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Taipei's reviving art market seeks to go global

Changes to business environment could help Taiwan's art scene rival regional centers

Ninety Taiwanese and international galleries participated in the the Taipei Dangdai art fair. (Courtesy of Taipei Dangdai)

TAIPEI -- Best known outside Asia for its collection of imperial Chinese art at the National Palace Museum, Taipei's art scene has recently been feeling more contemporary and international.

In March, art lovers flocked to exhibitions of works by Andy Warhol and Banksy, a U.K. street artist, which followed Taipei Dangdai, a new art fair, in late January. The event attracted 90 international and local galleries, and was visited by more than 28,000 people over four days.

Local buyers reportedly spent $2.3 million on a painting by Georg Baselitz, more than $1 million on another by Yayoi Kusama and $650,000 on one by Neo Rauch. Works by Taiwanese artists were also on display, with Wu Chi-Tsung's works, featured by Hong Kong-based Galerie du Monde, selling out during the fair.

The overwhelming success of Taipei Dangdai has fueled talk of a renaissance in Taiwan's once-thriving art market -- the international auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's once had their Asian headquarters in Taipei. But some galleries and artists feel much remains to be done to match international standards.

"The local market for us is too conservative, with collectors favoring traditional Chinese and modern art," said Chi-Wen Huang, founder of Taipei's Chi-Wen Gallery, which is currently focused on LGBTQ-related works viewed through the lens of young people and Taipei's lively underground club scene.

An image from Victoria Sin's performance "If I had the words to tell you, we wouldn't be here". (Courtesy of Chi-Wen Gallery).

Preparing for the opening of Art Basel Hong Kong, Asia's premier art fair, which concluded its 2019 edition in late March, Huang said she expected works by young local artists such as Su Misu and Victoria Sin to highlight Taiwan's open and progressive society, which she contrasted with less liberal approaches in places such as Hong Kong, China and Singapore.

"We have a very open society and are very free," she said, "I think that's a big advantage."

However, Huang said that being based in Taiwan also involved challenges, including conservative market tastes and business issues that constrain activity compared to Hong Kong. Taiwanese collectors largely prefer traditional art forms, while video art is harder to sell, and support from local collectors is insufficient for the market to prosper, she said. By contrast, Hong Kong was once considered a "cultural desert," but has emerged in the last decade as an important regional hub for international galleries and collectors. "Compared to Taiwan, Hong Kong has a beneficial financial and taxation system, as well as a very efficient import and export infrastructure, which is all very conducive for selling art," Huang said.

Hong Kong's diverse population and culture has also made local collectors more open to cutting edge, avant-garde art that might struggle for attention in Taiwan, she added.

A key driver behind Hong Kong's transformation as a regional art hub was Magnus Renfrew, who is also director of Taipei Dangdai. In 2008 Renfrew became the first director of the Art HK fair, which was acquired three years later by MCH, a Switzerland-based events group. After the deal, Art HK was folded into Art Basel.

Visitors to the Taipei Dangdai art fair examine displayed artwork. (Courtesy of Taipei Dangdai)

Renfrew, now managing director and founder of Hong Kong-based ARTHQ/Group, an international service provider for the art world, became interested in the Taiwan market during his years with Art HK, leading to this year's inaugural Taipei Dangdai.

"We launched Taipei Dangdai in response to demand from local and international galleries for a high-end, quality-controlled art fair that could help tap into the Taiwanese market as well as bringing an international audience to Taipei through putting the spotlight of the international art world on the city," Renfrew told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"Taiwan has one of the longest-established and most sophisticated collector-bases in Asia and is a center of significant wealth," he said. "In addition, the city has a dynamic gallery scene, an internationally respected biennale and strong cultural institutions."

In a further vote of confidence in the Taiwanese art market Sean Kelly, a New York gallery, launched its first Asian project space in Taipei during Taipei Dangdai, and is looking for a formal gallery space, according to Gladys Lin, director of Sean Kelly Asia.

Lin said Taiwanese clients tended to differ by age. "The older generation reads a lot of art history, and is interested in artists like Picasso, Monet," she said. "The younger generation was born in the '80s or '90s and is more influenced by Instagram."

However, she said, Taiwanese buyers are "very open, very curious," regardless of age.

Ivan Liu, artistic director of Legacy Lab International in Taipei, said the local market was both supportive and challenging. Located in Neihu District, Taipei's technology hub, Legacy Lab's workspace is equal parts studio and laboratory, reflecting an ethos of "science as culture."

Ivan Liu stands in his studio between works from the "Water City" series. (Photo by Chris Horton)

With a doctorate in physics from the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, Germany, Liu is part of Legacy Lab's four-person core, whose members have backgrounds in design, engineering and computer coding. The team collaborates with a pool of 20 artists on different projects, all of which fuse art, science and technology.

Their projects can be interactive or immersive installations, or collectible art works. Legacy Lab's Water City series features colored oil and water pumped through bent glass tubes mounted on mirrors or canvas with a pumping action controlled by a computer program.

One work from the series is currently on display at Imperial College London, which Liu also attended. In a work entitled the Energy of Things, thermochromatic paint on canvas slowly changes color to mesmerizing effect, allowing the formless energy of heat to be visualized.

Founded in 2013, Legacy Lab's cutting-edge approach to art faces two main challenges: creating original art or forms that will not feel outmoded in the future, and ensuring that the machinery behind the art works properly and is sustainable. "Art collection is about eternity," he said. "If you make machines that break every two or three years, no serious collector will want it."

Taiwanese visitors at the Andy Warhol exhibition in Taipei in March. (Photo by Chris Horton) 

The market provides an additional challenge. Legacy Lab has two business models. The first involves curating exhibitions or providing commissioned projects to public institutions or corporations -- one example being Penrose's Dream, a dynamic light installation commissioned by the five-star Le Meridien Taipei hotel. The other source of revenue is product-focused -- works of art sold via art fairs or galleries.

Liu said decision makers at corporate clients in Taiwan often have difficulty valuing the software side of Legacy Lab's creations, which he addresses by organizing seminars to educate the market. "In the beginning, nobody [had] heard of tech art -- now they want it and interactive design for every exhibition they do, but their budget is often not enough," he said. "If you don't have the skill set to go international, you won't last very long."

Huang agreed, adding that while it is possible that interest from international art collectors in Taiwan could grow, Hong Kong remains the top platform for Taiwanese galleries and artists with global ambitions. "That's why we're in Hong Kong," she said while preparing for Art Basel. "Right now, we have to be here to be seen."

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