Pearl Lam is the flamboyant purveyor of contemporary art to many of the most discerning denizens of London, Hong Kong and points beyond. The 48-year-old art dealer, who has galleries in both cities, talks about Asia, Europe, and the world art market.

How did you become the most influential gallerist in Asia? What is the secret of your success?

Hard work, luck, being in the right place at the right time, but mostly passion. I arrived in China at a pivotal time and witnessed the incredible growth of the Chinese art market from the beginning. I was meeting artists, intellectuals and experts to understand how Chinese art evolved. This understanding, coupled with my existing knowledge of the Western art world, allowed me to bridge the East and West. Importantly I didn't shy away from being different and I refused to follow the norm. I chose not to view Chinese contemporary art through the gaze of Western modernism. So when the right time came, I was able to show the world another approach to Chinese contemporary art. I also became a bridge by introducing international artists to Asia.


You live in Hong Kong, Shanghai and London. What is the difference between living in Europe and in Asia?

This is a diffcult question, as within Asia, and even just within China, each city has its own personality and distinct culture. The same can be said of Europe. There are the obvious differences in culture and language. But since both Europe and Asia have long and rich cultural histories, they have more in common than one would think. Both of them want to preserve traditions by looking to the past to build the future. As the international art world is focused in the West, traveling abroad extensively is vital for meeting collectors and artists, and for visiting art fairs, biennales, foundations, museums and galleries. We have four galleries in three different cities, and sign up to 14 international fairs a year. I spend roughly half my time in London, half my time in Asia, and a bit of time in other European countries and America.


Do you see yourself as a mediator between the cultures? 


I grew up in Hong Kong, the USA and the UK, and later spent many years in Shanghai. Through this I recognize how China is largely misunderstood in the West and vice-versa. With China having the fastest growing economy in the world and increasing global political influence, it’s important to foster open dialogue between China, the rest of Asia, and the West. Being Chinese informs my passion for bridging the divide between East and West through art and culture. I’m able to draw on multiple perspectives from both my Chinese culture and Western education, which helps me to maintain an open mind and sense of humor about life. 


Who or what has had a deep impact on your life? 

My strict upbringing has greatly impacted who I am today. Being sent away to school and told what to do really triggered my rebellious nature, which has stayed with me today. My parents did not want me to work in the art industry; my father equated running a gallery to being a ‘shopkeeper’, but I persevered. The first time I launched a pop-up show, in 1993, was the first time I felt I was truly alive. I used to say I felt like a living zombie prior to that. I realized what I really loved was art, particularly contemporary art. Meeting the curator and intellectual Professor Gao Minglu was a huge turning point for me in my career and my understanding of contemporary Chinese art. Professor Gao is currently Research Professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at University of Pittsburgh, USA. He organized landmark exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art, including the 1989 China/Avant-Garde Exhibition in Beijing, and the 1998 Inside Out: Chinese New Art in New York, which traveled to Mexico, Australia and Hong Kong throughout the year 2000. 


He has published a number of scholarly books on contemporary art and art theory in both English and Chinese. I had read his writing and was desperate to learn more. I managed to make contact with him and asked to visit him in Pittsburgh. I was seeking knowledge, asking questions, trying to learn and understand. I wanted to know where contemporary Chinese art came from, and to understand how it differed from Western contemporary art which evolved from Modernism. I’m delighted to say that, over the last 10 years since that first meeting, we have collaborated on many wonderful projects together. It was Minglu who inspired me to found the China Art Foundation.


What kind of idea is behind the China Art Foundation? 

I established the China Art Foundation (CAF) in 2008. It aims to ensure that the intense global interest in contemporary Chinese art and culture has a sustainable future. It also seeks to help increase mutual knowledge and understanding between China and the rest of the world in the field of art and culture.

What is the difference between the Asian art market and others, for example the US market?

The Western market is mature and sophisticated, whilst the Asian contemporary art market is still very young. The exception is Korea where collectors have been buying since the 1980s. Essentially the Asian art market doesn't yet have a very healthy infrastructure, such as government-backed facilities for exhibiting art, world-class art fairs and the presence of international galleries. However, I am excited and encouraged by the developments we are starting to see. Many countries are still developing their art markets. Even though there are established art funds and other Asian buyers are buying based on speculation, they have not yet understood the art of collecting. It is very interesting to be a part of building this new art infrastructure in Asia. 

Why is the Chinese art market growing so fast?

When looking at China, it’s important to understand that the art market is not just the contemporary market. For the last 100 years, China has experienced cultural, political, social and economic change. When China moved into its modern phase of prosperity, newly wealthy Chinese wanted to ‘buy back’ their history and culture, which we saw reflected in the explosion of the Chinese antiquities market and the Chinese modern art market. Chinese culture is the great pride of the Chinese. It’s natural that they should want to buy it back and keep it in China. When we talk about contemporary and modern art, more than 90 percent of collectors are speculators; modern and contemporary art is a new commodity. As the Chinese economy rocketed in 2006, many Asian works, particularly contemporary works from China, were brought to international attention through auctions, which validated the financial growth of contemporary Chinese art. Indeed, many of the artists’ prices went up 50 to 100 times. 

What kind of art do Chinese collect and why?

More and more mainland Chinese are starting to collect contemporary art by both Chinese and international artists. Previously their main focus would have been on works by ancient Chinese masters. There are the mega-rich collectors, who are interested in learning about contemporary art, and go overseas to art fairs like Frieze and Basel, and collect out of the pure love of art. There are also the newly wealthy, who have turned to art as another luxury good, and there are also speculators who collect solely for profit.

How do you think the art market will develop in the next few years?

I think there will be greater development in previously overlooked art markets like India and South-East Asia. These markets have been helped by strong and growing infrastructure like government-backed facilities for exhibiting art, world-class art fairs, and an increasing presence of international galleries. 

What does art mean for you?

Art is a reflection of the times in which it was created. Contemporary art speaks to contemporary culture, whether through narrative, form, style, etc. Through art, artists are able to express feelings and ideas that they might not have been able to convey verbally. Art awakens the senses and may raise important issues about current situations in the world. This is vital in modern society where people move at such a rapid pace that they often don’t stop to really take in the environment that surrounds them. For myself, a person who travels back and forth between the East and West, I see how art can act as a bridge between cultures, and facilitate communication through the exchange of ideas. By understanding another culture’s art, one can better understand how they live and think, which also reflects on one’s own culture through the similarities and differences. 

Author: Christina Prinz. As published in WERTE No. 5, Deutsche Bank Wealth Management's client magazine

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