healthy?

It is and it isn’t. All these galleries that are opening throughout Asia are not focusing on the cities in which they exist; they’re still looking at the Western hemisphere. I think it’s good to bring in different cultures and embrace diversity, and we always knew that we needed to sell art outside our city to remain commercially viable. But at the same time, does that come at the expense of supporting the identity of these places and the art that comes from them?

I think we’re still learning from it. The Asian market is still developing. New collectors are popping up every day—they might not be buying the most expensive artworks, but they are cultivating a style, and in a few years they will develop more diverse tastes. It’s a process.

Hong Kong has emerged as the epicenter of the Asian art world. Why do you think that is?

I think it happened because there is no censorship in Hong Kong. And the infrastructure is great because there is no expenditure tax, and no import duty tax—it’s easier when you’re started out.

Do you think that Western galleries that are moving to Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia have to change the way they do business or add to their roster to succeed?

I think that with every business when you got to a new place, you have to adapt to the local tradition. Anybody from Asia will understand that the system of the West may not work.

Can you expand on that? I’ve read you say things like that before, such as, “We can’t use Western contemporary art theory to judge the East.” What do you mean?

It’s simple. I think every artist in China has read about Western theories of art. However, while we in the art world in Asia are against colonization, we are also—in a way—allowing ourselves to be colonized because we don’t write theory. Theory, as we know it, is a Western concept. People say it’s an “international language.” Why would we call it that? Is it really universal, or is it just another form of colonization? We’re always talking about diversity, but actually, our art culture is not that diverse. It’s just based on a standardized Western approach. The West favors artists who talk about social issues and politics and work in conceptual art.

It’s interesting. On one hand, the growth of the Asian art market and the influx of galleries is exciting, but on the other, it’s deeply problematic.

To me, the worst thing is that we’re inviting it. No one is forcing us. Every artist wants to have institutional success and international recognition, but in order to get that they have to cater to the Western approach. Until we have really important, influential museums in Asia that can become the voice of the culture, we don’t stand a chance. It’s a very hard obstacle to overcome.

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