Art and Soul

Founder of the Asia Contemporary Art Show is an art connoisseur with a common touch



Avid collector Mark Sanderson, a long- time Hong Kong resident from Britain, is known among local art circles for founding the Asia Contemporary Art Show – one of four principal art fairs that have transformed the SAR into Asia’s arts hub.

But before he joined the swanky insider’s club whose membership includes Art Basel, Art Central and Affordable Art Fair, he had his fair share of 15 minutes of fame.

“It was 1983, a year after I arrived in Hong Kong. I was then 23,” Sanderson recalled. “I had a drink late at night with some friends, and we spotted a familiar face with white hair across the room. It was Andy Warhol.”

“I couldn’t let the moment go by without saying hi to him. So I walked up and said hi. I didn’t ask for his autograph. But that encounter, for me, was probably why I bought my first piece of artwork – a Warhol – five or six years later. That was my motivation.”

Over the decades, he has expanded his collection to 120 pieces of artwork, including prominent artist Damien Hirst, British-born, Hong Kong-based painter Simon Birch, British visual artist duo the Chapman Brothers, and Japanese artist Rei Sato.

“The best part about collecting is you can change the personality of a space with the art. I recently bought a new home in Manila, and I designed the apartment around my art,” he added. “I have more than I can hang so I rotate.”

Sanderson accidentally ventured into the gallery and art exhibition scene while he was the president of Global Sources, a Hong Kong-based business- to-business media and sourcing fair company.

In 2006, he met a fellow collector from Britain who wanted to offload his Banksy collection at a dinner party. The collector consigned 40 pieces of original and additional works to Sanderson.

Acting on a hunch, Sanderson flew the entire collection, which was worth 6 million (HK$57.75 million), into Hong Kong.

“We presented the works for a week at the Hong Kong Art Center, and then for another three weeks at Schoeni Art Gallery on Old Bailey Street. We sold 23 or 24 pieces during the entire show,” he recalled. “At the opening night, more than 1,000 guests showed up.”

His hunch was right. Banksy became a household name overnight. The morning after the opening, the talk of the town was a graffiti on a bridge outside the Art Center.

“Everyone thought Banksy was there and had painted it,” Sanderson recalled.

“As it turned out, it was a bunch of kids from the French International School who painted the bridge, and, of course, six hours later the Leisure and Cultural Services Department came along and got rid of it.”

Sanderson subsequently started the Fabrik Gallery in 2007. And after his retirement from Global Sources in 2012, he organized the first edition of the Asia Contemporary Art Show with an intention to accelerate the social awareness of art in Hong Kong.

The biannual event just wrapped up its ninth edition, bringing the works of about four dozen artists from around the world to Hong Kong. The show in September attracted 12,000 attendees – half of which had been there before.

A highlight of the fair is that all the artworks are displayed in hotel rooms to make the experience more authentic and less intimidating compared to seeing art in a gallery with four white walls.

In terms of quality, range of experience and price, the show and Art Central both target the mid-range market, but the former has a slightly different following.

The four principal art fairs in Hong Kong are well defined enough to avoid an overlap, despite them all happening in the same week, he said. “If you go around our fair, you will see works anywhere from HK$25,000 to HK$30,000, up to HK$115,000. There will be works over that range as we feature artists who have some history, and who show commitment.”

In January, Sanderson brought his fair to Singapore. He is also expanding a digital art gallery and marketplace, called Asia Contemporary Art Buyer, that caters the information desire for young art buyers.

The site allows viewers to search and view a library of more than 12,000 artworks. With close to 40,000 regular visitors, the site generates about 200 inquiries per month and a 6-percent of sales conversion rate.

“There are 120 or so galleries in Hong Kong. Each puts on about eight to nine shows a year. So there are about 1,000 exhibitions per year in Hong Kong,” he said.

“The problem with that is there is much more output than how much the galleries are capable of showing. One of the most difficult things for any Hong Kong artist is to get representation.

“With the internet, whether I put 20 or 80 works online, the only cost involved is effort. So for the artists, it means instead of their works being buried in a storeroom, it can be exposed. Consumption only happens because people are exposed to the availability and opportunity to experience.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on November 11, 2016.

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