Pearl Lam, trailblazer and superwoman of the art world
I meet Pearl Lam at her penthouse appartment in Mayfair, London which is a mini-reflection of her: eclectic, idiosyncratic, original…
For all the influence and respect she commands within the global art establishment, she has retained her mischivieous girl look. Petite, vivacious and very attractive, she speaks passionately about art, but also displays an abundance of curiosity about anything tangential cropping up in our conversation.
My first question is: why art?
The daughter of a Hong Kong property tycoon, the 9th son (and only achiever) in a large family, she could have chosen anything or nothing and lived a life of a wealthy heiress.
Pearl Lam was educated in the UK, but was nevertheless subject to the cultural and generational constraints of a traditional Chinese household – she was not “free”, as she puts it.
Culture was not a priority for her father’s generation in the way that survival was (interest in culture, she points out, comes with prosperity).
When she announced that she wanted to open an art gallery, her father was appalled. He, like all traditional Chinese, saw art as a means to self-cultivation, while having a gallery was tantamount to being a “shopkeeper”.
Pearl made a deal then: she would get involved in the family business if she could open an art gallery.
I didn’t ask her if she kept to the deal, but with four galleries under her belt, regular exhibitions and an art foundation, she has her work cut out.
Her galleries are all in mainland China –three in Shanghai and one in Beijing – because, she says, Hong Kong is merely a financial and trading center, not a culture hub.
Conceptualising Art: West v. East
Pearl Lam is at her most eloquent when it comes to emphasising the difference between the Western and Eastern models of art collecting and enjoyment.
Her historical references are copious and well-rehearsed and she draws a powerful distinction between art patronage in medieval Europe and the mandarins in Imperial China.
Many Chinese mandarins were government officials in the daily life and artists in their spare time – they were the elite- while Western artists were patronised by the elite.
The Chinese viewed art as self-cultivation, while their Western counterparts collected art as an investment first and commercial exploitation later.
Moreover, Chinese art has been traditionally and still is lateral, multi-functional, as opposed to “high art” displayed but divorced from any functionality.
I interject that a lot of Renaissance patronage was religiously motivated, as well as for social advancement, not just for resale.
Pearl emphasises the general difference: the Chinese collected and patronised art to appreciate its intrinsic worth, whereas Westerners used it as a means to another ends – social, financial, religious…
This dichotomy between art for enjoyment and self-cultivation on one hand and commercial profit on the other is at the heart of Pearl Lam’s gallery model.
Returning to her Chinese roots, she created a new model – her own:a fusion between traditional and multi-discipline art combined with clever marketing of the brand.
Most traditional Chinese art, she says, found its way into Taiwan museums at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, so she focused on contemporary art.
She invites and supports artists in residence where they create art works of their view of China (this could be any form of art from the decorative and functional to “high art”) and stages exhibitions that have a strong controversial element around the world.
Her galleries are, in fact, a platform for her beliefs, embracing cross-cultural differences and celebrating art in its different forms.
Art as an investment
In view of the above, I ask Pearl if art should be collected as an investment and what role hype plays in art.
“Any motive for collecting art is a good one”, is her surprising reply.
She elaborates on this:
Traditionally, the elite collected with a degree of passion and appreciation.
The middle classes followed suit and with their lack of confidence, collected what they thought was collectible.
The concept of collecting art for investment was thus born.
It is the auction houses that establish the commercial, rather than the intrinsic value of art. Together with galleries, they create hype and a stock market for art where values are subject to speculation and ultimately, inflation.
The middle classes derive a sense of status symbol which is further validated by this artificially created stock market.
Art as an investment is a very Western and bourgeois concept.
The Pearl Lam Foundation
The differences between the Western and Eastern model of art collecting will soon be bridged if not entirely reconciled through the efforts of the Pearl Lam Foundation which held its first summit in October 2008.
Leading figures from both the Western and Chinese art establishments met at what Pearl established as an awareness and cross-communications platform between the two.
The foundation will provide a working platform to explore ways of collaborating for the ultimate promotion of all good art and artists.