‘Hong Kong Is Back’: Celebrities, Collectors, and A-List Artists Turned Out in Force for the City’s Biggest Art Basel Since 2019

The fair helped let out some pent-up energy in the region.

A visitor looks at an installation at Art Basel in Hong Kong on March 23, 2023. (Photo by Peter PARKS / AFP via Getty Images)

Pharrell Williams was spotted at this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong. Artist Rashid Johnson posed with fans, as did Beeple and Takashi Murakami. Qatar Museums chair Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani was out on the event circuit. Not to mention a number of top collectors from around the globe: London-based Saudi-born Abdullah AI-Turki, Switzerland’s Uli Sigg and Maja Hoffmann, and Mima Reyes from Puerto Rico.

Despite reports of the city’s decline in recent years, Hong Kong remains one of the most convenient places for the art world to conduct business. Its unique geographical location makes it an ideal place for dealers and clients to connect, particularly those from across Asia, and, of course, there’s the high concentration of wealth.

This year, some visitors reported attending upwards of two-dozen events, from gallery openings to parties and dinners—and few complained about their hectic schedules.

“It feels like there are more events and things are a lot more elaborate this year than the pre-Covid times. So many art world stars are here in Hong Kong,” curator Wong Ka Ying, who is also an artist, told Artnet News.

Art advisor Thomas Stauffer, co-founder of Gerber and Stauffer Fine Arts in Zurich, shared a similar view. This was the first time he had returned to Hong Kong since the last Art Basel in the city in March 2019. “It’s a packed week and many galleries and luxury brands compete with each other to get the attention of the Hong Kong art crowd. It’s been a fruitful and rewarding trip to re-engage and continue the dialogue about collecting art with our Asian clients after not being able to meet in person for more than three years,” he told Artnet News.

The ecstatic atmosphere felt by both the international art crowd and local players on the ground, whether at fairs like Art Basel or Art Central, dinners and parties at M+ or the HKGTA Town Club, a new hotspot right in the heart of the city’s Central district, is an important statement that the city is ready to re-emerge onto the global scene after years of the pandemic and political unrest.

“Hong Kong is back,” as many collectors visiting the city told Artnet News.

art basel hong kong 2023

An art installation called ‘Solitude of Silences’ by South Korean artist Gimhongsok is displayed at Art Basel in Hong Kong on March 23, 2023. Photo by PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images.

A star-studded, international week

The return of prominent mainland Chinese collectors such Qiao Zhibing, founder of Tank Shanghai; entrepreneur Chong Zhou; Lu Xun, co-founder of Nanjing’s Sifang Art Museum; and fashion entrepreneur Li Lin have delighted a lot of gallerists. Many Mandarin-speaking tour groups packed the aisles during the first VIP day, and there was no lack of a well-dressed Gen-Z crowd.

Stauffer observed that works by Western artists such as Emily Mae Smith, Derek Fordjour, and Bernard Frize have been popular among the Asian crowd, and sales are moving quickly. Many dealers have noted  throughout the fair week, particularly for artworks in the price range of $100,000 to $500,000.

“We see less Europeans and Americans coming to the fair. It’s a very cultured scene, mostly dominated by the mainland Chinese, who are able to travel for the first time since Covid, as well as South Korean collectors. There are some Japanese and Southeast Asians too,” Tian Liang, director of Asia at Timothy Taylor, told Artnet News.

This is the London-headquartered dealer’s first show with Art Basel Hong Kong since 2018. The gallery has so far sold works to institutions in Asia and private collectors in the range of $50,000 to $1 million, including an Alex Katz portrait to a museum in the region, Liang noted. The gallery also brought British painter Leon Kossoff to Asia for the first time, and successfully sold the work to private collectors in the region.

“There’s so much energy, and there are so many young, educated, strong collectors who really know what they’re looking for and are deeply engaged with art history,” she said. “Art Basel Hong Kong is the future; I think it’s going to be the most important fair in the world in five years.”

Hong Kong 2023 M+

HONG KONG, CHINA – MARCH 21: Guests attend Prada Frames Hong Kong at M+ Museum, on March 21, 2023 in Hong Kong, China. (Photo by Keith Tsuji/Getty Images for Prada)

“M+ is A+”

Among those who traveled from across Asia include collectors Marcel Crespò and Timothy Tan from the Philippines. Sources on the ground also spotted Korean collectors such as SM Entertainment founder Sooman Lee, JaeMyung Noh, and So Young Lee. There’s also a prominent presence of Taiwanese collectors including Leo Shih, Jenny Yeh, and Vickey Chen.

Art Central’s director, Corey Andrew Barr, noted that the prominence of young collectors in their 30s to 40s speaks volumes about people’s interests in Hong Kong. “There’s been a great anticipation for finding out what’s been going on in Hong Kong, like M+ and other institutional developments in the city since they were last here in 2019,” he told Artnet News. “They will certainly have the experience to connect with Hong Kong art and Hong Kong artists more intimately.”

Indeed, art fairs are not the only attractions of the art week. Many have praised the art programs the city has to offer, particularly at M+, which only just welcomed international visitors for the first time since it opened in 2021. “M+ is A+,” remarked Noh.

Seoul-based dealer Jason Haam, who sold out four works by Korean rising star Moka Lee, priced between $43,000 to $60,000, to collectors from Hong Kong, Korea, and Belgium, said he did not go to the parties but he was impressed with the museums. “M+ is the very first, really top-notch, serious institution in Asia. It makes me so proud to be in this part of the world,” the dealer said.

He urged the West to rethink one narrative about the Asian art market. “It’s really upsetting for me to hear people pit Hong Kong against [other Asian cities]. Hey, Europe has Paris, Berlin, and London. The U.S. has Los Angeles and New York. There are many hubs in the West.”

Hong Kong veteran gallerist Catherine Kwai of Kwai Fung Hin, which sold paintings by Li Huayi and Lalan in the region of HK$5 million to HK$6 million ($636,955 to $764,346) to new Asian clients, noted that she felt Hong Kong has transformed, and M+, together with other new institutions, including the Palace Museum and the revamped Museum of Art, have played a key role in drawing a serious international art crowd to Hong Kong.

Kwai also praised the government’s effort in staging the Museum Summit on March 24 and 25, which brings global museum leaders such as Michael Govan, CEO of LACMA, Klaus Biesenbach, director of Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, and Gallerie degli Uffizi’s director Eike Schmidt, as well as museum directors from Thailand, Singapore, and mainland China.

“For a few years Hong Kong was very quiet and people did not visit. Now people are returning, and we are very happy,” Kwai told Artnet News. “The past few years have taught us that we must not take things for granted. Everyone is trying very hard this time.”

Tsang Kin-Wah

Freezing Water: Between Here and There (2023) by Hong Kong artist Tsang Kin-Wah, a new work on show at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Courtesy of the artist.

Breathing room

To a younger Hong Kong generation emerging from the trauma of the political turmoil after the 2019 pro-democracy protests and the imposition of the national security law the following year, the vibrancy of the art week gives provides a breath of fresh air away from  it all. Persecution of dissidents, a crackdown of civil society, and censorship of creative expressions continue to operate in the backdrop, but many appreciate the opportunity for to feel “normal” again.

Stanley Wong, 32, a finance columnist who writes under the pen name Muddy Water, started collecting three years ago, while stuck in Hong Kong, and has already assembled a collection of some 200 works mostly by homegrown artists. This year’s art week is his first as a collector. He already acquired at least five artworks this week.

“It feels like things are back to normal this week, reminding me of the good old days,” Wong told Artnet News.

He noted that some people’s feelings of helplessness have pushed them to adopt a more pleasure-seeking attitude towards life. The past two years saw the rise of the local Canto-pop culture and fine dining when restaurants re-opened, and the new focus on contemporary art is also a result of that, he added.

”Art becomes an avenue of emotional release,” he said. “But this also gives us an opportunity to discover the many great artists from Hong Kong.”

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