Agnes Lin is a merchandising magnate who grew up in Hong Kong. Starting out as an editorial assistant at the Hong Kong Trade Development Council she moved from merchandising for Swire, to an assistant editor of a garment trade magazine, to establishing Osage Merchandising, her own merchandising business which has taken her across the world. Since 2005, when Lin established the first Osage gallery space Soho, Osage has extended into the finest industrial gallery space in Hong Kong at Osage Kwun Tong, and then to Osage Singapore and Osage Beijing. Aside from her commercial activities, Lin is committed to bettering the relationship between art and society, explaining how her commercial activities are geared towards supporting the non-profit organisation Osage Art Foundation, established in 2004. Meeting Lin at Art Basel 42, where Osage officially became the first Hong Kong gallery to participate in the prestigious art fair presenting Hong Kong artist Lee Kit at Art Statements, she speaks frankly about what her vision is not only for Osage, but for the arts in Asia.
-- Interview by Stephanie Bailey
Osage has always been about developing younger artists. When I started, there was no dedicated exhibition space for contemporary art locally. At that time I was in the apparel business and still am. At that time I thought that maybe we could give back and see what we could do in this area. So we started the Osage Art Foundation, which is our non-profit platform. At almost the same time, we moved into a commercial platform for artists. I think viewed by the outside world perhaps that is confusing; what is this foundation doing with a commercial gallery? So we try to keep that separate. Two years ago Eugene Tan helped us a lot in separating clearly what we do.
There are a few things that we do. At the Osage Art Foundation, we work three major missions: childhood education. When I was young we were not museum goers and there were no opportunities to see art; the schools did not encourage it. There is also limited public funding for less fortunate children, so we try to allow these children to interact with our space and exhibitions. We have a kind of juniors program with 1200 kids between 4-6 years old. When we started there were no real platforms for supporting early childhood, and then now there are a lot more activities. You see children interact with sculptures and you wonder, ten years from now, what will happen? What memories will they have of this experience? That is more what we are interested in; the experience to see, to feel and to touch. There is public funding, now, too.
As far as I’m concerned I think what’s happening in Hong Kong is really unique because it all happened in the last few years. But it is happening all over Asia and I think people are very interested. I think Art Stage in Singapore last January also showcased a lot of Asian galleries and I think a lot of collectors and visitors are finding it interesting and are getting to know the work. We continue to believe in our artists, and our Hong Kong artists, in this case, Lee Kit, who we are presenting here at Art Basel 42. Artists need a platform. This is a very good example of presenting an artist properly and explaining the artist’s practice for people to understand.
Inside Looking Out was the first major exhibition for a group of young Hong Kong artists, and we took them to Singapore and Beijing, too. I think they had good exchanges with the artists there. There were lots of talks and discussions about their practices, and this brings me to my second part of the Osage Foundation mission, cultural exchange which I feel is very important even in the business world. I think if you don’t understand culture it is very difficult. That’s how misunderstandings happen.
I find a lot of artists have a lot to say. And in terms of opportunities to show their work, things are getting better, and it is developing. There are so many exhibitions now. If there is no art scene, there is no vibrancy, there is no development. I think five years ago when we started it was quiet and I think now its very different. I see it happening not only in Hong Kong but in the Philippines, in Singapore and in China.
I think there is this kind of unity about wanting to serve culture and development in Hong Kong and Fotan itself has been going on for ten years. Unfortunately we have some real estate issues in Hong Kong, surrounding these industrial buildings and all these discussions about whether it is legal or not to operate inside industrial spaces. The government seems to be operating a laissez faire attitude and I think what the government is trying to do is to turn Fotan over to real estate development. It is problematic. I find that they want to kind of kill this very cultural organic development in a way. But how are we going to keep what we have already developed intact if these areas are given over to real estate developers? I think there are a lot of deeper issues here.
On the one hand, there is a lot more funding now for arts development, but I also see another role that we might get involved in, perhaps lobbying for help for gallerists, to show that this is a chain reaction. It’s not easy having a gallery, but we need these extended platforms. What happens with all these artists? Who represents them? How do you develop an art gallery? How many galleries can afford to go to Paris or Basel? So what is the government to do? I go back to when I was starting out in the apparel business. Before that I worked for the trade development council, which assists the development of trade. What about the arts trade? I think this is one area where work needs to be done; supporting creative industries until it kind of grows up. I think this is a role for the government to play and something needs to be lobbied. Two years ago I started but the replies were very disappointing. But here we are, the first Hong Kong gallery to be at Basel, showing the first Hong Kong artist at Basel. It is very costly to be at Basel; but it is absolutely necessary.
I question what 21st century life is in Asia and Hong Kong. We are doing a little bit more investigation into experimental projects in this area. Already we have been working on the Roberto Chabet project. Chabet is 74-years-old and he is probably under-represented. He is from the Philippines and has never exhibited outside of the country. So we assembled a major body of his work, 25 years of practice at the Institute of the Contemporary Artist in Singapore; it was a collaborative project between Osage Art Foundation and the ICA. So one of the shows we invited architect, interior designer, and artist William Lim to do an architectural intervention. He connected the entire exhibition by making holes, of course they were cut out holes to connect the space, and it was really interesting because it was kind of like a moving image because you cannot go through the building without walking through them, so now its also architecture and design interfacing with the visual arts.
Stephanie Bailey: How do you think the artists or the Hong Kong balance the presence of the market within the context of art production?
I’m not sure of this question.
Stephanie Bailey: Well the relationship between art production and the market has always been a testy area.
So this is a generalised question.
Stephanie Bailey: Very generalised.
I think there are a lot of artists who fall into this problem of art production for sales because it is wonderful to be selling for a change and I think that China had that kind of problem a lot. But I think there are a few artists, like Lee Kit, who stick to their practices and investigate. It’s not all like that. I think it’s a phase that probably certain artists need to go through.
(This article is part of the NP 15's Arts Dossier on Hong Kong Art edited by Stephanie Bailey. NP 15 is now available and can bought here:http://www.nakedpunch.com/site/issues/10 )