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Hong Kong Galleries Face Harsh Realities without Art Basel in Town

Xie Qi, installation view of “Clavicle” at BANK, 2019. Courtesy of BANK.

Xie Qi, installation view of “Clavicle” at BANK, 2019. Courtesy of BANK.

“It looks like it’s going to be a long winter in terms of business. Collectors are pretty focused on their own bleeding bank accounts right now,” said Mathieu Borysevicz, founder of the Shanghai gallery Bank and the cultural consultancy Mabsociety. He is among many dealers in mainland China and Hong Kong who are feeling the pinch of the cancellation of Art Basel in Hong Kong and the rapidly escalating novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“The fair has always been a tremendous platform,” Borysevicz added. “It would bring a lot of people through Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing. It certainly helped to centralize the Asian contemporary art world and fortify it.” He estimated that 25 to 30 percent of his gallery’s annual sales, which typically occur in March, will take a significant hit.
Juan Uslé, Serpis 2, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie du Monde.

Juan Uslé, Serpis 2, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie du Monde.

Major art events in the region such as this month’s Gallery Weekend Beijing and the inaugural CAFAM Techne Triennial have been postponed in an effort to contain the virus. Galleries and state-run art institutions across China have been shuttered since January, though some are cautiously reopening this month. In Hong Kong, the Art Basel in Hong Kong satellite fair Art Central was canceled, while all government-run museums in the city remain shut. Sotheby’s Hong Kong moved its spring evening auctions of modern and contemporary art to New York, while Phillips plans to continue with sales in the city in late May and early June.
“The virus is very much on people’s minds. Hysteria and anxiety are still there,” said Amanda Hon, managing director of Ben Brown Fine Arts in Hong Kong, which canceled its solo exhibition featuring and has temporarily closed its gallery. “There’s no point if no one is going to come see the show.” Most international galleries have postponed major exhibitions that were planned to coincide with Art Basel’s Asian mega-fair. Currently, Gagosian and David Zwirner have temporarily closed, while others like Pace Gallery have limited opening hours for the public, and Hauser & Wirth is only open by appointment.
Michael Müller, installation view of “Berliner Spätsommer (Berlin Late Summer),” 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie du Monde.

Michael Müller, installation view of “Berliner Spätsommer (Berlin Late Summer),” 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie du Monde.

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“Honestly, everything has pretty much come to a standstill, but all of us in the gallery business are still trying to create something of interest,” said Fred Scholle, founder and chairman of Galerie du Monde, which has mounted a group show of the works originally planned for its booth at Art Basel in Hong Kong in its Central gallery. Scholle said he’s sold work by Chinese ink painter , Spanish painter , and German conceptual artist to collectors from Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Taiwan. Priced from HK$300,000–$1.2 million (about US$39,000–$154,000), they comprised about one-third of the works the gallery intended to show at the fair.
Art Basel in Hong Kong has offered exhibitors a refund of 75 percent of the booth fee, leaving galleries out of pocket for the remaining 25 percent. While Scholle has already recovered these costs, this isn’t the case for many exhibitors. “For the big galleries, it’s inconsequential because they manage to pre-sell works, but for the smaller galleries, that’s a lot. I personally don’t think it’s that fair,” said Lorraine Kiang Malingue, co-founder of Edouard Malingue Gallery, which has just reopened in Shanghai, though the gallery isn’t exhibiting anything in Hong Kong until the end of March. Sales have been quiet, and due to the anxious climate, she feels it’s not an appropriate time to offer works to collectors.

A pandemic on top of protests

Before the virus took hold, Hong Kong had already been rocked by protests that impacted several galleries. “Since last September, people didn’t want to go out. We lost a lot of clients from mainland China and Asia who don’t want to come here,” said Catherine Kwai, founder of Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery and co-president of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association (HKAGA). “When you feel there’s no safety, all of a sudden you cancel everything.” While her gallery did surprisingly well last year despite the protests, she said sales have taken a plunge since January. For the first time in her career, she hasn’t made a single sale this month.
Henry Au-yeung, founder and director of Grotto Fine Art, has had a similar experience with hardly any foot traffic in his gallery. He cited inaccurate and sensationalist reporting as an issue. “Similar to the social issues last year, people continue to react to information (often from social media), rather than digest and analyze,” he said. “But the core of the problem is the mistrust in the Hong Kong government. So whatever they decide to do, people first complain, then generate fear, and end with despair and anger. The art scene suffers just like the retail, tourist, and service industries.”
Bernar Venet, installatoin view of 12 Acute Unequal Angles, 2016. Courtesy of de Sarthe Gallery and Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.

Bernar Venet, installatoin view of 12 Acute Unequal Angles, 2016. Courtesy of de Sarthe Gallery and Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.

Some feel the virus is just temporarily obscuring larger issues the city faces due to the anti-government protests. “Sadly, Hong Kong is not the same, and collectors have less confidence,” according to an art advisor based in the city who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The protests run deep. It’s not just about the extradition bill. It’s about the disparity between the rich and the poor. There is a certain anger here. Nothing has been announced yet, but I’m sure it’s in some international gallerists’ minds to leave.”
The protests have already impacted some galleries’ programming. Last November, for instance, Hauser & Wirth canceled its exhibition due to the demonstrations. However, when asked, many local and international dealers insisted that they aren’t worried about the political situation or the virus and feel the city will bounce back not unlike it did after the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Staying active and optimistic

Zao Wou-Ki 10.05.62, 1962. © Zao Wou-Ki Photo © ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo by Naomi Wenger. Courtesy of Villepin.

Zao Wou-Ki 10.05.62, 1962. © Zao Wou-Ki Photo © ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo by Naomi Wenger. Courtesy of Villepin.

Zao Wou-Ki, ST encre (2007-16), 2007. © Zao Wou-Ki. Courtesy of Villepin.

Zao Wou-Ki, ST encre (2007-16), 2007. © Zao Wou-Ki. Courtesy of Villepin.

For instance, former prime minister of France Dominique de Villepin and his son Arthur are forging ahead with plans to open a new gallery this week. “Art is continuing to thrive in the city. We are completely committed to Hong Kong and are confident that it will be the center of Asia’s art market for the next 5, 10, 20 years to come,” said Arthur de Villepin. Their eponymous three-story gallery, Villepin, will launch with a solo show featuring the late Chinese painter . They are optimistic that before the show closes in September, the gallery will have visitors from overseas, including mainland China.
While several dealers are carrying on as normal, they are also focusing on traveling to reach clients overseas despite the growing number of travel restrictions and quarantine policies worldwide. “If the mountain doesn’t go to Mohammed, Mohammed goes to the mountain. That’s just the way it is,” said Fabio Rossi, owner and director of Rossi & Rossi gallery. Rossi recently participated in TEFAF Maastricht, where he managed to make some sales despite limited attendance and the fair’s early closure. He had also planned to fly to the U.S. next month, but has now delayed that trip to May. Others are exploring future collaborations with galleries overseas; Kwai is working on mounting an exhibition in London in partnership with a gallery there during Frieze in October.
Some gallerists, however, are hesitant to show at fairs due to widespread discrimination against people of Chinese origin due to the virus. Borysevicz decided not to go to Frieze Los Angeles last month, for instance. “I just felt people would shun us coming from China,” he said. “The xenophobia that’s happening around the world has stigmatized Chinese people, and certainly the art world is not immune from it.”
Cases of racist discrimination have already been reported. Earlier this month, Raquelle Azran, a dealer specializing in contemporary Vietnamese art, told a Vietnamese curator that Asians are seen as virus carriers and requested the curator stay away from the gallery’s booth at London’s Affordable Art Fair, fearing her presence would obstruct sales. Azran’s gallery was subsequently removed from the fair’s exhibitor list.

Connecting with collectors online

For his part, Borysevicz has turned to the internet as a platform to cultivate sales, noting that there is now a captive audience of collectors who are stuck at home. Last month, he launched the online group exhibition “Pure Beauty,” with works ranging from new-media animation-based pieces to traditional paintings and photography. Like other exhibitors, he has also devoted time to curating a show for Art Basel in Hong Kong’s online viewing room platform; Art Central has launched a similar online sales platform where its exhibitors are showcasing works originally destined for the fair. (Full disclosure: Artsy is partnering with Art Central and will be serving as the platform for its online sales.)
In Hong Kong, more than 30 galleries are rallying together with museums, nonprofits, and other art institutions to participate in a collaborative online platform and campaign called ART Power HK, which launched earlier this month and is supported through crowdfunding. The website will host pre-recorded and live-streamed gallery tours, artist interviews, studio visits, and online talks. HKAGA has also partnered with the Asia Society Hong Kong Center to mount a one-month selling exhibition featuring 20 sculptures and installations from 19 local and international galleries, opening on March 26th. The association has also organized open days for galleries on April 3rd and 4th; dealers are expecting a solid turnout for the events.
Rasheed Araeen, Hong Kong Blues, 2018. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi, Asia Society Hong Kong Center, and Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.

Rasheed Araeen, Hong Kong Blues, 2018. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi, Asia Society Hong Kong Center, and Hong Kong Art Gallery Association.

“Several collectors are determined to support the local scene and some see an opportunity in the market downturn,” said Laure Raibaut, an independent art consultant and curator, noting that the virus outbreak has been better contained and managed in Hong Kong than in other major art capitals. To date, the city’s tally of COVID-19 cases is fewer than 170.
“I’m confident that the market and our business will bounce back,” said Rossi. “I’ve seen it in 1991 during the Gulf War. For three months, you could barely talk about art, but this kind of mood only lasts a little while. At the end of the day, art becomes your solace in a difficult time—finally you can see something that puts you in a good mood…and that has tremendous healing power.”
Payal Uttam