US-China tension creates buyer’s market in Hong Kong

Despite a burgeoning arts scene in the city, worries persist that the trade war and economic uncertainty could affect business at Art Basel in Hong Kong

Elmgreen & Dragset’s City in the Sky (2019) in Art Basel in Hong Kong's Encounters section © Norm Yip

Elmgreen & Dragset’s City in the Sky (2019) in Art Basel in Hong Kong's Encounters section © Norm Yip

Hong Kong may have long since transcended its designation as the meeting point between mainland China and the world, but its culture and economy continue to be shaped by that position. Going into the seventh edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong (ABHK, 27-31 March), global economic uncertainty due to the Sino-American trade war and the preceding regional slowdown loom over the city.

“The world is the way it is and I am hopeful but realistic,” says ABHK director’s Asia Adeline Ooi, who anticipates a diversified regional collector attendance this year. “We are all watching China, and one would be a fool not to worry,” she says.

Despite the broader political tensions between China and the US, among the 242 exhibitors at ABHK this year are six US galleries taking part for the first time—Paula Cooper Gallery, Matthew Marks Gallery, Luhring Augustine, Regen Projects, Andrew Kreps Gallery and, in the Discoveries section for emerging artists, Chateau Shatto from Los Angeles. Another of the 19 new exhibitors is the London-based dealer Richard Nagy who, surprisingly, will present a retrospective of over 40 works by Egon Schiele—the first time the Austrian Expressionist’s still provocative works will be shown in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is a finance-based city: everyone is tuned into the stock market,” says Henrietta Tsui-Leung, who founded the city’s Galerie Ora-Ora in 2006 and co-founded its Gallery Association in 2012. She posits that, while the top-tier collectors are fairly impervious to economic swings, they realise that monetary jitters make a buyer’s market, “where they can likely control price levels more than sellers, and may be able to find great works privately rather than publicly as sellers also become cautious.”

Tsui-Leung adds that most mainland Chinese collectors “are more about investing than collecting, therefore they will be more conservative and some might have to hold their budget until more clarity surfaces”. Other Hong Kong dealers point out that mainland collectors have been buying more cautiously for several years already, due to currency controls and the corruption crackdown.

Amidst the uncertain forecast, Hong Kong’s art scene continues a steady expansion that has recently included the opening of long-awaited non-profit institutions. The Hong Kong Jockey Association-backed Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts opened last June in a restored former prison yard in Central. The Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT) launches this month in an erstwhile cotton mill in Tsuen Wan, and the Hong Kong Museum of Art will reopen later this year following its renovation.

Though its art market impact is incalculable, Tai Kwun has already proven a game-changer in terms of bringing curated exhibitions to Hong Kong and providing a platform for the city’s emerging artists. “The opening of Tai Kwun injected much-needed energy into the art world in Hong Kong,” says Nick Yu, the development officer of Blindspot Gallery. Blindspot’s artist Angela Su is one of the local talents included in the ten artists of Tai Kwun’s current group show Contagious Cities (until 21 April). “Their public programme is weekly, consistent, rigorous and fun. This is great for elevating Hong Kong as a regional arts centre,” Yu says.

The new gallery hub H Queen’s opened a year ago along with the nearby Tai Kwun and Peddar Building galleries, has created a dense art district in Central. “H Queen’s has become a landmark,” says Tsui-Leung, who moved Ora-Ora there last year. “With international big names bringing in museum-quality shows and Asian galleries like ourselves presenting interesting thematic shows and solos, it is very enjoyable for collectors to spend a few hours every visit in the building.”

Tsui-Leung also points to “the determination and resources the Hong Kong government is spending on building Hong Kong as a world cultural hub.”

• Art Basel in Hong Kong, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, 27-31 March