Fairs Museums Analysis China

How a Caravaggio came to Hong Kong

The sky-high cost of borrowing one painting by the Italian artist has not impressed everyone

Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus at the Asia Society. Alessandra Schiavo helped arrange the high-profile loan

Hong Kong. For one month only, from 12 March to 13 April, the Asia Society Gallery in Hong Kong presented “Light and Shadows: Caravaggio, the Italian Baroque Master”. The exhibition was arguably its most ambitious project since the space opened in 2012 after a meticulous remodelling of a British colonial-era explosives factory and warehouse. The show’s highlight was Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, 1605-06, on loan from Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera.

The exhibition, which also included works by four contemporary Hong Kong artists, stirred lots of positive interest—as well as controversy. On one hand, the show stands out as a groundbreaking and noble effort by the Asia Society to make arts events in Hong Kong more inclusive. On the other hand, it left many in the struggling local arts community shocked that the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust had spent such an amount, HK$4.82m ($618,000), on funding the international loan and display of single painting.

As “Light and Shadows” was being launched, one person wrote on the website of the South China Morning Post, the leading local English-language daily: “So the Jockey Club Charities Trust has given nearly HK$5m for, hopefully, 40,000 people to see this—no doubt wonderful—painting. That is HK$120 per person. For a single painting.” They wondered, with 1.3 million people living below the poverty line in the city, why there was not a better way to have spent such a sum.

The Hong Kong visit of the painting by Caravaggio was the result of more than a year of negotiations. The loan was arranged by Italy’s consul general, Alessandra Schiavo, who in past months brokered the Hong Kong and Macau tour of Venus, around 1482, by Sandro Botticelli.

Sexiest selling point

The exhibition was only made possible with the support of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, one of Hong Kong’s biggest charity-giving institutions. A huge slice of the HK$4.82m it gave went towards insurance and transportation. The trust’s sponsorship of the Caravaggio show is larger than the entire yearly budget of most non-profit art institutions in Hong Kong. The trust gives away more than HK$1bn ($130m) each year, though it is better known for backing healthcare and education initiatives, and receives funding mostly from proceeds of horse racing, the only legal gambling operation in Hong Kong.

“Light and Shadows” was cleverly promoted as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to enjoy a Caravaggio painting in Hong Kong. The work was welcomed by the local media, with dozens of journalists attending the installation at the Asia Society. One of the painting’s sexiest “selling points” for the Hong Kong press was that it is valued at HK$640m ($83m), the amount for which it was insured on a visit last year to the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb, Croatia.

The exhibition was a laudable effort by the Asia Society’s Hong Kong branch to make the Caravaggio available to all, while the sponsorship made admission to the gallery free (normally HK$30) and allowed up to six months of education programmes. As Alice Mong, the executive director of the Asia Society, said in her welcome speech, the group reached out to 700 schools, 2,000 community groups and 500 NGOs.

On top of this, the Asia Society deployed innovative marketing tactics, not usually associated with a non-profit art event. A two-storey-high projection of the painting was installed for two weeks at the Pacific Place shopping mall, in a busy spot in front of the exit of the underground metro. A special education app was produced.

A good cause?

By the end of the month, “Light and Shadows” was seen by 26,500 people, an all-time record for the Asia Society. “The HK Jockey Club agreed to sponsor this exhibition for educational reasons and its target was 40,000 visitors,” says the art critic John Batten. “If only 26,500 people visited the exhibition then this must be seen by the sponsors as disappointing, possibly even a failure.” The previous exhibition, “No Country” (30 October 2013-16 February 2014), the curatorially problematic show of south and south-east Asia contemporary art organised by the Guggenheim, drew fewer than 10,000 visitors.

Batten says: “The problem is that the Italian Consulate has a committed consul-general who wishes to promote Italian business, especially luxury and fashion products. The Hong Kong Jockey Club should never have agreed to sponsor this, as it is a blatant promotion of another country and its industries.” He says the cost of bringing the Caravaggio to Hong Kong is not a legitimate use of the Jockey Club’s charitable funds. “The Asia Society is having trouble getting people to visit its centre—but I don’t think the Jockey Club should be funding this as the Asia Society has already received substantial public funds and Jockey Club funds to set up its centre,” he says.

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