Covid-19 has put paid to this year’s art fairs, leaving the 2020 art calendar in disarray. Art Basel has especially felt the brunt, cancelling its three editions in Hong Kong, Basel and Miami Beach. But before the year ends, Art Basel will return to Hong Kong for its “first physical presentation in 2020”, presenting 22 galleries in a special section of the Fine Art Asia fair at Hong Kong’s Convention and Exhibition Centre in late November.

The initiative is known as “Hong Kong Spotlight by Art Basel”. All the galleries are local, including overseas dealers that have exhibition spaces in the city. Fine Art Asia, founded in 2006, is usually held in October but has shifted its slot to November this year. Forty exhibitors — showing modern and contemporary art, antiques, jewellery and ink art — will participate, making 62 exhibitors in total.

Hong Kong Spotlight came together quickly. “It was born in a very, very short time,” says Adeline Ooi, Art Basel’s Asia director. 

“It’s not what people expect of Art Basel in the sense that it is only galleries from one city and only the size of one of our proposal-based sectors at one of our own shows. What is touching is the art community in Hong Kong and their ability to work together and stand together. The local galleries want something to happen in Hong Kong; it was a collaborative effort all round.” 

‘Good Old Days’ (2020) by Stephen Wong Chun Hei, on show with Gallery Exit © Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Exit

Hong Kong Spotlight is a modest presentation, Ooi stresses. “After such a difficult year, this is a statement to everybody and ourselves — we should find strength in numbers by collaborating more than usual and experimenting together.” All participants have exhibited previously at Art Basel Hong Kong; applicants were asked to submit a “simple” proposal, ensuring “quality presentations”, she adds.

Last year, MCH group, Art Basel’s parent company, made further inroads into the Asian market, launching the “Masterpiece pavilion” at the Fine Art Asia 2019 edition. In 2017, MCH acquired a majority shareholding in Masterpiece, the London-based art and antiques fair; the pavilion within the Hong Kong fair comprised 15 western galleries including Butchoff Antiques of London.

Adeline Ooi, Art Basel’s Asia director
Adeline Ooi, Art Basel’s Asia director

The market needs morale-boosting gestures such as Hong Kong Spotlight. But “it is not so much about kick-starting anything, really,” Ooi says. “This is not a short-term problem. This is a great opportunity for us because we can really dig deep into the local community. While the Art Basel fairs are defined by being so international, Hong Kong Spotlight is about shining a light specifically on Hong Kong. There are enough galleries based here in Hong Kong to make the proposition work.”

But in the light of travel restrictions in place around the globe, who will actually come? “We are very much focusing on local collectors . . . Collectors from all over the world are based here in Hong Kong,” Ooi says.

Andy Hei, founder of Fine Art Asia, says: “As much as we would like to see international collectors, we anticipate only local clients this year at the fair.” The local art scene has expressed “excitement” at the thought of a physical fair this year in Hong Kong, he adds.

‘Lines No. 22’ (2015-19) by Liu Jianhua
‘Lines No. 22’ (2015-19) by Liu Jianhua, on show with Pace Gallery © Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery
‘Lines No. 25’ (2015-19) by Liu Jianhua
‘Lines No. 25’ (2015-19) by Liu Jianhua, on show with Pace Gallery © Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery

The pandemic has halted the growth of art centres worldwide and Hong Kong has had to reset and reconfigure like other market meccas. But for art market watchers, continuing political instability is a more potent and urgent issue. Last year the city was engulfed by pro-democracy protests. In June China introduced a new security law which effectively reduced Hong Kong’s political autonomy.

Whether Hong Kong’s status as Asia’s premier art hub is under threat remains to be seen. “The auction houses are still busy,” Ooi says, and indeed auction sales seem healthy: the 34-lot contemporary art evening sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on October 6 fetched HK$684.1m (US$88.2m) with 92 per cent sold by lot. Even so, “It is difficult everywhere now,” Ooi says. “Hong Kong continues to work despite the challenges the world is facing. Hold on to the ship while the waters are choppy.”

‘A Wound is the Most Suitable Hotbed to a Flower NO.2’ by Wu Didi, on show with Contemporary by Angela Li
‘A Wound is the Most Suitable Hotbed to a Flower NO. 2’ by Wu Didi, on show with Contemporary by Angela Li © Courtesy of the artist and Contemporary by Angela Li

Dominic Yang, senior director at Pearl Lam Galleries, gives a pithy assessment: “As both Fine Art Asia and Art Basel continue to invest in the narrative of Hong Kong as the Asian art capital, galleries and collectors must follow suit. The show must go on.”

Other galleries participating in Spotlight are upbeat. Katie de Tilly of 10 Chancery Lane gallery says that “the art market has continued during these times as confirmed by the auctions results and continued gallery sales, albeit with difficulties engaging physically. All initiatives bringing art and audiences together are so welcome.” 

10 Chancery Lane gallery will show works by the France-based Chinese artist Wang Keping, who makes figurative hard wood sculptures, as well as French artist Laurent Martin, known as “Lo”, who creates bamboo mobile pieces. Prices range from €6,000 to €100,000. 

‘Woman’ (2016) by Wang Keping, on show with 10 Chancery Lane © Courtesy of the artist and 10 Chancery Lane

Galerie du Monde, founded in Hong Kong in 1974, will present a curated show of two artists: Fong Chung-Ray from Taiwan’s avant-garde Fifth Moon Group, and German conceptual artist Michael Müller (price points from $15,000 to $100,000).

Kelvin Yang, managing director of Galerie du Monde, stresses that Spotlight will “re-energise” the Hong Kong art scene. The first live art fair in Hong Kong this year has been a “long time coming”, he says, pointing out that although “as the quarantine measures for inbound travellers persist, the majority of visitors to the fair will be Hong Kong-based” the Art Basel Hong Kong platform will nonetheless garner interest online and via social media.

‘Meditation No. 89’ (2020) by Michael Müller, on show with Galerie du Monde
‘Meditation No. 89’ (2020) by Michael Müller, on show with Galerie du Monde © Courtesy of the artist and Galerie du Monde

The question now is whether the usual Art Basel Hong Kong fair will run in March 2021. Ooi says: “We are going ahead as planned, while everyone's health and safety is our key concern. We are having many conversations with our galleries. This year is about being realistic and being agile.”

November 27-30,

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