Often considered the domain of the elite, the art world is going through a much-needed period of change. We speak to Madelon de Grave, founder of Hong Kong photography curation brand Bamboo Scenes, about the rise of technology and inclusivity in art, and how she’s bringing the Hong Kong art scene to international audiences.
Imagine a world where you could dabble in art without knowing your Monets from your Manets, where you could buy quality original art at affordable prices, or where you could participate in a New York art auction through a computer screen in Hong Kong. For Madelon de Grave, this is the future of art.
The Dutch-Indonesian globetrotter developed a love for art by connecting with local artists during her travels and became heavily involved with the Hong Kong art scene when she moved here in 2015. She founded Bamboo Scenes in 2017 as a way to bring the stories behind the local art world to more people through intriguing photographic prints. But, as with many industries, the Covid-19 pandemic created seismic shifts in the art community, and de Grave is pushing Bamboo Scenes in a new direction to keep pace.
“We’re reframing the idea of a “gallery,” offering new methods of exhibition, and changing the way people experience art,” de Grave tells me when we meet on a rainy Monday morning for breakfast at Soho House Hong Kong. The timing of her statement is serendipitous. De Grave has just closed Bamboo Scene’s “Hong Kong Contrasts” exhibition, a showcase that highlighted the brand’s refreshed concept and commitment to pop-up exhibitions and using the city as a gallery.
TECH SAVVY ART
As with much of the art world over the last 18 months, Bamboo Scene’s new direction includes a shift into the digital space. “We’re putting a strong emphasis on the virtual experience,” de Grave says as the conversation shifts to how technology is changing her business. “Our focus is on creating stories and delivering an exceptional digital experience where viewers around the world can learn the stories of our artists, their art, and even our local craftsmen who create our unique frames.”
In this, Bamboo Scenes is keeping up with the times. Much of the art world has gone online due to pandemic restrictions. Auction houses began delivering digital-only auctions, with Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips setting a new record in the first half of 2020 by generating US$444 million in sales, a 388% increase over the same period in 2019. All the big art shows went digital, including Art Basel, which has hosted seven editions in online viewing rooms since March 2020.
But for de Grave, going online is as much about creating connections as facilitating sales. “By jumping into a virtual experience, we’re able to appeal to a global audience of art enthusiasts. It challenges us to think about how to tell that personal art story about a Hong Kong artist to someone in New York, for example. She sees the pandemic as an unprecedented opportunity to reach more people with an improved digital art experience while making them more comfortable with the idea of acquiring art virtually.
This determination to forge connection is part of another growing trend in the art world—inclusivity. The art world has a reputation for—consciously or not—marginalizing “other” artists, but that seems to be slowly changing. To whit: London’s Tate Modern will host a large-scale exhibition dedicated to Lubaina Himid, a Turner Prize-winning artist and cultural activist who was instrumental in the British Black arts movement, over winter 2021.
For Bamboo Scenes, inclusivity is happening on a smaller, though no less important scale. Their collective of eight photography artists spans gender and nationality and the thread linking them is their artistic focus on Hong Kong. But more important is the brand’s commitment to making art and photography accessible to everyone. “I strongly believe that art should be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of their background,” says de Grave. “People come from all walks of life and bring their own unique experiences through which they interpret art, and I want people to feel that they can be involved and have a valid opinion, no matter what. Bamboo Scene’s digital offerings and focus on storytelling create opportunities for people who haven’t previously encountered much art to discover and learn without feeling intimidated.”
There’s no doubt that the pandemic has forced the art world to go digital to stay relevant. It’s equally true that going virtual on such a large scale has created many opportunities for everyone to get a taste of art—just look at how Google Arts & Culture is offering digital tours of famous galleries like Paris’ Louvre museum. Whether this digital plush and press towards inclusivity will remain after the pandemic, though, remains to be seen. Perhaps it’s up to grassroots boundary-pushers like Bamboo Scenes to lead the charge.