Hong Kong’s Galleries Urge Art Basel Not to Cancel, Calling Western Criticism of the Problem-Plagued Fair ‘Myopic’

As pressure mounts from Western galleries to cancel the fair, local dealers say the situation looks different on the ground.

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

The saga unfolding around Art Basel Hong Kong has taken yet another turn with a newly published letter expressing support for the fair and emphasizing the continued resilience of the city’s cultural sector, despite “often myopic and narrow coverage or comments from abroad.”

Signed by the board of directors of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association (HKAGA)—comprised of 45 galleries across the city—the letter, which was released to media on January 31, touches on the lived reality of those working in Hong Kong and the struggle to exhibit art throughout the anti-extradition bill protests and, more recently, the outbreak of the coronavirus.

The letter also points to a deeper divide between Hong Kong-based galleries, many of which rely on Art Basel Hong Kong to connect them to a global audience, and the blue-chip international dealers who have become increasingly vocal about their dissatisfaction with fair organizers and their disease with the fair itself in the current climate.

Fair organizers “have been sensitive and considered in their understanding of Hong Kong and its unique positioning,” the letter states. “Throughout the past seven months of political upheaval, our galleries have worked hard to host openings, symposiums, talks, and other events for artists, collectors, and visitors. Despite constant changes in traffic flow, government mandates, and collective fatigue, these programs have been well received and attended. Culture and the arts hold a special place within the city and we know the arts will continue to thrive here.”

Chinese investment banker Huang Xiaoshuai, 26, and his wife, Wei Mengyuan, in front of their newly acquired painting <i>Appearance of Crosses 2016-12</i> by Chinese artist Ding Yi at Art Basel in Hong Kong in 2017. (ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)

Chinese investment banker Huang Xiaoshuai, 26, and his wife, Wei Mengyuan, in front of their newly acquired painting Appearance of Crosses 2016-12 by Chinese artist Ding Yi at Art Basel in Hong Kong in 2017. (ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)

Culture Clash?

The statement appears to be a response to the publication of two recent letters addressed to Art Basel Hong Kong leadership, Adeline Ooi and Marc Spiegler.

The first, signed by 24 international art dealers including stalwart fair participants Blum & Poe and Lisson Gallery, expressed concerns over the political situation in Hong Kong and fears of censorship while making several demands of organizers, including a 50 percent reduction in booth fees. (The dealers noted that “many of our artists are unwilling to have their work shown at the fair” because participation in a territory under threat of increased Chinese control is not “consistent with their core belief in the freedom of expression.”) 

Two weeks later, as the coronavirus began to spread through the region, London dealer Richard Nagy—who was not one of the signatories of the original letter—called for “decisive leadership” to cancel the “fatally wounded” fair.

Several members of the arts community in Hong Kong have been riled by the demands and the tone of these letters, with some criticizing the signatories for propagating false information regarding freedom of speech in Hong Kong and exploiting the political crisis.

“When I was in the US and Europe over the summer, I saw that the news is very skewed, first with the protests, and now with the coronavirus,” said Katie de Tilly, founder of the Hong Kong gallery 10 Chancery Lane, who is frustrated with sensationalist reporting in international media. (This type of coverage has also been linked to the sudden rise of xenophobia or “yellow peril” around the globe.)

“With the health concerns, we should definitely take precautions, but if you look at the statistics and what’s going on in Hong Kong, it’s not that scary right now,” she added.

Katie de Tilly, the director of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, in 2006. (Photo by Jonathan Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Fabio Rossi, co-founder of the HKAGA and founder of Rossi & Rossi gallery, cites a different issue: that the galleries who signed the first letter did not reach out to him or the HKAGA to inquire about the situation on the ground first.

“So, to me, a lot of what was said is from the position of an outsider,” he said. “I think it was unfortunate that some people might just be looking for an excuse to receive a higher discount—which I do understand, as we are all in business—but I also feel that what was said was from a very hypocritical perspective. Many of these galleries also have spaces in and have shown their artists in mainland China—I’m interested to know, are they as concerned about censorship with their own exhibitions?”

Bracing for Cancellation

The cancellation of Art Basel Hong Kong would be a blow to the region’s galleries, many of which cannot justify the cost of participating in other international fairs and rely on ABHK’s commitment to representation and diversity in order to enhance the international profile of Asian art.

“I do hope it goes ahead,” said de Tilly. “It is the only fair with such a large focus on contemporary art from the Asia Pacific.” Like many local dealers, her gallery has planned a high-profile presentation for the fair: a two-artist booth featuring work by the Hong Kong performance and conceptual artist Frog King and female Chinese installation artist Xiao Lu.

Similarly, Blindspot Gallery has recruited local curator Ying Kwok to organize a show at its Wong Chuk Hang space in conjunction with its Art Basel booth, which will include work by Hong Kong artists Trevor Yeung and Lam Tung Pang.

“I understand the fear in Hong Kong [around the coronavirus], given our experience with SARS,” said Mimi Chun, founder of Blindspot Gallery and membership director of the HKAGA. “But I think it will be a pity if the fair gets cancelled, as it is a highly anticipated local art event. From my knowledge, quite a few galleries have the same feeling.”

Artist Lam Tung-pang, who is due to have an exhibition at Blindspot Gallery during Art Basel Hong Kong. (Photo by May Tse/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Artist Lam Tung-pang, whose works will be shown at Blindspot Gallery’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong. (Photo by May Tse/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Even galleries with a more international reach, such as Ben Brown Fine Arts, which has spaces in London and Hong Kong, recognize the impact of the fair within the region. “To be blunt, there’s no other fair here that has the international depth or the quality of work that Art Basel does,” said Amanda Hon, the gallery’s managing director.

In comparison to the furore over Art Basel Hong Kong’s decision to cancel or proceed, there has been relatively little discussion surrounding other major concurrent commercial art events, such the previews for the spring sales at Sotheby’s Hong Kong (March 17–18) and the Art Central fair (March 17–22), which will host 77 galleries—the majority of which are from the Asia-Pacific region—this year. As of yet, none of these events has been cancelled or postponed.

“The main loss for a Western gallery is financial, but for us, there is also the major loss of missing the moment of an international gathering of collectors and curators.” Rossi said. “But if the fair is cancelled, I think we will all try to support each other and make sure that the conversation about art stays alive. I think at the end of the day, we are partners in this.”

Hon echoed that can-do sentiment. “We’re just going to make the most out of the situation,” she said. “All of us have put so much time and energy and dedication into the city to help it to grow. We have to continue.”

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