UK's White Cube opens HK gallery as Asia art booms

HONG KONG (AP) — Britain's White Cube gallery, known as an early champion of provocative British artists Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, launched its Hong Kong branch on Thursday, becoming the latest Western gallery to open an Asian outpost in pursuit of China's booming art market.

White Cube unveiled a 6,000-square-foot (557-square-meter) space in a new building in Hong Kong's central business district. With its first branch outside Britain, White Cube follows other British as well as French and American galleries that have set up shop in Hong Kong in recent years.

As their home markets plateau, they're pinning hopes for future growth on Asia, particularly China, where a strong economy has been minting millionaires at a rapid clip.

"Obviously there's a new generation of collector that is emerging in China," said Graham Steele, White Cube's Asia director. But he added that Taiwan and South Korea are also major markets for contemporary art, while Japan, India, Indonesia and Australia have significant pockets of collectors.

China was the world's biggest fine art market in 2011 for the second year in a row, accounting for 41.4 percent of global sales of paintings, sculptures, installations, photography and drawings worth $4.8 billion, according to market information provider Artprice.

"On a day-by-day basis, there's more Chinese collectors coming to London, coming to Miami and Switzerland — coming to the international art fairs — in groups, individually, with artists, with other collectors, with curators," said Steele. "There's an amazing level of interest."

The arrival of White Cube in Hong Kong underlines the sophistication and increasing influence of the region's art collectors. Founded in 1993, White Cube has had a long association with Hirst and Emin, the most prominent of a group known as the Young British Artists that emerged in the 1990s.

Hirst, one of the world's wealthiest artists, is notorious for installations that feature sharks and other dead animals suspended in formaldehyde and human skulls encrusted in diamonds. One of Emin's most famous works is a recreation of her disheveled bed — complete with soiled clothing and empty vodka bottles.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that is now a semiautonomous region of China, is a major financial center and has become the center of Asia's art business. It's the world's third biggest auction center after New York and London, driven by demand for art and collectibles. A painting by Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang sold for $10 million at a Hong Kong auction last year, setting a record for Chinese contemporary art.

In 2009, British contemporary art dealer Ben Brown Fine Arts opened a Hong Kong gallery. Edouard Malingue of France opened an Impressionist and Modernist-themed gallery in 2010. Well-known U.S. art dealer Gagosian Gallery added a branch to its global network last year.

Steele said the gallery is looking forward to developing relationships with new Asian artists.

"We're trying to find the next generation," he said.

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Follow Kelvin Chan at twitter.com/chanman

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Online: www.whitecube.com

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