Cover Elaine Kwok (Photo: Supplied)

In July, Elaine Kwok, the former head of 20th and 21st century art at Christie’s Asia Pacific, started a new role at Hauser & Wirth. She reveals how she juggles parenthood with a burgeoning career in the arts

Elaine Kwok is an international art connoisseur and auctioneer, who until not too long ago, was afraid of public speaking. Kwok specialises in modern and contemporary art, and impressively, can conduct sales simultaneously in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. In 2018, she sold Wood and Rock by artist Su Shi for US$60 million—the most expensive work of art ever sold by Christie’s in Asia. With 15 years of experience between London and Hong Kong at the noted auction house under her belt, Kwok is lodged deeply within the art world. She was recently appointed managing partner for Asia at Hauser & Wirth, and is responsible for the international gallery’s operations in the region.

The mother-of-three serves on the museum advisory committee of the Hong Kong government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department, and is vice-chair of the executive committee of the Friends of Hong Kong Museum of Art. Kwok has racked up serious credibility in the art scene.

Here, she reveals her secrets of success:

Tell us about your new position at Hauser & Wirth. How does it differ from your previous role at Christie’s?

As managing partner at Hauser & Wirth in Asia, I am responsible for the leadership and strategy of the gallery’s activities in the region, as well as furthering the gallery’s relationship with artists, museums, institutions and collectors in Asia. 

The work of a primary gallery is fundamentally different from that of an auction house, which is focused on transactions in the secondary market. At Hauser & Wirth, we work directly with artists and estates to develop careers and reputations and shape legacies. At an auction, the highest bidder wins, whereas pricing as a gallery is more nuanced, and our focus is always on what is the best for the artist.

How does your job make a difference in the art space?

Hauser & Wirth is led by an artist-minded approach, and our work has great impact on artists’ careers and the way art is understood by society. We are deeply committed to the diversity of artists and of our teams, as well as the emphasis on sustainability, education and community engagement.

I have heard from quite a few young people in Asia that my work has inspired them to study art and aspire to careers in the art world. I am always humbled that I can play a small role in encouraging more young people to engage with the arts.

In your opinion, what does it take to be a great auctioneer?

A great auctioneer knows her audience, and can adapt and excel in the face of different crowds. A marquee evening sale where hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake is very different from an off-season wine auction with parcel lots, which is different again from a black-tie charity auction at which guests expect to be entertained. A great auctioneer should modify her tone, pace, language and style to suit the needs of each auction to give a performance that achieves the best results.

Do you have any mentors? If so, who are they and what is the best piece of advice they have given you?

[President and co-founder] Iwan Wirth teaches me the importance of focus, and being uncompromising in quality and excellence. [Director and co-founder] Manuela Wirth’s deep commitment to education and community engagement has also broadened my mind to the impact that a business can have on society. On managing a growing team, Ewan Venters, our CEO, reminds me that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and emphasizes a collaborative approach in leadership.

What has been your biggest career obstacle to date? How did you overcome it?

Managing parenthood together with a demanding career is perhaps the most daunting challenge I have faced. It requires working with people I trust both at work and at home, plus acceptance that things will never be perfect. Still, I feel incredibly fortunate to have a beautiful, large family and a career that I love, and this immense satisfaction in both aspects of my life gives me energy and stamina.

How do you plan to develop Hauser & Wirth over the next five years?

Hauser & Wirth in Asia is still in its early stages. I would like to integrate Hauser & Wirth more closely with the community in Hong Kong, and grow the gallery and our artists’ impact here in Asia. There are many exciting plans to come, so watch this space.

What is one surprising thing about you that most people don’t know?

I was terrified of public speaking until years into auctioneering. For me, public speaking is as skill that I learnt; not a talent that I was born with.

Also, my family owns vineyards in the Bordeaux region of France. My father purchased our first vineyard in Saint-Émilion in 1997, and since then, we have been going to France at least twice a (non-pandemic) year. That’s where I learnt French.

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