Senior Specialist, Senior Director Lihua Tung
Lihua Tung joined Phillips this February, becoming a key member of our 20th Century & Contemporary Art team in Hong Kong. Lihua brings with her well over a decade of experience working in the arts, from her beginnings in the Taiwanese Council for Cultural Affairs to a long career in the auction world where she's helped win key consignments and stage pioneering sales. As we look ahead to this spring's auctions, and our five-year anniversary in Hong Kong, we sat down with Lihua to learn more about her journey and the future of Phillips in Asia.
PHILLIPS: Tell us about how you first got started working in the art world. What was your career path before joining Philips?
LIHUA TUNG: I’ve had a unique path compared to some other specialists here. I was born and raised in Taiwan, and my entire education took place in Taiwan as well. I earned a master’s degree in arts management, but at that time in 2005, the art world in Asia was substantially less developed than it is now. Auctions were not yet very popular here, so my goal back then was to work in a museum or for the government.
I got very lucky, and my first-ever job in the arts was working for the Council for Cultural Affairs in Taiwan. Today, that would be called the Ministry of Culture, Taiwan. I worked as a government official in charge of visual arts exchange between Taiwan and foreign countries. I mainly worked with the United States and Canada, but also with several European countries. Our main goal was to promote Taiwanese artists and facilitate more opportunities for them to show their work abroad. I worked there for two years, and I loved working directly with artists on these projects.
In early 2007, I joined the Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art team at Christie’s because they needed liaisons for their clients and consignors in Taipei. Their top-level specialists had just moved to Hong Kong, and I had to do a bit of everything just to keep the office running. It was an incredible learning opportunity and really my first time engaging with art as a business: I learned about appraisals, estimates, restoration and even installation. I worked there for eleven years in Taipei and was very fortunate to witness my career blossom during that time.
P: How was it that you came to be living and working in Hong Kong?
LT: Before 2016 or 2017, Asian art and Western art were quite siloed in the market at large. It was largely assumed that collectors in Asia were interested in Asian artists and so that was what events, auctions and institutions in the region were focused on. In 2017, I helped put together a special themed evening sale called "Contemporaries" that combined Western and Asian works. It was really a collaboration brought on by our clients, who were beginning to diversify their tastes. After helping with that sale for two seasons, I was asked if I wanted to move to Hong Kong and start working with the global team on more of a combination of Western and Asian art there. I do think my experience working for the Taiwanese government gave me relevant experience in viewing the art world globally and searching for those connections. I saw it as a great chance to try something new, so I accepted and began a new phase of my career in Hong Kong.
P: Why did you decide to join Phillips?
LT: I began paying close attention to Phillips from the very first evening sale held in Hong Kong. I was really impressed because the Phillips strategy was quite brave and they really took the chance to try things in a new way. I was struck by the quality of the works on offer, and by the fact that Western and Asian artists were presented together from the very beginning. It felt like this strategy of putting together smaller, more tightly-edited sales featuring the best of multiple categories was something that would truly resonate with the modern collector. Phillips brought something new to the table and we've seen that the market at large has followed.
P: Beyond a greater desire for Western artists, what are some of the broader trends you’re noticing in the market for 20th century and contemporary art?
LT: The market is changing so fast now, and collectors everywhere notice that. But in Asia specifically, the collectors themselves have changed a lot. There is a broader awareness of the larger art ecosystem outside of Asia, and I’m not so sure there is as much of a distinction between the market here and the market elsewhere. Trends are truly global.
In Hong Kong specifically, it does feel like the entire art world has come to us. All the major galleries now have spaces here, not to mention the impact Art Basel Hong Kong has had. Many of these spaces and events have been here for years now, and they feel more ingrained in city life. That means that collectors are more knowledgeable and generally have an idea of what they want before even approaching a specialist.
This has caused a true cultural exchange. It’s not just reflected in Asian collectors wanting more Western artists, but also in greater representation of Asian artists popping up in Western institutions and galleries. Even the new MoMA in New York has totally changed the way they install works to fit a broader, more contemporary mindset. This shift really speaks to why I came to Phillips. This unified, global mindset has been part of the Phillips ethos for years now.
P: What are you looking forward to about Phillips’ series of Hong Kong auctions this spring?
LT: Last year, we did quite well despite a number of challenges. This year, we look forward to showcasing the enthusiasm we’ve been hearing from both buyers and consignors as we put our sales together, although we are now facing a more challenging environment due to the coronavirus outbreak globally. However, no matter what, there is always a market for master artists, blue-chip names and top-quality works. Especially at this moment, we feel the power of art, which can really soothe the anxiety and panic of the outside world. There is incredible energy coming through to us on digital channels right now. We have some exciting things planned, and even though I can’t reveal everything just yet, I look forward to sharing with our clients later this season.