Five Theories on Why Art Basel in Hong Kong Is Moving to March Next Year

Was it a battle between Frieze and the Armory, plans for a new fair, or common sense?

Courtesy Art Basel Hong Kong.

In the weeks since Art Basel in Hong Kong announced that its 2015 edition would take place nearly two months earlier than in the past, various lines of speculation about the rationale behind the move have been buzzing. With the vast amount of advanced planning that goes into pulling off a major art fair, the packed schedules of the appropriately enormous convention centers, and an already overcrowded art world calendar, a move of such magnitude cannot be taken lightly.

artnet News spoke with Art Basel in Hong Kong director Magnus Renfrew to test out some hypotheses on why mid-March might be the right fit:

1. Frieze New York is cooler than the Armory Show.
When Art Basel announced that the new March dates would be “significantly more convenient for participating galleries, collectors, curators, and the art world in general,” it raised more than a few eyebrows. The announcement did, after all, come out at the opening of Armory Week in New York, a week the Hong Kong fair will abut in the future. Was this a tacit knighting of Frieze’s young New York fair—which runs in early May and, for many, made the quick turnaround to Hong Kong unfeasible—over the Armory Show and ADAA establishment, whose early-March dates Art Basel in Hong Kong will now be encroaching upon?

“Frieze, [New York’s] auction week, the proximity to Art Basel, and the proximity to the Venice Biennale and to Gallery Weekend in Berlin,” spurred the decision, according to Renfrew. “All of those events happen in such a short period of time and they don’t give people time to do everything.” He cites the massive amount of preparation required by galleries for Art Basel shows as motive for spreading out the Hong Kong and Basel Art Basels. Renfrew also notes the massive suck on North American attendance (with its still-dominant dealer and collector base) posed by New York auction week. Seemingly it was a greater detractor than Art Basel in Hong Kong’s simultaneous run with Christie’s Hong Kong sales was a draw. “We received very positive feedback from galleries already saying they would like to participate next year now that this issue has been resolved,” Renfrew adds.

2. Basel wants to distance itself from the troublesome Chinese secondary market.
Speaking of those Hong Kong auctions: According to last week’s TEFAF Art Market Report, non-payment remains a massive issue in the Chinese secondary market, and an estimated 53 percent of lots offered are bought-in. It’s possible that Art Basel is seeking to shift away from those teething tendencies of the still-emerging market and focus more on both the major primary market collectors in the Asia-Pacific region and bringing increasing numbers of their loyal herd from Europe and the Americas. As to whether the auction houses might tag along behind Art Basel, Sotheby’s pushing up its April sales to March and Christie’s re-scheduling its May auctions, Renfrew says, “We haven’t heard any intention at this stage for them to realign their auctions, but we will see.”


Art Basel Hong Kong in 2013.
Courtesy Art Basel Hong Kong.

3. Flying from Venice to Hong Kong is a real pain.
The post-Venice Biennale slot has consistently been a source of sales for Art Basel’s Swiss fair, never mind a boon to the Zurich galleries whose city serves as the de facto stopover point between the two art world mega-events. But, with the Biennale moving to the second week of May for 2015—ostensibly taking Frieze’s spot on the calendar—the thought of trekking to Hong Kong from Venice and then only having a pair of weeks before flying back to Basel to set up for the Swiss fair surely wasn’t an attractive prospect.

There are no direct flights between Venice and Hong Kong, and while a swap from Alitalia to Cathay in Rome will get you there four hours faster than the 16 hour non-stops from New York, the vast majority of routes require 20 or more hours of flight time or (in order to hit an equal 16 hour long trip) a four hour layover in the middle of the night in Dubai. But, was Venice a factor? In a word, says Renfrew, “No.”

4. They want to start a September fair in South America.
Starting with Art Basel Miami this December, Art Basel will have achieved an equal three month staggering between each of its currently existing fairs. That assures dominance of the winter and spring calendars, making sure that their dealers are saving the best work for Art Basel fairs. But, what about the summer-to-fall transition? And, what about South America?

Many Continental galleries claimed to head back to ARCO Madrid this year to capitalize on the Spanish fair’s South American ties and still more are headed to SP Arte and Art Rio this year. With the latter’s September slot—which also happens to align nicely with the São Paulo Biennial—and its location on the only major art collecting continent in which Art Basel now doesn’t have a fair, perhaps Basel is gearing up for another buy?

“That’s not really a consideration at this stage,” says Renfrew. “Art Basel took 30 years to move to Miami and a further 10 years to launch the Hong Kong edition, I do not think there are immediate plans to open another Art Basel elsewhere in the world at this time.” He notes they have more than their fair share of work ahead with the current lineup.

5. March just makes more sense.
A September fair might not be in the cards for the short term. But spacing out the three Art Basel fairs was paramount to their deliberations, according to Renfrew. He doesn’t mince words: “March is the only viable option to be able to attract a truly global audience to attend.” Whether that’s lacking interest from Asian collectors to spin around and fly to Switzerland a month after an Art Basel in their back yard or from Americans to grab a flight to Hong Kong and miss out on some of the year’s top secondary market buys, a May Art Basel in Hong Kong just wasn’t meant to be.

Securing the March spot was no cakewalk, but, he’s confident all that effort will pay off for the Art Basel brand and its galleries. Renfrew added: “It’s taken nine different events to move and to make it possible for us to secure the space.”

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