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Young at ART

Creative mover Nicole Schoeni takes a hiatus

At 32, Nicole Schoeni is planning to take a break. Her three art galleries are being temporarily closed down and she is planning her wedding in France. But this is not the last we’ll be seeing of her on the art scene. While the break may give Schoeni some time to relax and reflect on the past nine years since her life changed so dramatically in 2004, she also wishes to continue promoting art, encouraging emerging artists and using art for philanthropic ventures. She is, after all, her father’s daughter.

Schoeni’s father, Manfred, was a well-known Swiss art dealer who had his own Hong Kong gallery business before he was murdered, in an attack believed to be motivated by robbery, on the Philippine island of Boracay in 2004. He had lived in Hong Kong since 1975 and strongly believed in the work of young mainland artists. He famously took a chance on one young emerging artist, Yue Minjun, who now commands huge prices at auction. His daughter helped out in the gallery from a young age and was often taken to China to meet artists and see their studios.

“By taking me to meet all these artists, he wanted me to understand how hard he had to work and to share his passion,” Schoeni says. “In the 1990s, a lot of the artists that he represented these artists were unknown, struggling young artists, who he helped hold exhibitions and publish catalogues. He also introduced a lot to them to museum curators. They’ve now become icons of their generation.”

At the time of her father’s death, Schoeni, then 23, was doing her finals in Chinese language and economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. She came back to Hong Kong straight away and, just four days after her father died, found herself helping out at one of his gallery’s exhibitions. For reasons that she can’t immediately explain, she says it just felt right to do so. She never completed her exams and instead took over the gallery business – something she says came quite naturally, thanks to her artistic upbringing.

Last year, for the 20th anniversary of the Schoeni Art Gallery, she met up with some of the artists who her father had helped make it internationally. “I wanted to get some of their stories of their relationship with my father,” she says. “They told me how they really struggled to make ends meet, but there was always a buzz when my father, this gweilo with a bag of money, came to visit. It meant that these young artists could survive and continue with their work.”

When he father died, Schoeni didn’t just take over the running of the gallery business. Schoeni senior was an entrepreneur who also had a vineyard in South Africa, a restaurant in Shanghai, a furniture and art business joint venture in Bangkok, and an antiques business. Schoeni sold the last of these businesses last year.

Her stalwart support throughout this time has been her Chinese mother, Wai-yin Schoeni. “Mum has always been there to help and advise me,” she says. “I’m a very stubborn person. She has always given me her advice, but she also understands that I have to learn from my own mistakes. Even though she was there to advise me, she knew that I was the one who had to make decisions. I have learned that mothers are always right! And yet I still don’t always listen to her, but that’s the nature of family.”

Her mother is also the force behind her recent decision to take a step back from the gallery business. “As a caring and worried mum, she told me to have a break – and not keep thinking up projects and ideas,” she says. “She planted the idea in my head a while ago. She really felt it was time for a break. Running three galleries is incredibly time-consuming. I’m also over-passionate – we’ve done at least 12 exhibitions per year, which is a lot, but there is so much I want to share with people.”

Perhaps not entirely taking her mother’s advice, Schoeni is now getting her projects together for her post-gallery days. As well as her wedding and her plan to renovate her Lantau house, she also has several continuing projects with young emerging artists and local charities.

“We have some young artists who are already successful,” she says. “Yang Yongliang, for example, is a multimedia artist who does traditional Chinese landscape paintings, but then uses technology to change them. There’s always a sense of edge and uncertainty in his work. We still have close friendships with these artists, though most of them now work with institutions or museums. I’m very lucky, though, in the sense that I can always pop into their studios to see how they are doing.”

Another of Manfred Schoeni’s protégés was Zeng Fanzhi. “Zeng is most famous for his mask series,” Schoeni says. “He has an exhibition coming up in France. I’m actually loaning him one of the paintings from our collection for his exhibition. I want to continue working with young emerging artists during my break.”

Her fiancé, Will Toye, a Briton who works in property development, moved to Hong Kong 10 years ago. Schoeni says he laughs at the idea that she will take a break, but she says she is trying to heed her mother’s advice. “I started to think about what was important in my life,” she says.

Schoeni’s decision to shut her galleries came as a shock to the art community. She stresses, however, that this is not the end and that she very much wants to stay in art, but from a more philanthropic standpoint.

She’s been talking to the Sovereign Art Foundation about a project involving art therapy for underprivileged children. Then there’s The Patch Project (see below), named after her dog, Patch, which involves people commissioning the emerging mainland artist Chen Yongliang to paint their pets’ portraits. The money raised will go towards helping Chen go abroad to study, where he will also be able to experience all new worlds of art.

“Chen Yongliang is only 30 this year and has an immense talent for photo realism,” Schoeni says. “He is anxious to get out of China and experience something different.”


NICOLE’S INITIATIVE  Named after the Jack Russell dog given to Schoeni on her 30th birthday by her fiancé, The Patch Project is an initiative to raise funds for the young, talented mainland artist Chen Yongliang to further his education in New York. Pet owners can commission Chen to paint their animals, with all proceeds going towards Chen’s school fund.