Yvonne Fong, the director of Simon Lee Gallery in Hong Kong, chats to Prestige about art shifts made by the pandemic, her Vernissage style, missing-in-person interactions and the forever allure of Venice, Peggy Guggenheim, Rothko and Arte Povera.
When and how did you decide on a career in art?
I studied fine art and art history in college. After returning to Hong Kong, I got the chance to intern at Christie’s and Gagosian Gallery – these experiences furthered my interest in art and led me in the direction of what I wanted to pursue in the field. In 2021 I joined the London-based Simon Lee Gallery when it opened a space in Asia.
How do you think fashion and art relate to each other as aesthetic industries and interests? Do you see that changing?
Aside from sharing a passion for beauty, they’re both a form of expression and very personal. The possibilities are endless, as we’ve seen from the art and fashion crossovers and collaborations in recent years. It also points out that art is for everyone and we live with art every day. Ultimately, though, I think art leaves a deeper impact both emotionally and spiritually.
How has the Hong Kong art world changed in the last few years?
Despite the social unrest and the pandemic, Hong Kong remains Asia’s leading art hub and it’s still an attractive city to invest in. The demand for art is strong and the market is robust. The opening of cultural venues, such
as Tai Kwun, the Museum of Art and M+ in West Kowloon, show there’s huge appetite and support for the arts.
What kind of outfit would you wear to a vernissage or big art dinner?
I always go for an all-white outfit – it’s clean and not distracting.
Describe your style – and does the industry demand a certain type of style?
For me, less is more. I like minimal effort that achieves maximum effect. I really enjoy fresh tonal looks and relaxed chic, as they’re more low-key luxe. In our industry, timeless designs are preferred – it’s the image
of looking professional but with your own style.
What have you missed most during the past year in terms of the industry?
I’ve missed artists coming to Hong Kong to install new shows in our space. It’s always such a pleasure meeting them in person, discussing their work and getting to know them more intimately. Although we’re thrilled to present a solo exhibition of new works by the Polish artist Paulina Olowska this month, unfortunately she won’t be able to come celebrate this special occasion with us.
With art fairs/events becoming smaller and more localised, how has this changed your job as a gallery director?
The pandemic forced all of us to slow down, and rethink our business models and, most importantly, how we can do more for artists and the local community. We’re actively utilising various online platforms and media
to engage interest, cultivate new clients and partnerships, and grow our audience … We’re also constantly learning and moving with the global trends, especially with the rise of crypto art and NFTs – the possibilities are endless.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about raising the voices and profiles of female artists. Have you seen a change and, if so, how?
There’s been huge demand for female artists, and they’ve influenced the global art market significantly. They’re being recognised for their talents with focussed retrospectives and solo shows, along with increased support from art patrons. I think that overall, women in the art world are better paid and better represented these days. More women are speaking out and are at the forefront of the art scene, inspiring future generations.
How are artists responding to the pandemic and social and lifestyle changes that have resulted from it?
Most of our artists have been actively working in their studios, drawing inspiration from the pandemic and life experiences, and especially during the lockdowns. We’ve been organising numerous online studio visits and private tours, which also serve as a motivation for the artists themselves.
Of all the exhibitions and art events you’ve worked on, tell us about one of the highlights.
One of the highlights is our Art Basel HK champagne and dim sum luncheon, hosted at Yung Kee every year and attended by almost 200 prestigious guests from around the world. It’s the perfect occasion to meet and reunite with our art-world friends in a relaxed setting before the fair opens.
Which are your favourite movements in art and why?
Surrealism – I have a deep interest in exploring the unconscious mind and dreams – and Arte Povera, the conceptual moment founded in Italy in the late 1960s. I love how the artists challenged and disrupted traditional art using humble and everyday materials.
Which are the artists that speak to you the most?
The Colombian artist and sculptor Doris Salcedo, the Surrealist painter René Magritte and the abstract painter Mark Rothko.
When you look at works of art, is your first response emotional or analytical?
I’d say it’s always emotional at the beginning and then I start looking into the background or story of the work.
As a director of Simon Lee Gallery in Hong Kong, you’re out and about a lot. What are your wardrobe staples?
Flowing silk and satin are my favourites – you can pair them with any wardrobe item both day and night. I also like mixing different materials, like cashmere and wool, creating subtle textures in an outfit. Tailored feminine suits plus sneakers are equally good for work meetings and going to events without making too much effort.
What do you do to unwind?
Nature will solve all our problems at the end. I can always find peace in it. Reading also really helps me to de-stress and be transported to a different world.
Which are your favourite cities for art and culture?
Venice: the Biennale is the highlight show where you can visit world-class museums and sculptural installations, while also exploring the city’s canals and bridges. Beijing: the cultural capital of China, where the old meets new and traditional life meets contemporary architecture. And Naoshima: it’s an art paradise, an island filled with astonishing art pieces and breathtaking architecture that co-exists with nature.
Who are your heroes or icons in the industry?
Our gallery founder Simon Lee, who provided me with a great platform to build a foundation in the art world, understanding the business and management. I have a lot of respect for him and am grateful for the opportunities he gave me. There’s also Peggy Guggenheim, the prominent American art patron, who had an impressive collection and exquisite taste for avant-garde art. Her private museum in Venice is still one of my must-go places every time I visit.
What are your favourite pieces at home and why do they mean so much to you?
I had the luck to acquire a very beautiful work by Robert Mapplethorpe, who’s known for his provocative and powerful still-life images. I also love living with Japanese artist Kimio Mishima’s hyper-realistic newspaper ceramic pieces, which remind me of the passage of time.
Which galleries or museums are your favourites?
The Fondation Maeght at Vence in France; the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland and the Song Museum in Beijing.
Fabulous parties, networking, hanging a new show … Your world seems mighty glamorous. Tell us about a side of your job that people don’t know or might be surprised about.
Those who aren’t familiar with the art industry might think we’re just dealers in artworks. But we also aim to help bring historic and critical exhibitions to Asia. It’s our duty to educate clients and the wider public, and allocate artists’ works to the right collectors and institutions.
(Hero image: Yvonne Fong, photograph taken on a summer trip in Europe.)
This story first appeared in Prestige Hong Kong.
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