In the Midst of COVID-19, Chinese Galleries Adapt and Persevere
Installation view of “Tianzhuo Chen: Backstage Boys” and “Lu Yang: Debut” at BANK, 2019. Courtesy of BANK.
Since the viral outbreak of COVID-19 in China in January, the art world has come to a sudden halt. With major museums, fairs, and galleries canceling events and exhibitions all over the world, the industry as a whole is experiencing the strain of the global pandemic. However, it is easy to forget how the gallery ecosystem in China felt the first, immediate impacts of COVID-19.
Art Basel in Hong Kong, arguably the biggest art world event in Asia, was set to open to VIPs on March 18th. When the fair was canceled early last month, it was the first major industry event to be stricken from the calendar—sending reverberations through the country and the art market at large.
Artsy spoke to over 20 galleries in order to examine how the gallery ecosystem has been altered by COVID-19 and how many dealers are coping with the impact the virus has made on the art industry in China.
The cancellation of Art Basel in Hong Kong
Installation view of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac’s, Lehmann Maupin’s, and PKM Gallery’s booths at Art Basel Hong Kong, 2019. Courtesy of Art Basel.
On January 16th, 24 galleries—including Lévy Gorvy, Lisson Gallery, and Sprüth Magers—co-signed a letter that petitioned Art Basel in Hong Kong to take into account the impact the city’s months-long pro-democracy protests were having on market confidence. Hong Kong’s economy went into a recession last fall tied to the ongoing protests, and in October 2019, the Asia Contemporary Art Show canceled its spring 2020 edition due to a decline in attendance and sales at its fall edition. The 24 galleries wanted Art Basel to make concessions on costs for participating exhibitors. At around the same time, a dozen galleries decided to pull out of the fair entirely, as the spread of COVID-19 became a global concern.
After the virus was first identified in the beginning of 2020, reports of cases in China, throughout Asia, and then Europe and the United States began to increase. On January 23rd, the entire Chinese city of Wuhan was placed under lockdown, and Hong Kong confirmed its first COVID-19 case. Mass protest activities in Hong Kong have been suspended ever since.
Installation view of kamel mennour’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong, 2019. © Art Basel. Courtesy of Art Basel.
Between news of COVID-19 and lingering distress from the protests, the majority of those petitioning the fair to cancel were Western galleries. For international galleries with multiple spaces around the world, Hong Kong makes up a small piece of their business. The prospect of showing at a fair with a lowered turnout of collectors was clearly a losing venture for dealers. Faced with a choice, those galleries would have rather eaten the sunk cost and turned their attention towards other markets.
But for many regional galleries, Art Basel in Hong Kong is the most important fair of the year. The cancellation always had the potential to affect local Hong Kong galleries the most, which explains why in the midst of demands to cancel, some local galleries called for the fair to go on. On January 31st, the board of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association, whose members consist of over 40 local and international galleries, released an open letter that expressed how the situation in Hong Kong had been misrepresented to galleries overseas and urged the organizers to consider input from participants other than international galleries.
Of course, we can anticipate some effects on the art market, but like SARS in 2003, we are confident Hong Kong will bounce back and remain the leading arts hub in Asia.
However, at the end of the day, COVID-19 presented a public health crisis that concerned not only those in Hong Kong and China, but internationally, as well. Regardless of the specific reasons that eventually drove the actual cancellation, on February 6th, Art Basel announced that the Hong Kong fair would be canceled.
Wei-Wei Wang, the Asia representative for the Zurich-based gallery Mai 36 Galerie, understood why the fair had to be canceled. “As a gallery that has been participating in Art Basel in Basel for 30 years, we encountered a similar situation in the ’90s during the Gulf War,” she said. “At the time, the whole show was deserted and there were very few visitors. In the end, [Art Basel didn’t] have a choice, and we support their decision.”
The response to cancellation
Bosco Sodi, installation view of “A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains” at Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Hong Kong, 2020. Courtesy of Axel Vervoordt Gallery.
Beyond Art Basel in Hong Kong, a series of additional large-scale events during the city’s major art season in March were also canceled or postponed: Art Central, Hong Kong Arts Festival, museum exhibitions, and a slate of music and dance concerts featuring both local and international performers.
Despite those cancellations, a cluster of galleries in the Wong Chuk Hang area of the city, such as Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Rossi & Rossi, Pekin Fine Arts, and Blindspot Gallery, united in solidarity to open their new shows on February 15th.
Bosco Sodi in his studio. Courtesy of Axel Vervoordt Gallery.
“During the hardships and challenges like this, it’s great to see the solidarity of the community here,” said Boris Vervoordt, founder and director of Axel Vervoordt Gallery. The gallery also has a space in Antwerp.
Moreover, almost 70 Hong Kong art and culture organizations—galleries, museums, auction houses, and universities—have joined forces to launch the nonprofit ART Power HK, an online platform to showcase events and exhibitions that were planned for this month. The Asia Society and the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association have also partnered to put on a month-long sculpture exhibition that is set to open on March 26th. The exhibition will include works from 21 local and international galleries.
But the epidemic’s impact on galleries will extend well beyond March and April. The Fine Arts Literature Art Center, located in Wuhan at the center of the pandemic, delayed its planned gallery opening and made adjustments to its exhibition programming for the first half of 2020.
The realities of COVID-19
Installation view of “空间图” at Fine Arts Literature Art Center. Courtesy of Fine Arts Literature Art Center.
As the world’s priority has become combatting the virus—with entire countries, like Italy, and cities, like Wuhan, remaining under lockdown—it seems increasingly impossible for society to resume business as usual in the coming months.
“A lot of us in the local Wuhan art circle have been working hard at things like transporting supplies to hospitals or fundraising donations through charity auctions,” said Liu Ming, founder and director of the Fine Arts Literature Art Center.
“During the hardships and challenges like this, it’s great to see the solidarity of the community here.”
Because of the pandemic, the center has shifted the priorities of its gallery accordingly. “Since its founding, Fine Arts Literature Art Center has been juggling media and nonprofit projects,” said Ming. “We have a large collection of books, documents, and materials in our warehouse and archives. During this time, we will concentrate on organizing and researching these materials, as well as planning online activities.”
All galleries in mainland China and Hong Kong have been set back in one way or another, which has made many in the industry anxious. “We are all in a state of feeling tense,” said Chao Lu, director at the Beijing location of Chambers Fine Art. As public events have been canceled and regular business activities have come to a standstill in Beijing, the gallery might focus on its presence in other markets.
Installation view of “编辑过程” at Fine Arts Literature Art Center. Courtesy of Fine Arts Literature Art Center.
Galleria Continua, which recently opened its fifth location in Rome in addition to spaces in San Gimignano, Beijing, Moulins, and Havana, has also felt the virus’s impact on its business. “The biggest impact [is that] it reduced contact and interaction within the industry,” said Jinle Shi, Galleria Continua’s Beijing sales manager. “For galleries, the direct loss is the loss of connections to clients.”
David Tung, a director at Lisson Gallery, said that at the moment, the priority at its Shanghai space is to ensure “the safety of our staff and artists, as well as our customers and audience,” and to “follow the protocols set out by the national and local government and work to defeat this virus.”
At the same time, he keeps his clients abreast of the gallery’s updates through the internet. “The Shanghai space’s purpose is to better serve our mainland China customers and to take Shanghai as the center, extending to other parts of Asia,” Tung said. “For us, the function of the Shanghai space during this period remains exactly the same and even allows us to provide better service for our clients.”
“A lot of us in the local Wuhan art circle have been working hard at things like transporting supplies to hospitals or fundraising donations through charity auctions.”
International galleries without a physical space in Asia, but which have representatives on the ground, confront their own set of challenges. Sales at these galleries—such as Mai 36, Salon 94, Pilar Corrias, and David Kordansky, among others—rely overwhelmingly on their participation in regional fairs such as Art Basel in Hong Kong.
“Art Basel Hong Kong, Gallery Weekend Beijing, and West Bund Shanghai are the few shows where Mai 36 exhibits our artists’ works in Asia,” Wei-Wei Wang said. “Mai 36 has also initiated the exchange program between Gallery Weekend Beijing and Zurich Gallery Weekend. Before the opening of our permanent space, these shows are very important showcase platforms for us.”
For the rest of the first half of 2020, the gallery will focus its energy on shows outside of Asia that will go on as planned. It has no other plans to show in Asia since Art Basel in Hong Kong was canceled.
The benefits and complications of moving online
The epidemic has increased the strain on galleries that have felt the effects of a slowing brick-and-mortar economy. Whether or not it is part of their active strategy, galleries must now devote more energy to their digital platforms.
The powerhouses have already been focused on online strategy. Gagosian started making digital sales at the end of 2018, with an online showroom that operates alongside the gallery’s presence at annual art fairs. Despite the temporary closing of its Hong Kong space, Gagosian has increased promoting buying and selling online through frequent updates on its WeChat account and other social media platforms.
On February 11th, Hauser & Wirth announced on its WeChat channel that the gallery’s Hong Kong space would postpone its March exhibition, while opening a brand-new online viewing room in the meantime. The online viewing room would present past exhibitions at its Hong Kong space and new commissions by its artists.
To keep up with the rapid market changes in this new decade, galleries can no longer solely depend on physical showrooms and art fairs for sales.
Even though Art Basel in Hong Kong will not physically take place this year, the fair and its participating galleries have moved online as well. Last week, Art Basel announced the galleries who will be showcasing works through its new viewing rooms digital initiative, including local dealers like 10 Chancery Lane. Art Central, too, is bringing sales online for its participating galleries. (Full disclosure: Artsy is partnering with Art Central and will be serving as the platform for its online sales.)
More galleries will utilize third-party online art sales platforms (including those such as Artsy) to reach a wider community of collectors. It goes without saying that there are advantages to a gallery space in real life, but to keep up with the rapid market changes in this new decade, galleries can no longer solely depend on physical showrooms and art fairs for sales. Unlike physical galleries, buying and selling art online is not bound by geography, and it can happen around the clock.
On the other hand, it is impossible for the virtual to truly replace the brick-and-mortar experience. Many in the industry are trying to strike a balance between the two. “Buying and selling online is definitely a trend, but the physical gallery can’t be replaced, because art itself requires a certain intimacy and looking up close,” Ming Liu said. “But we do have collaborations and experiments on the online front.”
Installation view of “Scaffolds of Meaning” at MINE PROJECT, 2019. Courtesy of MINE PROJECT.
Chao Lu echoed that sentiment. “Even though the art market is putting more and more emphasis on regional fairs, the physical galleries in mainland China, big or small, are still integral,” he said. “Combining online and offline sales may be the most practical approach to the business. Most clients still prefer to see the works for themselves, even if they are already familiar with the artists’ history and past works.”
Emerald Mou from Hong Kong–based gallery Mine Project said, “We are passionate about any channels that could help promote young artists. Many of the artists we work with are exploring the internet and how the internet affects our contemporary world, so naturally, the gallery cares about and is active in fields that relate to the internet, whether they are directly connected to digital sales or not.”
There have been more than a few enterprises that are trying to capture a piece of the digital art sales market, but the challenges of popularizing art collecting, building platform users, and cultivating online collecting habits might be more difficult to solve than the technology alone.
The outlook for the Chinese market
Zheng Haozhong, installation view of “TAKI” at BANK, 2019. Courtesy of BANK.
While no one has the answer, the question on everyone’s mind in the art world remains: When will the market recover from the effects of COVID-19?
Of course, it depends on how quickly the pandemic will be contained, and despite the industry’s optimism about the speed of return to normalcy in society, it will take a lot more time for the market to bounce back.
“I have confidence that the Chinese government and global efforts will quell the disease, but the repercussions of this will last at least till the fall,” said Mathieu Borysevicz, founder and director of Shanghai-based gallery Bank. “The Chinese art market was already sluggish the past two years. This outbreak will only adversely affect anyone doing business in or with China and subsequently the art market. The art market only flourishes when the economy at large does. I think it’ll take at least half a year to recover.”
Others are more optimistic, such as Dominique de Villepin and Arthur de Villepin. The two are planning to open their first space in Hong Kong on March 20th, even amidst the fear and concerns over COVID-19. “Over the past several months, Hong Kong has experienced significant political upheaval and is now faced with a serious global health concern,” the de Villepins told Artsy. “Of course, we can anticipate some effects on the art market, but like SARS in 2003, we are confident Hong Kong will bounce back and remain the leading arts hub in Asia.”
Christopher Le Burn, installation view of “Diptychs” at Lisson Gallery, Shanghai, 2019. © Christopher Le Burn. Photo by Alessandro WangCourtesy of Lisson Gallery.
“It’s not only the art industry, but our entire society is facing an enormous challenge. The global economy will most likely be affected and it is still early for us to predict its consequences,” Wang said. “In the face of a matter of life and death, many artists are also reflecting deeper on the question of existence. These are the invisible but positive aspects of what is happening right now.”
While the “live” aspect of art has been interrupted, most would agree that it is an opportunity to reflect on the present and the future of the industry.
“While large-scale events do bring attention and large audiences, the focus on these over the past few years had taken us further away from the essence of art,” David Tung said. “In this sense, I don’t take slowdown in large-scale events as a negative.…It is actually an opportunity for us to quietly think about the future development of the art industry in China.”
This article has been updated, edited, and translated from a previous version that appeared on Artsy’s WeChat channel in February 2020.