Nicole Schoeni on Her Abrupt Ascent From Student to Power Dealer

Nicole Schoeni on Her Abrupt Ascent From Student to Power Dealer
Nicole Schoeni

Any young, ambitious gallerist might view Nicole Schoeni with a touch of envy. At the age of 32, she is heading one of Hong Kong’s top galleries, Schoeni Art Gallery, which specializes in Chinese contemporary art. She deals in millions of dollars, selling works by Chinese A-listers such as Zeng Fanzhi, Zhang Xiaogang, and Yue Minjun. She’s not only young but well-spoken and glamorous, with a Swiss-Chinese heritage.

But while her job may be enviable, the circumstances surrounding her ascent are far from it. In 2004, her father Manfred Schoeni, who had founded the gallery, was murdered while on holiday in the Philippines. Nicole, then 23 and an undergraduate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, was his only child. Overnight, she found herself the sole administrator of his estate, which comprised several businesses. She sold some of his ventures, including a vineyard in South Africa, but she kept the gallery, throwing herself into it with a kind of feverish, reckless abandon.

 

Just four days after her father’s death, she appeared at an exhibition opening at Schoeni. And as soon as she could, she flew out to Beijing to speak to the artists her father had groomed, assuring them that the gallery was still in business.

Nine years on, Schoeni Art Gallery is still going strong, though with some changes. It remains the foremost dealership in Hong Kong in top-roster Chinese contemporary art, keeping the old guard of artists from her father’s era, but it has also expanded its repertoire to include emerging Chinese and Hong Kong talent, such as new media artists Hung Keung and Yang Yongliang.

The move reflects Nicole’s tastes but is also a practical choice. She inherited the business in 2004, at the height of the Chinese contemporary art boom. She rode the wave for a time, but the demand for big-ticket mainland art slowed with the global economic meltdown in 2008. As demand for veteran artists slowed, she needed to introduce collectors to a new market: the next generation of emerging, more affordable artists.

Schoeni Art Gallery celebrated its 20th anniversary last November with a wide-ranging survey called “LATITUDE/ATTITUDE,” a celebration of the two-decade-long partnership between top Chinese contemporary artists and the gallery. Fifty works were on show, including many from the Schoeni collection, as well as the works of rising Chinese artists.

“To be honest, it has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride,” she says, sounding levelheaded and calm. She has a certain knack for understatement, downplaying her own resilience in the face of tragedy. Her father’s death and its repercussions were “a big adjustment to her life.” On her remarkable ability to hit the ground running, she says: “Till this day, I’m still surprised at myself. I was just a student, a typical spoiled Hong Kong kid. At that point I think I’d had only two work experiences.”

But it was clear to her that she had to take over the family business when her father died. There was simply no other option in her mind.

“Part of why I did it was because I was very grateful to how wonderful my parents have been to me over the years,” she explains. “Both of them came from humble backgrounds. I really appreciate the hard work that they had put in to give me everything. I felt a sense of responsibility and that it was time for me to show my appreciation.”

Her Swiss-born father was a maverick figure with a strong entrepreneurial drive. He left home when he was 14, entered the hotel business, and traveled the world. He settled in Hong Kong in the 1970s, where he met his Chinese wife, Nicole’s mother.

He ran several businesses, including a disco and an antiques business, which took him to China to source furniture. In Beijing, he came across some talented artists—young punks like Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun who would go on to achieve international fame—working in Yuan Ming Yuan, an artists’ village on the city’s outskirts. In 1992, he opened a gallery in Hong Kong to sell their works and played a crucial role in introducing Chinese contemporary art to international collectors.

Nicole was involved in her father’s business from a young age, making visits to artist studios in Beijing with him. She has memories of trying to sell works at art fairs as a child. The plan was that when she got older, after university, she would go to Beijing to improve her Mandarin in the hope that she would be more prepared to work in the gallery. Taking over for her father was “always an option,” she says “but it was never forced upon me.”

Then tragedy struck. In 2004, Manfred was found stabbed to death in a mansion on the Filipino island of Boracay, in an attack believed to be motivated by robbery. Though in her final year of university, Nicole stopped her classes, returned to Hong Kong, and plunged herself deeply into the gallery business.

She encountered her fair share of skeptics at the start. “There was a lot of uncertainty as to whether I was capable of doing the job,” she says. Older artists who had dealt with her father and known her as a little girl were unaccustomed to her being the laoban (the boss).

“It was hard because of the seniority of the artists. I was 23, and a girl. They were famous, and many were starting to gain international recognition.”

But she convinced them that she was serious about learning the ropes and being a worthy successor to her father. She threw herself into the gallery business, learning its frantic rhythms: the rapid treadmill of preparing for exhibitions, hanging the art, hosting the openings, and doing the sales.

If she were to give any advice to her 23-year-old self, it would be that “confidence is key,” she says. “Believe in yourself. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.”

Now she is an old hand, working with an intuitive eye for new talent and a self-confessed workaholic level of determination. In April, her gallery will feature a new show of up-and-coming Shanghai-born digital artist Yang Yongliang, whose works have been gathering buzz on the international exhibition and fair circuit. The artist, who is known for his detailed urban vistas inspired by shanshui paintings (Chinese brush-and-ink landscapes), has been represented by Schoeni for the past three years.

This year is especially busy for her as well, since “marriage and babies are in the cards.” She is getting married to her British property-agent boyfriend of seven years later this year. Her voice growing fond, she says: “He’s a complete traditionalist, very conservative. We are so different, but he is very sweet.”

Given that she has worked so hard to continue her father’s legacy in the gallery that bears the family name, it’s unsurprising that she wants to keep her own surname once she’s married. “A double-barreled surname for my children is the minimum,” she says. “I would like to keep the Schoeni name going.”