Art Basel Cancels Its Hong Kong Edition, Citing ‘Sudden and Widespread Outbreak’ of Coronavirus

After weeks of speculation, the Art Basel Hong Kong fair has officially been canceled amid the outbreak of the coronavirus.

KAWS's installation at Hong Kong's Harbour City. Courtesy of Perrotin.

After weeks of speculation and uncertainty about whether the deadly coronavirus would force the cancellation of this year’s edition of the Art Basel Hong Kong fair in March, organizers have finally released an official announcement this afternoon: the fair has been called off.

The Swiss fair’s owner, MCH Group, sent out a statement this afternoon saying that the event, which was scheduled to run between March 19 and 21 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, was unable to proceed due to the outbreak and spread of the novel strain of coronavirus.

After the virus was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization last week, MCH leaders said, they had “no option but to cancel the upcoming edition of Art Basel Hong Kong. Numerous factors informed this decision, including fundamental concern for the health and safety of all those working at and attending the fair; the severe logistical challenges facing the build-out and transit of artwork to the show; and the escalating difficulties complicating international travel, all arising as a result of the outbreak of the coronavirus.”

According to an email sent to exhibitors announcing the news, Art Basel’s organizers will reimburse galleries for 75 percent of their stand fee and will not ask to be paid for special orders for walls or lighting placed in advance with the fair. (This stands in contrast to when the first edition of Art Basel Miami Beach was canceled two months before it was scheduled to open in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, when booth fees were simply rolled over to the next year.)

“The decision to cancel Art Basel Hong Kong was an extremely difficult one for us,” said Bernd Stadlwieser, CEO of MCH Group, in a statement. “We explored every other possible option, including postponing the fair, and gathered advice and perspectives from many gallerists, partners, and external experts. However, today, we have no other option but to cancel the fair.”

The global death toll of the virus has reached at least 565 people, with more than 28,000 cases confirmed in mainland China, according to NBC. Following China’s decision to close state museums two weeks ago, Hong Kong shuttered its own public art institutions indefinitely last week. Several airlines, including Delta, American, and United, also suspended or reduced the number of flights to China during the fair’s run. And Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has ordered all entrants from China to be self-quarantined for 14 days, severely limiting the chances that mainland Chinese collectors would come to the fair.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, wearing a facemask while updating press on the state's response to the coronavirus, which has infected eight people in the city. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, wearing a facemask while updating press on the state’s response to the coronavirus, which has infected eight people in the city. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images.

Meanwhile, major corporations, including Art Basel’s lead sponsor UBS, have imposed travel restrictions on employees. On Monday, Swatch even canceled a retailer event scheduled to be held in Zurich in late February and early March “in order to guarantee the welfare of our guests, partners, and colleagues.” The outbreak is also hitting the economy of Hong Kong—which had already entered a recession amid ongoing protests—hard. Some experts have predicted the city’s economy will shrink another 2.6 percent this year as a result of the outbreak and its ripple effects.

Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel, said in a statement that the outcome could not be avoided. “Our thoughts are with those affected by the recent coronavirus outbreak all around the world. We are acutely aware of the important role that the fair plays within the region’s cultural scene and for our galleries, both in Asia and around the globe,” he said. “Our team dedicated extensive time and effort to ensure our show in March would be a success over the course of the past year. Unfortunately, the sudden outbreak and rapid spread of the novel coronavirus radically changed the situation.”

Tension over the fair was elevated even before the coronavirus outbreak, as dealers grappled with attending as pro-democracy protests are ongoing in the city. Two weeks after 24 galleries sent a pointed letter to the fair demanding concessions due to the uncertain political situation, London dealer Richard Nagy issued his own even more heated message to organizers and colleagues in light of the rising concerns about the virus, writing that “not one of our foreign clients will be attending and they are surprised the fair is still on.”

A billboard for Art Basel in Hong Kong on March 29, 2018. (PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)

In recent days, pressure mounted on Art Basel to make a decision as deadlines for art-shipping approached and some dealers became increasingly frustrated. In her statement, Adeline Ooi, Art Basel’s director of Asia, expressed gratitude to “our exhibitors, partners, and friends all over the world, and especially in Hong Kong, who have stood by our side, lent their support, and shared insights and opinions over the past days and months. Our commitment to Asia and Hong Kong has not changed, and we look forward to the 2021 edition.”

The threat of the virus comes at an already tense moment for Art Basel and its Swiss owner, MCH Group. The corporation is suffering from financial strain and shareholder objections from an investor group known as AMG, led by Erhard Lee. In an earlier message to exhibitors before the coronavirus outbreak, Art Basel’s organizers had demurred from granting their request for a 50 percent booth fee discount, calling it “financially untenable,” especially considering the unforeseen changes that have already had “a significant financial impact for Art Basel.”

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