Art Market

Gallerists called on Art Basel to cancel its Hong Kong fair due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Christy Kuesel
Jan 30, 2020 4:54PM, via Bloomberg

Visitors at the 2015 edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong. Photo by Wing1990hk, via Wikimedia Commons.

Exhibitors at Art Basel in Hong Kong have asked the fair to cancel its upcoming eighth edition in March due to concerns about the fast-spreading coronavirus. As of Wednesday, 10 cases had been confirmed in Hong Kong, compared to the 7,700 cases worldwide. The total number of deaths, all in mainland China, reached 170.

Hong Kong has taken some action to prevent the spread of the virus—all railway service from the mainland is suspended, while the number of flights has been halved. Many museums in Hong Kong and mainland China have shuttered indefinitely; in Beijing, the CAFA Art Museum postponed the inaugural edition of its triennial due to concerns about the outbreak. As Art Basel in Hong Kong approaches, galleries are still anxious about participating in the mega-fair amid the ongoing health crisis. According to the art industry newsletter The Canvas, 12 galleries said they will pull out of the fair regardless due to the coronavirus outbreak.

According to Bloomberg, London art dealer Richard Nagy wrote an email to the fair organizers on Wednesday, calling for its cancellation. He wrote:

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. 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. [...] There is absolutely no doubt in our minds that this art fair is now commercially on artificial life support.

Earlier this month, 24 galleries wrote a letter demanding concessions from the fair, including a 50 percent discount on booth fees and an extension on the fee payment deadline. Three exhibitors dropped out two weeks ago; other galleries have questioned the ethics of holding the fair during Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. Art Basel previously said it would refund all exhibitors 75 percent of their booth costs if they had to cancel the fair entirely.

In a statement to Artsy, a spokesperson for Art Basel said:

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. 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.

Art Basel has had to pull the plug on a fair once before: What would have been the inaugural edition of Art Basel in Miami Beach was canceled in 2001 due to the September 11th terrorist attacks. Art Basel in Hong Kong drew 88,000 people last year, and is scheduled to run from March 19th to 21st this year.

Christy Kuesel