Meet the Asian art world’s dynamic new duo
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They may only be in their early 30s, but the art adviser Ed Tang and collector Jonathan Cheung are already making an impression on the art market. The childhood friends joined forces professionally at the beginning of this year and have helped organise an exhibition with the heavyweight international gallery Sprüth Magers this week. Timed to coincide with the opening of Art Basel Hong Kong, they have selected nine young artists to show alongside 15 of those on the gallery’s roster in an exhibition called Go Figure?! (May 19-26).
The title of the online-only exhibition plays on what Tang, the chattier of the pair, identifies as the “fluidity” of the moment. “It is not an academic theme. Some of the works are figures, some are not. Some complement each other, some of them challenge each other, some contradict each other. They are not formal pairings. In these trying days, we’re all attempting to ‘Go Figure?!’” Tang says. Cheung, known to most people as JC, interjects: “We want people’s eyes to ping pong back and forth.”
The pair did not go into business to organise exhibitions but the opportunity to work with Sprüth Magers came about through a conversation over dinner with Patricia Crockett, the gallery’s Hong Kong representative. “Once she proposed the collaboration, we knew we had to do it. Sprüth Magers is like an institution to us,” Tang says. “It was a real leap of faith on their part, we are virgins in this area,” he adds.
From the gallery’s point of view, this is precisely the play. “They have continually opened my eyes to an abundance of extremely talented young artists. The idea of a collaboration therefore made complete sense,” says Crockett, who has known the pair for many years.
Tang and Cheung’s main focus, however, is the running of Art-Bureau, a new art advisory partnership that they founded to guide collectors at all levels through the often confusing art world. Their clients are international — Tang is based in New York while Cheung is in his native Hong Kong. “Luckily, I’m a morning person and JC is a night owl,” Tang says.
Their sweet spot is Asia’s millennial generation, the market’s holy grail just now. Tang describes these collectors as “like sponges, absorbing all the information very quickly and seeing the value of having people advise them through it.” He cut his teeth at all three major auction houses — Phillips, Christie’s and Sotheby’s — before turning 30 and worked with market heavyweights Allan Schwartzman and Amy Cappellazzo at Art Agency, Partners (later acquired by Sotheby’s).
Cheung says that Tang was instrumental to his collecting habits. “I was one of those sponges and still am in many ways. I was fortunate enough to have had advice from Ed. There is so much going on, you can walk into Art Basel or any fair and feel lost. That’s exactly why we are doing this,” Cheung says.
Both are modest and understated — Cheung’s off-screen puppy occasionally interrupts our Zoom — but also clearly adept networkers, perfectly plugged in to the young art scene they represent. Cheung’s other day job is as the co-founder of a lifestyle PR and marketing company, Buzz Agency; he was recently described by Tatler Asia as one of Hong Kong’s “most invited men”. Tang, the son of the late businessman (and Financial Times columnist) David Tang, had a star-studded wedding to a Sotheby’s executive in 2019. “Art collecting can be a lifestyle too and having fun is part of that,” says Tang, who also collects.
They remain on the right side of serious for the generally conservative art world, though. Both have successfully channelled their influencer skills into major institutions. Tang served on Tate’s Asia-Pacific Acquisition Committee for several years and Cheung now sits on the same, as well as on the Council of the Serpentine Galleries. He is also a member of the first International Council for Visual Art for M+ museum, due finally to open in Hong Kong at the end of this year. Bringing the museum to the public has been fraught with delays and infighting and its organisers are currently facing accusations of censoring some of the works due for show. Cheung’s perspective is more straightforward: “I am just happy that it is opening. It is a landmark museum, and not just for Hong Kong,” he says.
They are a breath of fresh air, even over a three-zone Zoom connection. Both are infectiously excited about their forthcoming exhibition with Sprüth Magers and enjoy sharing the parallels they see between their works and those from the gallery. Their highlights include Sprüth’s ink-jet print by Cao Fei, “Nova 09” (2019, €15,000), a scene from outside a nightclub with a cinematic atmosphere that chimes with a new work by the Finland-born Henni Alftan, “In the dark” (2021, $35,000). The subject of “Hey Handsome” (2021, $5,500), a portrait by the Chinese artist Oscar yi Hou, “may have stumbled home from Cao Fei’s disco”, they note. Tang is keen too on a 2008 “Tisch” (table) work by Rosemarie Trockel (€220,000), one of the first artists he bought from Sprüth Magers. He compares the physicality of two of the table legs, which look like a pair of gigantic feet, to the monumental physique of a shrouded figure in an oil they have chosen by the young French painter Diane Dal-Pra (“There is no blood on the carpet”, 2021, €10,000).
Both are more than comfortable with their first showing being online. “We’ve all got used to looking at all things on tablets or iPhones. It isn’t a Hong Kong specific phenomenon but the Asian audience for art has been more adaptive to screens, partly because they are younger,” Cheung says. “Anything that is desirable is now at your fingertips,” adds Tang.
May 19-26, spruethmagers.com