Hard Hit Hong Kong Looks Beyond Art Basel Hong Kong Cancellation

Hong Kong skyline as seen from Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, near Hong Kong Cultural Center. Photo credit and courtesy of PrzemekJaczewski.
Art Basel Hong Kong 2019. Image copyright and courtesy of Art Basel.
Art Central 2019. Image courtesy of Art Central.
Ink Asia 2019 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Image courtesy Ink Asia.
After four years of renovations, the Hong Kong Museum of Art reopened in late November 2019 only to face temporary closure weeks later. Courtesy of the Hong Kong Museum of Art.
Asia Society Hong Kong. Photo credit and copyright: Michael Moran. Image courtesy of ARUP and Asia Society.
Tai Kwun – Centre for Heritage and Arts. Image copyright and courtesy of Tai Kwun – Centre for Heritage and Arts.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

The cancellation of Art Basel Hong Kong due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has set off a domino effect on Hong Kong’s busiest annual art week and the severity of its short-term impact should not be ignored. Nonetheless, many of the city’s galleries and institutions are coming together in support to ensure the longevity of its art scene.

Hong Kong skyline as seen from Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, near Hong Kong Cultural Center. Photo credit and courtesy of PrzemekJaczewski.

 

Highlights:

  • Galleries and institutions may face losses upwards of HKD200,000
  • Much anticipated HKAGA and SICD Art Gallery Day set for 3-4 April
  • Home-grown art events with joint forces also from Tai Kwun, M+, Parasite and more for late March to May underway
  • Hong Kong set to remain the lynchpin of the Asian art world

 

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

A week has passed since Art Basel Hong Kong (ABHK) announced the cancellation of its 2020 edition, just six weeks ahead of its slated date. While a handful of galleries and institutions had already suspended operations or postponed shows, the large majority were eagerly waiting for ABHK to take the lead. The statement, which was released at 5am HKT on Friday 7 February, ended weeks of anticipation and speculation that saw the art world embroiled and divided. As expected, Art Central followed suit within hours and a ripple effect has been unleashed as galleries, institutions and auction houses all carried out their decisions, which for most, resulted in postponements or cancellations.

For those of us living in Hong Kong, the disruption has been even more startling. As I write this today, the number of confirmed cases has exceeded 60,000 while the death toll has tipped well past 1,000 over a span of two months with the numbers still rapidly climbing. Face masks and frequent hand sanitization has become the new norm; while empty supermarket shelves and desolate shopping malls and streets are a frequent sight.

The impact on Hong Kong’s most prosperous week of the year for the art world is manifold. Frankly, there is an enormous short-term negative blow to all involved. Yet, this unfortunate turn of events this year has presented an opportunity for Hong Kong to come together stronger than before and demonstrate resiliency too.

 

Art Basel Hong Kong 2019. Image copyright and courtesy of Art Basel.
Art Central 2019. Image courtesy of Art Central.

 

The Disruption Is Real, The Financial Strain Is High

Truthfully, while everyone agrees with the decision, no one is happy with the inevitable cancellation. Not the disgruntled—and largely Western—galleries who called for extra concessions; nor the local art scene and home-grown galleries who thrive from Art Basel’s presence in the Asian financial hub.

“Whilst it is sad to see the most important event in Hong Kong’s art calendar cancel, I do understand that MCH took the decision based on health considerations,” said Hong Kong-based collector Alan Lo, who is also the co-founder of the Classified Group and serves on committees for various cultural institutions including the Tate and SFMOMA.

There’s no denying the short-term adverse impact of the cancellation of ABHK. “While cancelling Art Basel Hong Kong following the coronavirus outbreak is undoubtedly the wisest course of action, it will certainly hurt the bottom lines for dealers and artists from around the world,” said Morgan Long, Senior Director of The Fine Art Group in an email to CoBo Social.

“The impact of the cancellation for the local and regional galleries will obviously be substantial as March had become the time of the year for not just commercial sales but, more importantly, for networking opportunities with an international audience of collectors and curators,” said Fabio Rossi, founder of Rossi & Rossi gallery and co-president of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association (HKAGA).

Fair director of Art Jakarta, Tom Tandio said, “As a fair organiser, my team and I totally understand the complex nature in making such a tough decision. There were a lot of negotiations being led behind the scenes. The cancellation also affects sponsors, logistics companies, and other service providers, beyond galleries and art market stakeholders.”

While certainly all participating galleries have been hard hit—and further discussion unfolds over the losses incurred by each gallery and the contentious reimbursement offer of only 75 per cent from ABHK—the strain on home-grown institutions and galleries were visible months earlier.

 

Ink Asia 2019 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Image courtesy Ink Asia.

 

When Hong Kong’s political unrest, which began last June, seemed to be unwavering even by October, feathers began to be ruffled and rumours sparked across the global art world. On the ground, the Hong Kong art scene took its first major blow that same month when violent demonstrations led to temporary closure of major public transport routes, which severely impeded attendance to Fine Art Asia, Ink Asia, Asia Contemporary Art Show and more. For those of us here, whether in the art world or not, it was a difficult and dark time.

Between the pro-democracy protests that paralyzed the city, compounded by the US-China trade war, the Asian financial hub was already hit hard in 2019 and faced its first recession in a decade. According to official figures released on 3 February, Hong Kong’s GDP shrank 1.2 per cent on-year for 2019, with the brunt of it taking place in the fourth quarter.

Within the art world, in the interest of public safety, galleries and institutions have made tough calls. Among them, the revamped Hong Kong Museum of Art faced temporary closure just weeks after its unveiling when the area became a demonstration hotspot and has again been shut since 29 January due to the epidemic, while Hauser & Wirth postponed indefinitely a much-anticipated Annie Leibovitz exhibition and artist talk just short of its opening. And this is barely scratching the surface. The list goes on.

Now, as Hong Kong faces China’s outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, the ripple effect has only deepened. Aside from financial losses incurred, which various sources have reported vary from HKD200,000 to upwards of HKD500,000, there is also the trickle-down impact of covering high rent and overhead costs, while facing lost opportunities and dampened sales. Although it is widely known that a handful of blue-chip players here have pockets deep enough to absorb this blow, for the large majority in Hong Kong—from galleries to all the peripheral support such as framers, logistics companies and more—the financial strain puts a large dent in their books. It is also important to remember in such cases, such losses may not be offset through insurance policies.

 

After four years of renovations, the Hong Kong Museum of Art reopened in late November 2019 only to face temporary closure weeks later. Courtesy of the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

 

Hong Kong Marches On

Perhaps one of the most incredible phenomena I have witnessed this past week is how quickly and earnestly the Hong Kong art scene on the ground has come together. HKAGA had already previously released a statement on 31 January affirming their outmost support regardless of ABHK’s final decision. Now, in the aftermath, they have been actively working with galleries and institutions across Hong Kong, making new plans for April and May with scaled down events in March. As Rossi said, “With changes come opportunities. HKAGA is committed to support the local art scene and to refocus the attention to what exists in the city.”

De Sarthe gallery director Willem Molesworth, showed enthusiasm and hope. “We are expecting March to be more locally focused, but we are nonetheless hopeful that the city will band together in an effort to showcase itself and the creative energy it supports. Additionally, this is a chance for collectors to further develop an understanding of the regional art scene, which can often be clouded by the influence of Western galleries at art fairs,” he said in a statement to CoBo Social.

Speaking on the phone with Henrietta Tsui-Leung, co-founder of Galerie Ora-Ora and co-founder of HKAGA, she emphasized the importance of coming together, gathering spirit and energy to ensure sustainability of Hong Kong’s art voice is of key importance in the testing times we are now facing. Already, HKAGA has shifted their Art Gallery Day, which usually coincides with the fair week, to the third and fourth of April, with extended hours and to coincide with the forthcoming Sotheby’s Spring sales which as yet has not changed dates. On the other hand, several exhibitions are going ahead with their March opening dates, including Para Site’s large-scale group exhibition featuring more than 30  “Garden of Six Seasons,” which will be held across Para Site’s Quarry Bay space in addition to a temporary site in Sheung Wan’s Soho House.

Meanwhile as other auction houses shift their sales to May, we can also look forward to announcements for further initiatives and events, both offline and online. Internal discussions among major local cultural institutions including Asia Society, Tai Kwun and M+ are all underway. While as of today these plans are not yet concrete, we are sure to see just how resilient Hong Kong’s art and cultural scene can be.

 

Asia Society Hong Kong. Photo credit and copyright: Michael Moran. Image courtesy of ARUP and Asia Society.
Tai Kwun – Centre for Heritage and Arts. Image copyright and courtesy of Tai Kwun – Centre for Heritage and Arts.


Local and Regional Support Remains Strong

Sentiments of support are also much echoed through Hong Kong and regionally. Father-son duo, Dominique and Arthur de Villepin will be going ahead with launching their new gallery in March as planned. In a statement to CoBo Social, they said, “The ability for art to bring people together is at the heart of what we are trying to achieve. It is during these challenging times that we need art, and it is even more important for us—and for Hong Kong—to stay strong and launch the gallery during this difficult moment. We are confident and optimistic about the future of Hong Kong—and the art market in Asia in general.”

Katie de Tilly, founder of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery said succinctly, “We as a society need to come together and not rely on fear to get us through this [pandemic]. This will pass as did SARS and art galleries as well as Art Basel Hong Kong have a mission to create a great platform in 2021 for artists to do what they do best, express through art our current state of consciousness.”

Tandio further noted, “Art Basel Hong Kong is the principal fair of Asia, and the main gateway of Asia to the rest of the world. Its position remains unchanged and will not be affected by this cancellation. The entire Asian ecosystem, including all sub-regions, benefit tremendously from this global fair held in HK. We therefore have to support Art Basel Hong Kong as they are a key factor in the Asian arts scene and we owe them a lot for taking this part of the world to where we are today.”

Still The Lynchpin of Asia

“The Hong Kong and wider Asian art market has demonstrated incredible growth over the past 10 years, with significant depth and breadth to collector interest,” said Long. In the space of just a decade, Hong Kong has affirmed its position to lead the Asian art market. Its year-on-year growth has been tremendous, bringing the scene to a maturity that nowhere else in the world has reached in such a short time span.

Looking ahead, Long warns of the dangers in overplaying the long-term consequences. “Cancelling Art Basel Hong Kong will have negative short-term impact on the arts ecology for the city but the long-term consequences shouldn’t be overstated. Despite being one of the most important events of the year, the local and international market will not be adversely affected in the long term.”

It certainly seems that as long as those on the ground and across the region are committed and cooperative, Hong Kong will come out of these setbacks stronger. While the city has been undeniably hit hard, ABHK’s cancellation this year may be nothing short of a temporary pain. Hong Kong will remain the lynchpin of the Asian art world.

As Lo said matter-of-factly, “Hong Kong is a long-term proposition. We are not just a fad.”

 

 

 


 

Denise Tsui is the Managing Editor for CoBo Social. A Hong Kong-born Aussie with an addiction to coffee, her research interests are primarily in the study of exhibition models and curatorial practices and art from Southeast Asia. Previously she was an editor for ArtAsiaPacific and curator for a private collection of Australian and New Zealand art. A condensed version of her postgraduate curatorial thesis on contemporary Indonesian art was published in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies in 2015.

 


 

 

 

 
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