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Art for Art’s Sake

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Korean transplant Hailey Shin’s sophomore art gallery is a first for DB and a welcome addition to the community- and you don’t have to buy anything. Elizabeth Kerr reports

Photos by Baljit Gidwaniwww.evoqueportraits.com

Ask, and most people will tell you that Hong Kong is a cultural wasteland. It’s a banking city, full stop. That goes double for far-flung districts like Discovery Bay. A sweeping and inaccurate statement of course, and one that can be disproven with even a modicum of patience, but the DB part has some legs. After all, DB Plaza has restaurants, doctors of all stripe, all manner of retailers and it plays host to numerous events – but there’s no art gallery. It’s the same story in DB North Plaza. At least it was until last March, when Gallery Jeeum flung open its doors.

“I actually signed a contract for the gallery in December 2019, and of course had no idea we’d have COVID-19,” begins Jeeum’s owner and curator Hailey Shin Eun-hye, a transplant from Seoul on a mission to build an accessible art empire. “So I postponed for a month, but things got worse and I decided to open anyway. There was no point in waiting. If I had I’d still be waiting.”

In hindsight, it turns out damning the torpedoes was the right course of action for the fortyish Hailey, who finds herself – and her gallery – filling a pandemic-induced exhibition hole. With borders closed and travel restricted, international artists who normally open a show with a personal appearance are postponing. But as Hailey says, “There are lots of new Hong Kong artists to show.” And DBers are responding.

The collector
It’s a drizzly Thursday morning and Hailey and her assistant Sujin are sitting at a small desk in the uber-minimalist gallery space. Hailey is a bit nervous; she’s prepared comments for questions she might get, and Sujin is at the ready with some quick Korean to English interpretation. But it’s not necessary. Hailey’s generally positive nature is evident, and she looks relaxed in her practical flat shoes and pencil leg pants. In typical Korean fashion, there are sweets ready for visitors.

Hailey always had an interest in art, and she started collecting seriously after graduating from Chung-Ang University’s classical piano programme. Her first purchase was a landscape over 20 years ago (“It made me so happy”), followed by prints, abstracts and sculptures. She likes David Hockney’s clean lines and Banksy’s direct messaging. Her favourite art movie is Simon Curtis’ Woman in Gold – not an easy pick like Pollock or Lust for Life – and finding Hailey and Sujin hauling canvases around isn’t unusual; no ‘art scene’ stilettos here.

Looking back, Hailey recalls how she was first drawn into the gallery world by an artist friend, who asked if he could display some of his work at the music studio she taught at in Seoul. She quickly did the same for 15 other artists. “But I wasn’t a professional, I didn’t know how to serve them best,” she recalls. “So I decided to learn the business.”

The DB connection
In 2014 Hailey opened the first Gallery Jeeum (in Seoul’s funky Hongdae district, now managed by her sister) and she decided to branch out in 2018, relocating to the SAR. “Many international galleries have a second branch in Hong Kong so I thought this was the place to be,” she says.

Discovery Bay became a home base from which Hailey could travel to art fairs around the world and learn the business hands on. While she currently lives in Hung Hom, she’s actively looking to relocate. The gallery, however, is another story.

To most art afficionados, the ‘right’ demographic isn’t in DB, and the corporate buyers and other dealers of Central are a long way away. But Hailey emphasises her goal is to support artists and make art accessible to all.

“Admittedly my budget was too small for Central, but I had cousins who lived here, so I was familiar with the area,” she says. “I was inspired by Miami Beach when I was looking at Discovery Bay.

“I like this space,” Hailey adds. “I like the terrace and how accessible it is. It’s not an office tower or industrial building that hides a gallery. I’m an artist too [she still teaches piano], so I want to work in a calm environment. I like seeing the mountains and the sea when I look outside.”

An accessible art empire
Local tourists are now frequent weekend guests, and Hailey can always connect with the connoisseurs at art fairs. Plus, she’s happy to be a forerunner. “I’ll take credit for being the first gallery in DB when the rest eventually open,” she says with a laugh.

The local tourists have helped raise Jeeum’s profile, but residents are getting in on the act too. Hailey often finds kids hanging out on the terrace, and people have gotten used to the idea of the gallery being there, and feel comfortable enough just to drop in and look – to Hailey’s delight. Like classical music or fine wine, she thinks the idea of art is still intimidating to many.

“I was there once. I was afraid to step into a gallery. But if kids think the terrace is part of a playground and get used to art then great. Art has a reputation for not being for the public, but until it’s sold it absolutely is. There’s a lot of an artist’s values and thoughts in art that can be opaque. We shouldn’t try to ‘understand’ the art or artist; we should just accept it. The function of art is for learning how to think and respect and love.”

Hailey’s gallery is unfussy and airy, and fitted with light pine floors and sparsely presented works. It’s casual and comfortable. The exhibitions change every month: in March, the spotlight was on Hong Kong-based American abstract artist Tyler Jackson Pritchard; this month it pivots to Yulia Shautsukova, a Russian-born DB resident, whose latest show comprises Hong Kong city views in both oil and watercolour.

Right now, Hailey is preparing for Jeeum’s participation in Art Central, May 20 to 23 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, where she will be presenting both Hong Kong and Korean artists. “The Art Central organisers evaluate galleries beforehand, which means that our gallery has reached a certain level,” she says with well-deserved pride. “It is my honour to attend. Our gallery’s reputation will be improved by our participation and it’s a great opportunity to spread our name worldwide.”
If things go Hailey’s way, there will be a third Jeeum branch overseas one day, maybe in New York. But for now, she’s going to concentrate on making DB North an art hotspot.

“No one needs to be afraid of a gallery, especially mine,” she finishes. “I want Jeeum to be a place where we can communicate. I’m just a neighbour. Come on in.”

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