The Rise of Casual Luxury

In late 2009, during the height of the global financial crisis, the multi-billionaire Hong Kong-based entrepreneur Adrian Cheng opened the world’s first art mall in Hong Kong. Located in The Masterpiece, a 64-floor skyscraper just across from the Chungking Mansion in southern Kowloon, the seven-floor Shopping Center modeled itself after the eclectic art offerings of New York’s SoHo. Its opening exhibition featured an eclectic collection of furniture, sculpture, wall decorations and installations—together amounting to HK $20 million—that happily shared space with brands, boutiques and restaurants, upending the convention of art fair minimalism.

The relationship between art and luxury has always been porous, but the K11 Group took a deep dive into the uncharted territory of its more accessible and social future. In the west, the art market's prevailing ideal of exclusivity has largely restricted the spatial conditions through which luxury art sales could occur. At the top of the market, that attitude has changed somewhat within the past decade, with art fairs such as Christie's, Sotheby's, Frieze Art Fair, and Art Basel shifting towards the emergent digital market of hype and hashtags and its impact on how we move through and react to physical space. An increasing amount of time and money has been set aside to provide immersive art experiences as well as extracurricular social events like parties and DJ sets that ultimately loosen the pipelines through which the fairs' $13 billion revenue flows in annually.

The trend toward more informal, heterogeneous and speculative spaces to vend art is also apparent in the recent Art Basel Cities initiative that launched in 2016. For its first edition, Art Basel Cities took to the highly Instagrammable destination of Buenos Aires, ditching the existentially-draining corporate vibes of the Messehall superstructure for an urban jungle gallery crawl that put collectors in direct and unmediated contact with gallery owners and artists. With its next location still TBD, the Art Basel Cities initiative suggests that geotags and cross-cultural experiences now provide as much of an incentive to attend a fair as the actual art itself.

Paradoxically, the tendency toward casual luxury has backfired in the global art market's holiday offshoots. The cruise ship art auction (which saw hundreds of millions in annual sales during its heyday in the noughties) has gone under the gun precisely for using this holiday mentality against its clients: a combination of overpriced artwork, misinformed sales teams and notoriously bad wifi has led to its imminent demise. As the main supplier of cruise ship art auctions, Park West Gallery delivers auction-ready art packages to over 100 clients including Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises; it has faced at least 21 lawsuits from unhappy cruisers since 2008, according to a recent Bloomberg News report, who claim to have been sold fake prints: the cruise ship art market's most lucrative medium.

Perhaps due to the lack of novel media (no giant panda sculptures or VR installations here), the specialized cruise ship art market has an inherently archaic feel. Some ships are trying to capitalize on this by adopting the role of the museum, ditching the art auction platform altogether in favor of a new institutional approach geared toward the next generation of cruisers. Celebrity cruises, who will launch the next line of luxury cruises in 2019, will offer self-guided tours through their 14,000-piece private art collection complete with iPads filled with (verified) information about the work on offer. Still, it will take more than a few glasses of free champagne and digital museum guides to save the dying idea of exclusive luxury in the art market from its early grave.

Hopping back to Hong Kong, the brilliance of Cheng’s conceptualization of a mega art mall a decade ago in the midst of an evolving global economy that looked like a recession from the west but sustained the opposite impact on the east becomes apparent. Up against the largest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, the K11 group's Art Mall concept could have easily nosedived if it didn't take aim at the nascent future market of millennials and Chinese nouveau riche as its target audience. Immune to the financial crash that has put a strain on the western art market, and with an international trade-phobic Trump presidency leaving a vacancy in the global market structure, Asia’s rapidly growing number of billionaires are the future momentum of an art industry that is increasingly pivoting eastward. K11 is at the forefront of this movement, by casting contemporary art and luxury goods as cohabiters of a cross-cultural commerce in which actual shopping is only a fraction of its function.

In addition to introducing the world's first museum-retail concept space, K11 Art Malls, the K11 Group includes mixed-use office buildings designed for the next-generation workforce, K11 Ateliers; its open education platform, K11 Kulture Academy; curated K11 Design Stores; the Terrarium-inspired transformative retail space K11 Natural; and finally, K11 Art Foundation, China's first nonprofit matchmaker of Chinese artists and curators. Through the less blatantly commercially-driven 'foundation', Cheng has coaxed an appetite for partnership with the more self-conscious western art world, to whom the idea of acknowledging oneself as—or even worse, being labeled—a bedfellow of consumer culture is among the highest-ranking phobias of the curatorial elite. Underneath the more palatable description of a non-profit foundation, Cheng has secured K11's status as a partner of Europe's leading institutions from the Pompidou in Paris to the ICA in London. This extends to its home turf, too, with big names in the art world, from Hans Ulrich Obrist to Klaus Biesenbach, curating exhibitions at K11. It is a growing track record that includes pop-up exhibitions with the Serpentine Galleries, New Museum, and MoMA PS1 in both Shanghai and Hong Kong.

The K11 Art Foundation has both a physical exhibition space in all of the K11 Art Mall outlets across China as well as an overseas reach in supporting Chinese artists abroad. Cheng Ran's residency-cum-exhibition at MOMA PS1 in New York, Tianzhuo Chen at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Zhang Ding at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, and Liang Yuanwei`s pop-up exhibition at the 2017 Venice Biennale are just a few of its contributions to the globalized contemporary Chinese art scene.

With some 3.2 million square meters in Hong Kong alone, Cheng has secured over 26 million square metres of space in China, and plans to have nine outlets across the mainland by 2023. In addition to reeling in the projected US$6 trillion spending capacity of Asian Millennials by 2020 as they grow to account for 45% of Asia's millennial population, K11s museum-retail concept has already secured its status as a prime cultural destination in China, with the country's first-ever Monet exhibition featuring 40 of the famed French artist’s paintings held at its Shanghai outlet in 2014.

Unlike the western crossover of art and luxury, where leading labels and historic fashion houses including Fendi, LMVH, Cartier, and Prada are behind much of contemporary art patronage, even building their own foundations and museums to house exhibitions, at K11 there are no isolated brand 'experiences' to build loyalty or distinguish one label from the rest of the pack. Instead, the art acts as a sticky medium on both a physical and conceptual level, bridging the two as a cohesive department store experience. In some of the stores in the K11 Art Mall, this process has been so streamlined that it is even possible to go to the cash register with a pair of Yeezy shoes and ring up a contemporary art piece hanging up by the clothes.

The absence of public art institutions in Hong Kong has created a window of opportunity within the city's arts infrastructure that many other commercial centres including Harbour City, Times Square, and The Police Married Quarters are beginning to fill. Still, K11 remains light on its feet by constantly pushing new initiatives that merge traditional art exhibitions and international collaborations with cutting-edge contemporary installations that put commercial entertainment factor and instagram-friendly aesthetics first. New ideas and partnerships are constantly underway—and it certainly helps that the enterprise's developer is none other than the New World Development, Cheng`s own inherited company, meaning K11 can outpace its competitors.

On its 10th anniversary this past June, K11 announced plans for the crowning jewel of its enterprise: a 10-story flagship stationed in the US $2.6 billion Victoria Dockside development. Located along the picturesque Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, the MUSEA riffs off another topical New York development scheme: the Hudson Yards. With a focus on promoting new and unsung international brands to keep in line with Chinese milennials' preference for unique and quality luxury goods over pure brand alliance, MUSEA will serve as the flagship spot for many international brands.

To complete the art experience, a 2,000 square-foot water-filled sunken plaza will host outdoor performances and events, while a 50,000 square-foot wall of greenery—among the largest in the world—will provide an undeniably Instagram-friendly backdrop. With content-driven global millennials in mind, the James Corner and Kohn Pedersen Fox-designed building will place its rotating art collection at the entrance of the building: a marked elevation from the ground-floor digs of the original K11 Mall in Hong Kong. According to the ever-ambitious Cheng, MUSEA will be the highest form of the K11 Group's socio-cultural enterprise: as a place where contemporary art, social media and luxury commerce can meld seamlessly, even fueling each other in a designer destination for global millennials to "come together and discover their muse." If it sound dystopian to you, maybe you're just getting old. 💅

(Published on: Elephant Issue 36 )