The Petri Dish for Contemporary Art — TKG+ Director Shelly Wu on Gallery Production Mechanism and the Art Market

Megan Yu-Hua Lan, December 5, 2020

The formation of contemporary art exhibition culture is not an isolated museum phenomenon;

rather, it is a set of pluralistic values collectively shaped by exhibition venues, artists, curators, art critics, collectors, dealers, and viewers.[1]

 

Different identities and perspectives in the art industry have produced and shaped our culture and our understanding of contemporary art exhibitions. Take for example the solo exhibitions of Jun Yang at the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, and TKG+ Projects. How can these three exhibitions taking place in three separate spaces demonstrate the operational relationship of artistic concepts amongst different institutions? Through the perspective of Shelly Wu — gallery owner and director of TKG+ — and covering topics ranging from the relationship between artworks and the market to the relationship between artists and gallery management, this essay explores how different perspectives within the industry may affect exhibition culture and, in turn, affect the gallery mechanism and the gallery’s own brand positioning.

 

History of Art Collecting and Art Institutions in Taiwan

 

Reflecting upon the development of art collecting in Taiwan, Wu discusses the significant influence private collecting has had upon wider society, a history that can be traced back to the golden age of the 1980s. Aided by political openness and economic prosperity, the support and funding of art by the middle class became a crucial factor in the development of art in Taiwan. Simultaneously, due to the rise of art collecting, hundreds of galleries sprouted; major auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s opened offices in Taiwan; and the international art fair Art Taipei was founded with resources from the Taiwan Art Gallery Association. During this time, three major art museums were established and began to thrive.

 

Galleries play a crucial role in connecting artists, art fairs, auction houses, and collectors. The symbiotic relationship formed among these different entities in the art world has gradually fostered an art market of economic scale. Furthermore, regarding the development of the Greater Chinese art industry, Taiwan’s gallery industry has also become one of the stronger, more mature within the region.

 

Our understanding and appreciation of art is often reflected in the trends of contemporary art collecting. However, as times change, evolving artistic concepts and forms have not only challenged the creation of art itself, but have also been constantly expanding public perceptions about art collecting. The journey of art collecting is a learning curve. In addition to personal taste and preferences, it requires extensive professional knowledge of art history, aesthetics, conservation, and restoration. Wu draws an analogy between collecting practices and different education levels: Just as one advances from introductory classes to graduate school, one cultivates a unique taste with each step. “Collecting conceptual art is comparable to graduate school. If you have developed a certain degree of knowledge about life and aesthetics, it is easier for you to understand and appreciate conceptual art,” Wu said. “Works of art are categorized based on their particularities, and the role of an art gallery is to guide potential collectors to understand the kind of work to which they are drawn and further collect the work. Although it is impossible to have a comprehensive impact on collectors, investing time in helping them nurture a sense of understanding and appreciation is an integral part of what we do.”

 

Artist-Gallery Partnership

 

Within the art industry, the commercial gallery is the institution closest to the consumer market. From an economic perspective, the artist is the provider while collectors and museums are the consumers. In the free market, the gallery plays the intermediary role of the advocate. The primary objective of marketing is to deliver products from the provider to the consumer through various intermediaries, including the media, art critics, museums, and art fairs. Compared with more general commercial operations, however, the particularity of art lies not only in immediate sales results, but also in the long-term, comprehensive cultivation of the artist’s career.

 

To the benefit of the artist, the gallery with its knowledge of the art market safeguards the price of the work, and ensures a stable overall market value of the artist, while avoiding market hype and rampant speculation. A well-established brand identity of the gallery, supplemented by its relationship with collectors and museums, also gives the work a better chance to enter important collections, thus enhancing the status and market value of the artist. In terms of media relations, the brand identity of the gallery facilitates greater media coverage and increases visibility. The internal resources of the gallery — including the planning of domestic and overseas exhibitions and art fairs, print publications, and marketing — further provide the artist with opportunities to expand their global horizons. Also, with its connections and business acumen, the gallery can offer the artist industry insight and strategic advice. These are all valuable resources that can help the artist advance their career through their collaboration with the gallery; resources they otherwise may not have access to if they operate independently. More than anything, this partnership affords the artist more time to focus on their artistic practice.

 

When asked about the artist-gallery relationship, Wu notes that in addition to holding solo exhibitions for the artist and facilitating their exposure at international art fairs, the gallery’s more pressing concern is: “Can the artist’s work be placed in the context of the development of contemporary art?” Wu stresses the importance of working closely with the artist in developing ideas for their work, planning exhibitions together, offering strategies, and guiding them in the right direction. Meanwhile, the gallery conducts its own art research, proposes new perspectives, and over time establishes a critical stance on the development of contemporary art. By nurturing the artist, the gallery expands its network, enhances its professional image, and builds brand value. Such a symbiotic partnership requires long-term cultivation of trust and tacit understanding between the two parties before they are able to grow and thrive together.

 

Division of Labor Between the Institutional Curator and the Gallery Owner

 

Surveying the art scene in Taiwan, Wu notes that Taiwanese and Greater Chinese collections as a whole are still market-oriented, so the performance of the market and/or the artist must be established before interest can be generated. However, Wu emphasizes, “Although a gallery must rely on the market in order to sustain its operations, the principle we maintain is: Without the ability to conduct critical art research, the gallery loses durability in the market and is easily replaceable. Academic research and the market go hand in hand. For young emerging artists, it may be difficult at first to attain a stable market position, but once they have established an academic position, it is only a matter of time before they garner market interest.”

 

With an emphasis on exhibition production, Wu renovated the process of artistic production within the gallery and introduced the role of a curator in the organization — a revolutionary initiative in Taiwan’s gallery industry. When former independent curator Hsu Fong-Ray joined the gallery, he made significant changes in how an exhibition is produced. Using his curating experiences, Hsu works closely with artists and the gallery to produce exhibitions that provoke thoughts and initiate dialogue. In contrast with the freelance curator, the advantage of having an in-house curator is that they are able to build deeper understanding and trust with artists through long-term collaboration. Additionally, exhibition production expenses are reduced as the in-house curator is more familiar with the exhibition space and administrative processes. Perhaps most importantly, the in-house curator is aligned with the philosophy and mission of the gallery’s different brands, which ensures the quality of the gallery’s exhibitions

 

 

Heritage and Experimentation: The Established, the Mid-career, and the Emerging Artists

 

How does a commercial gallery achieve multiple goals with historical, cultural, and contemporary perspectives and experimentation using its business and academic resources? When Tina Keng Gallery was established 30 years ago in Taipei, Taiwan, it did not jump on the bandwagon of local folk art trends at that time. Rather, it explored — through the historical lens of Western abstract painting — the works of such artists as Wu Dayu, Sanyu, Yun Gee, and Zao Wou-Ki throughout the 1990s. Through years of persistent effort, the gallery has thrived to this day, matured a market share, and honed a critical aesthetic perspective on Greater Chinese modern art. Under the leadership of founder-director Tina Keng, the gallery has cemented its place as an arbiter of modern and contemporary art taste in Taiwan. The question is: How will the legacy, upon this solid foundation, be passed on?

 

As a second-generation gallerist, Shelly Wu, the daughter of Tina Keng, chose not to inherit control over Tina Keng Gallery ten years ago; instead, Wu launched a contemporary art platform: TKG+. Extending beyond modern art and incorporating new energy, the brand position of TKG+ was gradually established through intensive experimentation. TKG+ champions art forms such as video, installation, performance, and conceptual art. What distinguishes TKG+ from Tina Keng Gallery is that the former places greater emphasis on contemporary art. What remains unchanged is TKG+’s forward-looking vision and international perspective. Step by step, with particular attention paid to the exhibition production mechanism, the gallery continues to deepen its academic roots while expanding to more diverse markets.

 

When TKG+ was founded, its primary focus was on young emerging artists. A decade later, Wu has noticed a significant transformation of the brand since its inception: “Former young artists who have been active for a long time have now reached middle age, and they become more experienced as time goes on. As the artist matures, the brand image of the gallery transforms as well. This is a testament to the symbiotic growth achieved through long-term artist-gallery collaboration.”

 

As TKG+ matures, the TKG+ Projects space was later conceived, which aims to highlight experimental art forms that defy the market mechanism, while retaining the organizational culture of the gallery. The in-house curator shares his experience in art production within the gallery mechanism, allowing ideas to circulate through different brands, while appealing to different groups of target audience. On the difference between the two auxiliary platforms, Wu elaborates, “TKG+ Projects does not represent artists, so in ten or twenty years, its distinction from TKG+ will become even more clear. When the former emerging artists TKG+ represent reach the mid-career stage, TKG+ Projects will still be collaborating with young artists. Its experimental spirit and criticalness are not bound by the gallery mechanism, nor are they skewed by commercial considerations; TKG+ Projects has its own vision. Through this platform, TKG+ will also be exposed to new artists, thereby opening up new possibilities for collaboration. This will remain a fundamental principle.” This dynamism and openness has become the nucleus of both TKG+ and TKG+ Projects. While the three brands are distinctively positioned, they share resources and form a symbiotic relationship within the gallery’s organizational mechanism, ultimately becoming a beacon to the Taiwanese gallery industry.

 

Jun Yang: An Art Market Experiment

 

Jun Yang’s artistic practice transcends the limitations of media and form. It could be a talk show, a restaurant, even a proposal for a contemporary art center. In his latest exhibition, the experiment between concepts and institutions has formed a point of convergence between TKG+ Projects’ artistic thinking, and TKG+’s collecting program and advocacy of contemporary art. But for Taiwan’s gallery industry, the results of such an experiment remain to be seen.



[1] Ping Lin, “Art Exhibition: Its Value and Spatial Relationships,” Museology Quarterly 19, No. 1 (January 2005): 35.

 

of 4