Alongside Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong, ShanghArt in Shanghai and Red Gate Gallery in Beijing, Schoeni Art Gallery pioneered the promotion of Chinese contemporary art to an international art market in the 1990s. The exhibition is a celebration of the artists that Nicole and her late father Manfred Schoeni have worked with over the years, and its staging was a substantial undertaking.
So, job done, how are you feeling?
It’s been a really big high, but at some point you have to crash down. We’ve been working really hard towards it, and we’ve had about 20 artists to entertain. . .
Was that a pleasure or a bit of a chore?
It was a pleasure and a chore, because, you know, they’re artists. They want your attention, they like being spoilt, they have high expectations, so you want to make sure they’re happy, enjoying themselves, meeting people. And a lot of them are also quite shy, especially the young ones!
Are they mainly China-based?
We do have Hong Kong artists in the exhibition, but I’d say 80 percent of the show was Chinese. By tradition our niche has always been Chinese contemporary art, since my father fell in love with it in the 1980s. Having said that, we are opening up avenues to work with Hong Kong artists. Both I and my mother are Hong Kongese, the gallery has been based here for 20 years, and there is a lot of talent here, so we’re becoming much more conscious about working with local artists and the local community.
You must travel to Beijing on a regular basis to see your artists—would you ever consider opening a space there?
We had a preview of this show in Beijing in September, and we’ll continue to do pop-ups there. Never say never. I see Beijing as the creative hub, but evidence shows that Hong Kong is more of a commercial hub at the moment, though that may change when M+ opens in West Kowloon. A lot of galleries are moving here from Beijing and not vice versa. The market is in Hong Kong, so it makes sense for us to stay here. However, we are still looking to do more events in China. For instance, I’m currently looking for a partner to set up a competition for young artists there.
Do you feel positive about the Hong Kong art scene at the moment?
Definitely! Twenty years ago there were just a handful of galleries pushing the scene forward—my father, Hanart, Plum Blossoms and Alisan. Today there are over 80. Also, everyone is coming here—Gagosian, Perrotin, White Cube—and there are others on the way. I think it’s a tribute and also proof that Hong Kong is the art hub of Asia. Of course now the scene is more competitive, but it just means that our goals should be set higher—we are now competing on a stage with international standards. And it’s refreshing when exhibitions from overseas come to Hong Kong. They allow the public to see a wider range of work, and artists can benefit from experiencing this diversity too.
And what could the government do to better support the arts?
We [Schoeni Art Gallery] are less affected by this, but the major difficulty for many commercial galleries is rent. One thing that is lacking [from the government’s arts funding policy] is general support and subsidies on that count. There are various projects like the Central Police Station conversion on Hollywood Road, but there’s always that worry with such projects in Hong Kong that money will talk.
I’m very emotional about my job. I started when I was 23. My approach is based on intuition, and I tend to get over-enthusiastic, which means a lot of exhibitions and a lot of work for my team. Next year I’m aiming to cut down on the number of exhibitions, so we can spend more time improving on their quality. And of course we have our new project space in Chancery Lane for younger artists. Lian Jian, who will have an exhibition in our main space, will also have the project space to do whatever he wants with, however crazy, which should be interesting.
Are there any other young artists that you’re excited by?
Yang Yongliang—he’s a young artist from Shanghai in his early 30s. He uses his knowledge of traditional Chinese landscape painting in a contemporary manner. For instance, his work addresses land development—what is sacrificed in these projects, and whether the end result is worthwhile—and those sorts of problems don’t just apply to cities in China but to those worldwide.
Yang has also traveled the world, which I think is essential experience for an artist. A lot of artists in China who don’t travel much tend to stay in their own bubble. That can be a dangerous—you can’t evolve if you’re just creating art in one place, and particularly if you’re too content or complacent with the Chinese market.
Chen Fei is another favourite of mine—he did that naughty self-portrait of himself over there. He’s a great example of an artist who doesn’t care what people think, a great narcissist, very confident, very much focused on himself as an individual.