One afternoon, curator Cosmin Costinas discussed the challenging past year for Para Site, the non-profit gallery he runs on the 22nd floor of a building in the Quarry Point area of ​​Hong Kong.

“When everything we took for granted was turned upside down,” he said in a video interview, his team asked, “Why should we survive as an institution?” What are art institutions for anyway? “

They thought about how Para Site could respond directly to the urgent moment. For art organizations “to really justify their presence,” said Mr. Costinas, curator and managing director of the gallery, “they need to be embedded in the community.”

During the pandemic, Para Site, one of Hong Kong’s oldest independent galleries, formed a coalition with 16 other non-profit art groups – large and small, established and newly-started, multi-artist-run – under the name Hong Kong Collective Independent Art Spaces. In return for individual donations of Hong Kong dollars (approximately $ 52), posters were offered by artists as part of 2020Solidarity, a global initiative, and the proceeds were shared equally among members.

As in other art capitals with major art dealers and art fairs, such independent galleries allow “less mainstream talent to be seen,” said John Tain, research director at Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong. “The special thing about the scene here is that real estate is notoriously expensive, but artists have found ways to support these spaces.”

Each group on sale received the equivalent of about $ 490 – not a fortune, but “it’s a big deal for us,” said artist Kay Mei Ling Beadman, whose four-year-old Hidden Space was a recipient. “We have no funding. We work on the air. “

Hidden Space takes up 300 square feet of Ms. Beadman’s studio in an industrial building in the Kwai Hing area. She and two artist colleagues, Isabella Ng and Katie Ho, invite colleagues to realize ambitious projects there.

“Hong Kong artists have small studios and the only time they make it big can they put on a show,” she said. One, Ayumi Adachi, filled the gallery with an insane installation of tracing paper covered with lines of ink.

Hidden Space is by no means the most compact place of its kind in the city. The artist Man Tin has been organizing shows in the Précédée, a flat, glass-fronted shop in a busy section of the Yau Ma Tei district, since 2017. It’s just big enough for a few people to stand inside, and its exhibits – by Ip Wai Lung, Kacey Wong, and others – can be viewed from the outside 24 hours a day (ideal during a pandemic).

Mr. Tin teaches digital art at the Open University in Hong Kong and is putting the money he used to rent a studio with in his pocket-sized gallery. “I want to show my students that they have to act if they want change,” he said.

This means that such spaces often adopt unusual operating models, not just new artistic ideas. Veteran 1a Space is organizing shows, residencies and a mentoring program for art critics in a former slaughterhouse in the To Kwa Wan area and is launching a performance festival.

“Part of our mission is to make contemporary art accessible and fun,” said Juliana Chan, gallery owner of 1a. In normal years there were guided tours for students through Art Basel. This week open studios with six artists in residence will take place here.

Para Site, which has a multi-generation group show called Curtain, now offers dental and health insurance to artists while they work with them (largely unknown in this precarious field). It also awards non-binding grants to local artists. (It’s well-positioned to do so, with an auction gala, donations, and public money backing the 4,500-square-foot operation – a formidable rise from its humble beginnings as the founding of seven enterprising artists 25 years ago.)

While Art Basel can be an ideal time for local outfits to grab attention, not everyone is involved. Hidden Space doesn’t even host stage shows during the fair. “We don’t strive to be part of the art market circus,” said Ms. Beadman, who was to speak on a panel about independent spaces at the Art Central satellite fair in Basel.

Others remain fairly unremarkable all year round. On Lamma Island, 25 minutes by ferry from the bustling Central District, artist Tiffany Sia has created a daring project and residency program called Speculative Place in the house she shares with her husband.

It is “an elastic place for artists, writers and filmmakers to work and live together,” said Ms. Sia, who was born in Hong Kong and returned in 2018 after about 20 years in the United States.

Speculative Place was funded by the couple’s day jobs and has hosted artists such as Carolyn Lazard from Philadelphia and Joshua Gen Solondz from Brooklyn. After the trip was suspended, Ms. Sia postponed online programming and started a press.

This spate of activity comes at an uncertain time for Hong Kong as China’s new national security law reshapes civil society and restricts freedom of expression. At the same time that the South China Morning Post reported that a downturn in retail sales boosted rundown art spaces, there is talk that artists with the ability to walk could potentially go elsewhere.

Still, a certain evanescence has always been part of the local scene. In addition to that huge rent, people have long come and gone during the political changes in this immigration center. Some rooms “can fly at night – they don’t last that long,” said Mr. Tain. But while they operate, they can nurture vital communities.

“The publicly available things are half the story,” Ms. Beadman said of Hidden Space. “Just being together and talking and being able to be open is one of the critical things we want to do.”

Ms. Sia said Ms. Beadman advised her that the names of some of these free-wheeling companies were instructive. Beyond hidden space and speculative space, there are Rooftop Institutes, Floating Projects and Parallel Space. Everyone, she said, “is almost self-conscious about the fact of its possible impermanence or just its secret nature.”

“We’re part of a story and a scene where people try to do things for as long as they can,” said Ms. Sia.