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As Galleries in Asia Reopen for Business, Health and Safety Are Top Priorities

Exhibition view of “Spring” at Almine Rech Shanghai, 2020. Photo by Alessendro Wang. Courtesy of Almine Rech.

Exhibition view of “Spring” at Almine Rech Shanghai, 2020. Photo by Alessendro Wang. Courtesy of Almine Rech.

A few weeks ago, it was impossible for Willem Molesworth, director of de Sarthe Gallery in Hong Kong, to persuade collectors to step out of their homes due to fears of the rapidly spreading coronavirus. But now, his schedule is packed. “People are eager to go out and engage with the world in an interesting way,” he said. Unlike Berlin and Paris, which are only now easing lockdown rules, Hong Kong and other Asian art capitals like Shanghai and Seoul have already reopened, and private galleries are navigating a new reality.
In fact several dealers, including de Sarthe, never closed. They simply adapted by introducing safety regulations and adjusting exhibition dates. Late last month, the French gallerist held an opening for Hong Kong–based artist and Chinese post-war painter , which was attended by 111 people. Typically these events last two and a half to three hours, but the gallery stretched the opening to seven hours, allowing 15 people at a time into its 10,000-square-foot space. In addition to making face masks mandatory, the gallery offered hand sanitizer, checked temperatures, and asked visitors to fill out health declaration forms and avoid congregating in groups larger than four in compliance with government social distancing guidelines. No drinks were served and visitors who had traveled in the last 14 days were not admitted.
Andrew Luk, Haunted, Salvaged, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe Gallery.

Andrew Luk, Haunted, Salvaged, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe Gallery.

“I felt like it was like an art fair in my own gallery,” said Molesworth, noting that hosting the event was exhausting. “But it’s worth it if it keeps people safe.…I think we’re going to have to get used to this.”
Neighboring galleries located in the industrial area of Wong Chuk Hang took similar precautionary measures. Blindspot Gallery, which focuses on photography, also clocked more than 100 guests during its day-long opening reception for a group show on April 11th. Belgian gallery Axel Vervoordt, exhibiting Mexican artist , opted for an “opening week” instead of a single day in mid-February. Staff reached out to collectors to schedule individual visits.
“People like to be in the gallery alone. It’s not the moment where you want to have drinks with strangers,” said founder and director Boris Vervoordt. The gallery closed briefly, but has since kept regular opening hours and extended Sodi’s exhibition until September.
Chung Chang-Sup, installation view of “A Return to Home” at Axel Vervoordt Gallery. © Axel Vervoordt Gallery. Photo by Jan Liégeois. Courtesy of Axel Vervoordt Gallery.

Chung Chang-Sup, installation view of “A Return to Home” at Axel Vervoordt Gallery. © Axel Vervoordt Gallery. Photo by Jan Liégeois. Courtesy of Axel Vervoordt Gallery.

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Small-scale events organized by the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association (HKAGA) are also taking place in the city. Axel Vervoordt, Blindspot, de Sarthe, and eight other galleries participated in an open-house event, South Side Art Day, on April 25th. Each space had a large number of visitors who were carefully screened and admitted into the galleries gradually. In the Central district, 18 spaces—including international galleries White Cube and Lévy Gorvy—held a similar day-long event on April 24th.
While several major galleries with local outposts, such as Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner, remained closed during the peak of the outbreak in the city, they have now opened their doors, and many are going ahead with prominent shows. Gagosian, for instance, is reopening its space with German artist ’s first solo show in the city this week.Amid the improving circumstances, London-based gallery Flowers is opening a new outpost in the city this week, and HKAGA is planning a small local art fair of sorts next month.
Director of Lehmann Maupin’s Seoul space Emma Son anticipates that sales will increase. “During the worst periods in late February and March, it was mostly Asian collectors who were buying, but Western collectors are now returning to the market,” she said. While she noted the virus may be much better controlled in South Korea than other parts of the world, the gallery is continuing to adopt safety measures which have become standard across the region: sterilizing the space daily, offering hand sanitizer, mandating masks for both staff and visitors, and recording visitors’ details for contact tracing.
Other spaces in Seoul, such as Arario Gallery, made additional adjustments. After temporarily closing, the gallery brought staff back gradually, beginning with just two people per day. The gallery also implemented a reservation system, requiring guests to make an appointment via phone or its website. While the gallery previously kept its doors open, it now has a doorbell to help staff keep track of how many people are entering. “Social distancing will likely remain part of our future system. I think it’s good for everybody,” said executive director Henna Joo. “Art is important, but health comes first.”
These extra precautions haven’t deterred visitors. The gallery’s most recent opening, for Korean photographer in late March, attracted close to 200 guests, all of whom had pre-registered. They entered the space in groups of five people at a time after temperature checks and filling in health forms. Despite interest in the show, Joo said sales have dropped by about 50 percent.
“In Korean culture, we don’t like to burden other people, so we didn’t encourage collectors to come,” she explained. “Even though the situation is better here, it’s still a pandemic, so we invited them to come later when the mood is better.”
In the case of Arario’s Shanghai outpost, which was forced to shutter for about a month, the gallery opted to host a virtual opening reception in April via Zoom for the young Chinese artists and Chen Yihan, with the latter doing a live painting performance during the event. About 50 guests joined the video call. Like many other spaces in China, the gallery is now checking visitors’ health status using the government’s color QR system and only allowing entry to guests with a green code, which indicates they are healthy. The space is also only open by appointment.
Although the lockdown has been lifted in China, business is still slow. As a result, many galleries in Shanghai—including Almine Rech, Ota Fine Arts, and Lisson Gallery—have opted to put on group shows. Yohsuke Ishizuka, a project manager at Ota Fine Arts, said the gallery, which is open by appointment, has been quieter than usual. While the gallery initially planned to push some of its major shows to the fall, it is now looking at rescheduling them to next spring. With its branches in Tokyo and Singapore still closed due to lockdowns, the gallery is focusing on digital strategies.
Todd Bienvenu, Selfie, 2018. © Todd Bienvenu. Photo by Matt Kroening. Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech.

Todd Bienvenu, Selfie, 2018. © Todd Bienvenu. Photo by Matt Kroening. Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech.

Andrew Luk, Soft Gray Underbelly, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe Gallery.

Andrew Luk, Soft Gray Underbelly, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and de Sarthe Gallery.

“In the case of Japanese and Chinese culture, it’s very important for us to meet collectors face-to-face…but that has to change now,” said Ishizuka. Alongside posting more on social media and upgrading its website, the gallery is exploring online sales platforms and considering showing works that collectors can easily view online, such as video-based pieces.
Others are more skeptical about digital initiatives. “An online platform may create momentum but it isn’t likely to sell out. They are a bit overestimated,” said Vervoordt, who is taking a different approach to a typical online viewing room. For Frieze New York’s first online edition, he installed works by Korean artist in his striking Antwerp home—part of a series of renovated 16th-century buildings—to add a personal touch.
Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg, still from This is Heaven, 2019. © Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg, still from This is Heaven, 2019. © Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

“I took away some of the pieces I typically live with and I’m sharing the artist’s work [with collectors via video calls] from here. So in this way you can make the virtual more real,” Vervoordt said. The strategy seemed to be paying off; he sold at least two of the works in his virtual Frieze presentation, including a 1977 work on paper for $21,000 and a fiber piece from 2000 for $70,000.
Speaking broadly about the impact of the virus, Vervoordt sees it as an important reset for the industry that could inspire innovation and motivate positive change. “This is a new reality,” he said. “We should learn lessons from this and adapt. Everything shouldn’t just go back to normal.”
Payal Uttam