Commercial galleries Contemporary art Fairs China

New brand in town as Basel hits Hong Kong

Slowly but surely, the fair’s newest edition is beginning to make strides

Yayoi Kusama on the stand shared by London’s Victoria Miro and Tokyo’s Ota Fine Arts

Art Basel made its presence felt at its first official outing in Hong Kong (23-26 May). Gigantic two-tone posters, some translated into Chinese, flanked the route from the airport to the Convention and Exhibition Centre, and the branding even extended to three of the city’s trams, colour-blocked in the fair’s bright shades.

Inside the halls, the Art Basel effect was also in evidence, albeit more subtly. “The fair is better oiled as an event compared with its previous incarnation,” said Andrew Jensen, the founder of Jensen Gallery in New Zealand and Australia. Visiting, but not exhibiting at the fair this year, Daniel Lechner, a sales associate at Cheim & Read gallery (2.0/C14 at Art Basel), said: “It was a smart move by Art Basel to add this fair to the fold, and a gift to the galleries that it is setting a gold standard here.”

That this standard has yet to be met is not surprising: adopting an existing fair (the event was ArtHK from 2008 until 2012) is a new challenge for the Art Basel franchise, which launched its Basel and Miami editions from scratch. In addition, the fair’s timing, so close to that of the venerable Art Basel, meant that some exhibitors were saving the best for the Swiss fair. And by committing to showing a greater number of galleries from Asia than at other international fairs, the event is dependent for quality on relative newcomers to the contemporary art scene. “Differentiating between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art is less relevant in the East than in the West,” says Lars Nittve, the executive director of M+. “They [Art Basel] want to make the fair more Asian, but there’s an argument that this should be more gradual,” said Saskia Joosse, the managing director of Singapore’s Pop and Contemporary Fine Art gallery, who was visiting the fair.

Art Basel is not, of course, entirely new to Hong Kong, having announced its majority acquisition of the fair in 2011 and having been a background influence since then. Similarly, many of the exhibitors have been building their recognition factor in the city for at least a few years, with many of the big international names—including Gagosian Gallery (2.0/B15), White Cube (2.0/C18) and Galerie Perrotin (2.1/L1)—having opened their own spaces in the city since ArtHK launched in 2008. “There is a lot of conversation about the fair as if it is the engine of the market here, which it’s not,” said Graham Steele, White Cube’s director in Hong Kong. “[The fair, since its inception] has done a lot, but now we’re thinking longer-term.”

For most of the other overseas exhibitors, however, the fair (and its trusted brand) is the most efficient way to nudge into Hong Kong, a gateway to Asia and, importantly, Australia—an understandable strategy in this age of Western austerity. “To ignore this part of the world would be foolhardy,” said Michael Lieberman of Harris Lieberman gallery, showing for the second year running. “We did enough business last year to make it worthwhile,” he added.

Others felt the same: their repeated attendance in Hong Kong was beginning, slowly, to pay off, although sales in general were patchy. “It’s never been a fair where people go crazy, but it gets better every year,” said Olivier Belot of the Paris gallery Yvon Lambert (2.1/N8), which also exhibited at the fair in 2008, 2011 and 2012. “This year, you feel the effect of [Art] Basel—there are more European collectors,” he said. His sales included Mario Testino’s photograph of Kate Moss, In bed with Kate, London, 2006, which went for $6,000 to an Australian buyer. “Miami is a stampede, but here, buyers like to sit back and wait,” said Lisa Carlson, the director of Lombard Freid, which was exhibiting at the fair for the third year running. Her sales included Honey Bee Organic, 2013, by Lee Kit, Hong Kong’s representative at the Venice Biennale, for €16,000.

Higher-level sales were also made, particularly by galleries already known in the region, peaking at $2m for Yayoi Kusama’s Flame of Life—Dedicated to Tu-Fu (Du-Fu), 1998, which featured on a popular solo-artist stand shared by London’s Victoria Miro (2.1/N7) and Tokyo’s Ota Fine Arts. However, the majority of sales made at the fair were in the tens of thousands, or below.

Buyers from Malaysia and Taiwan, as well as the international citizens of Hong Kong, accounted for most of the sales to Asia; there were also a number of Australian collectors. All the same, Westerners accounted for much of the buying, while mainland Chinese collectors—less conspicuous in the market than many had hoped—remain elusive.

The spending mood was dampened by news of weakening manufacturing activity in China on the day after the fair opened, which hit the stock markets in Japan (down 7.3%), Hong Kong (down 2.5%), Australia (down 2%), Taiwan (down 2%) and China (down 1.3%). “We find that [Chinese collectors] are not buying so much these days,” said Hsiao Fu-yuan, the chairman of Soka Art. “We have three spaces, two in Taiwan and one in Beijing, and Beijing is performing the worst.” Nonetheless, Hauser & Wirth (2.0/C10) said that it had sold Sterling Ruby’s SP234, 2013, to a foundation in China for $250,000.

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