Mai Gallery in New York Time

I was now headed toward the Mai gallery, hoping to meet Tran Phuong Mai, the owner, herself. As I wandered from art gallery to art gallery, her name kept coming up in conversation, as other dealers would describe her — sometimes with a slight roll of the eyes or a faint note of exasperation in their voices — as being among the most prominent figures in their midst, the one who was most adeptly taking advantage of the increased attention contemporary Vietnamese art was attracting in the West. (Well, that was certainly in contrast to one gallery owner I met, who when I happened to mention that Charles Saatchi, the noted British collector, was beginning to feature young Vietnamese on his Web site, said, “Charles Saatchi? Oh, I got an e-mail from him several months ago asking me if he could link my gallery Web site. But I had never heard of him. Is he famous?”)

Young, stylish, attractive and with a close relationship with many of the city's young artists, Mai was beginning to sound like a character I knew well from my days of living in Manhattan in the early 1980s, when New York's downtown art scene was exploding. Could this be the Mary Boone of Hanoi?

When I finally tracked down Mai at Mai gallery, a three-story space on 113 Hang Bong Street, it was clear to me she was a young force — she's 36 — in Hanoi's art world. With a stylish crop of jet black hair and trendily dressed in a hooded red zipper jacket and black skinny jeans, she looked every bit the part of an artist's friend. But she also had the demeanor of an experienced businesswoman. She instructed her assistant to get us a pot of tea, and she invited me to sit while she told me her story.

“We were the first private art gallery to open after doi moi,” she said referring to the Communist government's decision in 1986 to allow foreign trade and private ownership. A poet's daughter who grew up around artists — many of whom painted her portrait as a child — Mai opened her original gallery in 1993 with the help of her parents. “Previously, every gallery was state owned, and Vietnamese contemporary art was anonymous to the rest of the world,” she said, adding that the Hanoi University of Fine Arts (previously the École Superieure Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine) had provided Vietnam with an unending supply of talent since it was founded by the French in 1925.

“Now many of our artists are exhibiting outside of the country,” she said, adding that her paintings, like those in most Hanoi galleries, range in price from $300 for a small canvas by a relatively unknown artist to less than $6,000 for a large canvas by one of the “Gang of Five”— the first contemporary group to gain international recognition outside Vietnam, in the late '90s.

“My clients come from all over the world,” she said as she escorted me to see “master” paintings — works from modern artists like Bui Xuan Phai, whose work is frequently compared to Van Gogh's and Klee's, and who died in poverty in 1988. Now his paintings are sold by Mai for $10,000 and go at auction for twice that.

From “ The Awakening of Hanoi “ -  New York Time                                Published: February 18, 2007

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