For a time, auctions enjoyed something of a monopoly in Hong Kong’s art buying and selling. That all changed in 2008 with the debut edition of ART HK, the art fair that famously laid the foundations for today’s Art Basel in Hong Kong. The fair boasted an expert team at its helm: Sandy Angus (whose subsequent fair forays include India Art Fair, Istanbul’s ArtInternational, London’s Art16, Photo Shanghai, and indeed Art Central), Tim Etchells (of Art Central, Art16, and Sydney Contemporary), Will Ramsay (of PULSE and the Affordable Art Fairs), and Magnus Renfrew, who would later direct the fair’s first two editions under the auspices of Art Basel.
Renfrew went on to lead auction house Bonhams’s Asian expansion before it was scaled back last month. He continues as an influential member of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and Chair of Para Site’s Advisory Council. “Hong Kong was already the center of the auction market in Asia,” recalls Renfrew of the climate into which they launched ART HK. “There was a gap for a major international art fair that could both introduce a rapidly expanding collector base from Asia to high-caliber artwork from elsewhere in the world and also introduce art from Asia to a global audience.”
Unique conditions in Hong Kong due to its history of more than 150 years under British rule, until 1997’s historic transfer of sovereignty, made it the obvious Asian capital in which to locate such a fair. “There is probably nowhere else in the world where people from Asia and the West feel so equally at home,” says Renfrew. “Freedom of expression is protected under the Basic Law of Hong Kong and under the Hong Kong constitution.” The city is also a freeport, which likely aided ART HK’s impressive growth and its later acquisition by the MCH Group, Art Basel’s parent company. ART HK’s first edition in 2008 welcomed 101 galleries and over 19,000 visitors. Just four years later, in 2011, the fair saw 260 exhibitors and over 63,000 attendees. That summer, MCH Group acquired a majority stake. “The team were hugely proud of what we had achieved and welcomed the involvement of Art Basel,” says Renfrew of the acquisition, which was aimed to “ensure the continuity of the fair for the long term.”