QA Nick Simunovic on Gagosians Eastern Promise


How hot is the Asian market? Hot enough for mega-dealer Larry Gagosian to open a gallery in Hong Kong, his eleventh worldwide. The city is already home to a number of strong commercial venues, including 10 Chancery Lane, Tang Contemporary (with other outlets in Bangkok and Beijing) and Hanart TZ, run by widely admired scholar-dealer Chang Tsong-zung (Johnson Chang). In addition, Hong Kong is the world’s most active auction locale after New York and London, hosting Christie’s and Sotheby’s as well as many regional houses. The Hong Kong International Art Fair, founded in 2008 and generally regarded as the best in Asia, last year attracted 46,000 visitors to the booths of 155 galleries from 29 countries. Hong Kong has a long history as an international marketplace, and levies no import or export duties on artworks (as opposed to the 34-percent tax in mainland China).

Gagosian has maintained an office in the city since 2007, and opened its new 5,200-square-foot facility on Jan. 18 in the elegant stone Pedder Building in the Central District. The 1923 colonial-style structure was renovated by London architectural firm Caruso St. John, which has designed several other Gagosian interiors. The opening show, “Damien Hirst: Forgotten Promises” [through Mar. 19], features new paintings and sculptures, including For Heaven’s Sake (2008), a baby’s skull cast in platinum and covered with 8,128 diamonds—a pretty clear indication of the buying level anticipated.

Nick Simunovic, director of Gagosian Gallery Hong Kong, here discusses the gallery’s economic rationale as well as its strategic plans and expectations.

RICHARD VINE: Some people claim that the Chinese art bubble has burst. What is the long-term thinking behind the decision to open a full-fledged gallery in Hong Kong?

NICK SIMUNOVIC: Gagosian’s decision to come to Asia was not driven by an interest in “timing” a burgeoning market. On the contrary, the gallery is looking to build a long-term, sustainable business in the region by doing exactly the kinds of things it does in the West-which is to say, mounting museum-quality exhibitions and patiently helping collectors build exceptional collections.

Asian collectors have been traditionally underserved by Western galleries, and Western artists have been traditionally underexposed and under-represented in important Asian collections. Gagosian Hong Kong aims to address this imbalance. Mainland China and Hong Kong will always be important markets for us, but Asia is an enormous place, and there are many sophisticated collectors in a variety of countries who are interested in Western modern and contemporary art. We look forward to working with collectors in China and Hong Kong just as we look forward to working with collectors in Japan, Taiwan and Australia. The gallery is thinking very broadly about its efforts in Asia.

VINE: Is your projected clientele mostly Asian or mostly Western? And how do you see the bicultural dynamic playing out?

SIMUNOVIC: The gallery has enjoyed an active, daily presence in Asia since the summer of 2007. Since then, we have seen an interest in artists young and old, across a range of media and price points. Most collectors in the region are immediately familiar with artists like Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso, but we’ve been delighted to realize that collectors are also interested in engaging with the whole of Gagosian’s program, including our youngest artists. Our client base is largely Asian, and in general they started by acquiring Asian art and are now looking to broaden the scope of their activity. I think we’ll see the gap between Eastern and Western collections begin to narrow as tastes globalize.

VINE: What’s your connection to Asia and Asian art? How large is your staff, and what’s the cultural mix?

SIMUNOVIC: I joined Gagosian in the summer of 2007 and immediately moved to Asia to help establish the gallery’s presence in the region. I first started coming to Asia, however, in early 2006 while working for the Guggenheim Museum. Over the next 18 months, it became increasingly clear that a sea change was occurring, and that it would only be a matter of time before Asian collectors started pursuing Western modern and contemporary art in earnest.

Prior to joining the Guggenheim, I worked for McKinsey & Co. and completed my MBA. Our staff is small but very dedicated. We have three full-time employees and several interns. Our team must necessarily be as diverse as Hong Kong itself. We are fortunate to have Cantonese, Mandarin, English, French and Italian speakers on staff.

VINE: In Hong Kong, are you under any constraints in terms of erotic or political content of the work? 

SIMUNOVIC: We’ve never once had an issue with censorship in Hong Kong.

VINE: Are Asian buyers already well-acquainted with the Gagosian name and reputation, or do you need to engage in identity-building? 

SIMUNOVIC: For every collector who knew Gagosian’s name and reputation when the gallery arrived in 2007, there were hundreds who did not. The foundational work we’ve done in Asia over the past three and a half years, however, has made the gallery better known across the continent.

VINE: How do you see Gagosian Hong Kong differing from other major galleries in the city and region?

SIMUNOVIC: Our space is unique for Hong Kong and the region, as is our commitment to producing a steady stream of museum-quality exhibitions. Gagosian Gallery Hong Kong will be a success if its program is indistinguishable from a Gagosian Gallery in New York, London, Paris or Los Angeles.