Asia’s market for contemporary art has come into its own over recent years, especially through Hong Kong, which has emerged as one of the world’s great art hubs. Among the architects and stakeholders of this emergence is Jonathan Crockett, chairman of the auction house Phillips in Asia. Here, he shares his thoughts on art and influence.
One of the great things about art is its ability to influence the way people feel. Art can and should evoke a variety of different emotions: joy, sadness, and even a deeper sense of inner peace. If a work of art isn’t evoking such emotions, or if it’s not influencing peoples’ lives in a meaningful way, then it's not doing its job—it's not great art.
This is something I’ve learned about art and its influence over the course of my career as an auctioneer. Phillips is a 225-year-old auction house founded in London; I oversee the company’s strategy in Asia as well as the 20th Century and Contemporary Art department in the region, in which the contemporary art market is in a stage of dynamic development.
The Chinese art market is one of the oldest in the world, but its nature has changed rapidly in recent history. Over the past 10 years, Hong Kong has developed into one of the world’s leading art markets, rising at a pace that’s unlike anywhere else ever before. It’s been a challenge to keep on top of this market, but Phillips has found success in our approach of offering international contemporary art at the very highest level.
I acknowledge that this work—my work—comes with a certain measure of influence, and I don’t take that for granted. With great influence, after all, comes great responsibility, and people of influence must use it to do the right thing. I have the responsibility to influence the art we include in our sales—the art that the collecting community in Asia is presented with. Therefore, I am charged with the responsibility to select and present art that's evocative and inspiring.
In pursuit of this, I’ve learned that it's not about being the biggest—it's about being the best. It’s about bringing high-quality artworks to a market of collectors who deserve it. Asia is the future when it comes to contemporary art, and it needs to be treated as such. That’s why we take pride in bringing in A-grade work by relevant artists.
But this work is not just about the art itself, nor is it just about selling art. It’s also about presenting art in a way that allows viewers and collectors to appreciate it fully. This involves curating and arranging a space in which to display the art, such that people can not only see it, but engage with it. Simply hanging a painting on a white wall in a hotel ballroom might not do it justice. We try to help people see something more in the art we offer—we try to help them stop and think and see art as it should be seen.
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Consider, for example, the ancient Chinese scholarly tradition of ink painting. Artists would leave the capital city and escape to the mountains or the countryside. There, they would find peace in solitude and meditation, writing poetry, composing music, spending days or even weeks to find an inner calm. Then they would come back to the city with ink paintings of landscapes to hang on the walls of their homes, to remind themselves of the inner peace they found in nature. Those paintings serve as a window to a more meditative, peaceful world.
Contemporary art can have a similar influence on people. It may not necessarily be the same story, but it's the same process. You can look at an artwork—say, a painting by Mark Rothko—and you can just lose yourself in it for hours. It can remind you of a particular time or a moment in your life. It can bring you that same inner peace. That, to me, is really one of the powerful influences of great art, and I hope that by sharing this with others, I’m using my own influence in a responsible way.
Jonathan Crockett is the chairman of Phillips in Asia and also its head of 20th Century and Contemporary Art. Since joining Phillips in 2016, he has spearheaded its growth, establishing its regional headquarters in Hong Kong and expanding its presence and influence across Asia. He has been named to Tatler Asia’s Most Influential: Hong Kong 2021
This essay is part of an op-ed series written by Asia's Most Influential 2021 honourees. See and learn more about Asia's Most Influential here.