Former banker Adriana Alvarez-Nichol is bringing Latino art to Asia and accessibility to the art scene
Creating an exciting avenue for Asian collectors to discover Spanish and Latin American contemporary art is the aim of gallery owner Adriana Alvarez-Nichol.
The desire to provide a “non-elitist” environment for art lovers motivated her to open her gallery Puerta Roja in Hong Kong.
Born in Mexico, the former banker became an economist with the country’s institute of technology ITAM before moving to Britain to take a masters degree. A passionate ambassador for art from her home country, she opened Puerta Roja in Sheung Wan five years ago. The gallery - the only exhibition space for Spanish and Latin American art in the region - has prospered and moves to SOHO 189 in Central next month.
“My parents instilled a love of art in me, so I was quite knowledgeable from a young age,” she says. “[Even so] I would often walk into a gallery as a confident woman with the means to acquire art and I would still feel intimidated. I thought, if I felt that way, how would it be for someone who is just in the process of discovering art? Why does the experience have to be so difficult?”
Alvarez-Nichol says there was a time in the ’80s and ’90s when gallery staff seemed to believe that art had to be aspirational – that you had to “reach out” for it. It was an attitude she vehemently opposed. “In my view it doesn’t diminish the art to bring it closer to more people to appreciate.” From that perspective, she says she set about attempting to introduce “a different way of exploring art”.
Her highly successful career in private and investment banking began after she was awarded Britain’s Chevening Scholarship to attend the prestigious London Business School (LBS) – it was the first time it had been awarded to a business degree holder. Alvarez-Nichol says it “opened all the doors for an international career in banking”, something she enjoyed for more than a decade and which involved extensive travel and the opportunity to take on a number of diverse roles. Her job was to “get things done” and she was once named one of the “Top Ten Most Powerful Mexican Women Abroad” by CNN.
One of five siblings, Alvarez-Nichol was “always good with numbers” but also encouraged to appreciate culture. “It was important to my parents that we choose a serious career and be independent, but they also instilled in us a love of art. When we travelled we would have to visit museums and galleries for a few hours before we got lunch - we loved it. My father had a very genuine, down-to-earth approach to art. It wasn’t elitist to us, it was something that was there to be enjoyed,” she recalls.
While living in London, she became increasingly dissatisfied with her working life.“ I craved something else. The adrenalin I had initially felt, the travelling, the ambition – were no longer enough,” she says, and it was during a trip to Asia that she made the decision to start afresh with “something I was passionate about in a deeper, more personal way”.
Having lived in Hong Kong before, around 2000, she and her husband had established good professional and personal networks here.
“One of the biggest advantages I gained from LBS – which has been instrumental in my success as an entrepreneur – was the invaluable opportunity to develop business and social networks.”
Alvarez-Nichol recalls that during her first week living in Hong Kong, she attended an entrepreneurs’ forum organised by LBS. That’s where she received her most valuable piece of advice. A young man who had started a fashion design business told her, “Make as many little mistakes as you can as soon as possible and be flexible. Don’t start with a grand, rigid vision, as it will be very difficult to evolve - you are never going to be right the first time.” She says his advice was spot-on.
Alvarez-Nichol has been on the board of the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Association for three years and is convinced the city will continue to “solidify” as the hub for contemporary art in Asia.
“Hong Kong has become pivotal for the internationalisation of contemporary art in the Asia-Pacific region,” she says.
When she opened Puerta Roja, many Latin American and Spanish artists questioned her decision. “There was still no awareness of how big and how interesting this market could be for them. Now people are very excited about what is happening here. There is a dynamism and energy that’s not been seen in the US and particularly Europe for some time and that’s really starting to generate creative curiosity on behalf of our artists. No artist today can afford not to have a presence here.”
Alvarez-Nichol spends a great deal of time helping potential collectors feel comfortable with art and encouraging them to enjoy the process of developing their own criteria, taste and responses to work. She holds exhibitions, arranges private meetings with artists, gives talks about the art market at businesses and her gallery and hosts intimate events where clients can have a conversation with the artist and “feel” the works as they would at home.
“I like to quote a New York critic who was asked for his definition of what a collector is and he said, ‘An art collector is someone who purchases a work having no idea where he’s going to put it’.”