‘Art Basel Hong Kong 2020 Needs to Be Put Out of Its Misery’: Exhibitors Demand Answers as Coronavirus Fears Mount

Pressure is mounting on organizers to decide the fate of the fair—fast.

Art Basel Hong Kong. Courtesy Art Basel.

Is it just a matter of time before organizers of the Art Basel Hong Kong fair pull the plug on this year’s edition?

The continued spread of the deadly coronavirus, which has already claimed an estimated 170 lives, has dealers demanding a definitive answer from organizers of the fair sooner rather than later. At the moment, the event is still scheduled to open on March 17 and run through March 21. But pressure is rising as deadlines for art-shipping approach and major airlines have begun cancelling or reducing flights to Hong Kong through the end of March.

Soon after the World Health Organization declared the virus an international public health emergency on Thursday afternoon (increasing the chance that the fair’s insurance provider might offset its costs), the fair issued a letter to exhibitors promising a resolution as soon as possible. “This is a challenging time for all of us,” organizers wrote in the letter, which was shared with Artnet News. “Our team is working hard to review all possible options. Needless to say, the contemplation of postponing or cancelling an event of this scale—which takes a full year to produce—is a complex process.”

Rising Tension

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, which was shared with Bloomberg.

“Regretfully, we believe this situation needs decisive leadership and the fatally wounded Art Basel Hong Kong 2020 needs to be put out of its misery and quickly,” he wrote. “Having taken soundings and we can tell you, not one of our foreign clients will be attending and they are surprised the fair is still on.”

In the past few weeks, galleries including Luxembourg & Dayan of New York and London, Tyler Rollins Fine Art of New York, and SCAI The Bathhouse from Tokyo have all pulled out of the fair, taking advantage of organizers’ offer of a reduced withdrawal fee, allowing them to pay 75 percent of the booth cost rather than the full amount. Around that time, the fair said that if it were forced to close due to ongoing civil tension in Hong Kong, they would refund 75 percent of galleries’ fees. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether the same offer would be extended under the new circumstances.

A disinfection worker sprays anti-septic solution on a train amid rising public concerns over the spread of China’s Wuhan Coronavirus at SRT train station on January 24, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Few dealers were willing to comment on the record about their heightened concerns over the fair, but according to the industry newsletter the Canvas, organizers held a meeting in Basel with dealers and other stakeholders yesterday to discuss the issue.

“Art Basel and MCH leadership are taking the situation in Asia extremely seriously and we share many of the concerns expressed to us by our gallerists,” a representative for the fair said in a statement to Artnet News. “At this time, we do not have an update to share. We recognize the urgency, and we are working hard to explore all possible options.”

For some industry figures, the writing already appears to be on the wall. “I love Art Basel but this is a real pandemic and I am just guessing they know already it’s cancelled and are figuring out how to deal with it,” art advisor Lisa Schiff told Artnet News.

Some with roots in the city, however, remain bullish. “I believe it is an opportunity to have a positive impact in the city in this particular moment and as such I strongly believe it should go ahead,” said Massimo De Carlo, a member of the Art Basel Hong Kong selection committee, who also has a gallery in the city.

A State of Emergency

There is a question of how much visitors to the fair would even be able to see—let alone what health risks it might pose—if they traveled to Asia for the fair. Following China’s decision to close state museums last week, Hong Kong has shuttered its own public art institutions indefinitely. The National Art Museum of China in Beijing, the Guangdong Art Museum in Guangzhou, and the Union Art Museum in Wuhan are among those that have closed. Other tourist destinations, such as the Great Wall of China and Disneyland’s Shanghai and Hong Kong locations, are also shuttered.

Other major art initiatives have been impacted as well. The opening of the CAFAM Techne Triennial, a contemporary art exhibition featuring work by 130 artists that had been scheduled to open on February 20 at the CAFA Art Museum in Beijing, has been called off; no new opening date has been set. The X Museum, a new private contemporary art museum founded by collectors Michael Xufu Huang and Theresa Tse, also announced it would delay its grand opening festivities, originally scheduled for March 17.

Meanwhile, several airlines including Delta, American, and United, have suspended or reduced the number of flights to China during the fair’s run. And major corporations, including Art Basel’s lead sponsor UBS, have imposed travel restrictions on employees, asking them to work from home if they have returned from the mainland in the past two weeks.

Travelers wearing face mask wait at the departure hall of West Kowloon Station on January 23, 2020 in Hong Kong. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

“Given the proximity to the place where the disease broke out and the fact that a number of cases have been confirmed in Hong Kong, it would be wise for the organizers of Art Basel Hong Kong to cancel the show,” Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5WPR and a crisis management expert, told Artnet News. “With potential exhibitors and attendees already panicking, the show would likely have the threat of the virus looming over it and would not go off as planned. Additionally, the fact that people would be flying in for the show could cause fears about additional spread to other parts of the world, increasing the panic even more. Canceling the show would be in the best interest for both the public and the organizers.”

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 dissidence from an investor group known as AMG, led by Erhard Lee. In a special shareholder meeting in Basel yesterday, MCH addressed several issues, though it said the Art Basel fair was not part of the discussion.

In a statement, a spokesman for MCH said AMG Group’s efforts to compel the business to disclose its records and to initiate a thorough review of its strategy “were rejected by a clear majority.” Erhard Lee did not respond to a request for comment.

This story has been updated to include excerpts from a letter Art Basel sent to exhibitors on Thursday afternoon. 

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