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Art Basel's parent company decides on the gentle approach in ArtHK takeover

MCH Group has slow-burn, long-term plans for Art HK

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before the organisers of Art Basel, the art fair empire known for developing new markets, went for the biggest prize of all—China. After it bought a 60% stake in Art HK: Hong Kong International Art Fair (17-20 May) last year, there was much speculation about the effect the slick European machine will have, but so far organisers look set to continue the fair’s careful progression into the region, while learning from last year’s mistakes.

Art HK was originally set up by Asian Art fairs, which is headed by Tim Etchells, in 2008. MCH Group, which owns Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach, paid an undisclosed sum for its chunk of the venture in 2011 and immediately moved the fair’s dates from May to February—and then straight back again, because they clashed with Chinese New Year.

“I think it’s important to emphasise what will stay the same. It’s our aspiration to have 50% of the participating exhibitors from Asia,” says Magnus Renfrew, who has been the fair director since the event’s inaugural edition. The “Asian flavour” of the fair has been a continuing preoccupation for organisers: this year the Asian galleries make up 52% of the galleries, up from last year’s 41%. Last year we reported criticism of the separation of the “Asia One” section of the fair, dedicated to Asian galleries, from the international participants. This seems to have been acknowledged by the organisers, with the section now placed in the middle of the fair.

The new “Exhibitor Networking Initiative” is designed to help galleries share information about doing business in the region. “For example, great store is set in Asia on openness, humility, integrity and personal relationships. It’s important for Asian collectors to develop a sense of trust with an individual before they do business,” Renfrew says.

Awareness that there are no short cuts to doing business in Asia seems to be growing. The Gagosian Gallery, White Cube and the Asia Society all opened spaces in Hong Kong this year. “We have slowly developed valuable relationships in mainland China that we have continued to nurture over the course of the year,” says Adam Sheffer of Cheim and Reid, which will be participating at the fair for the second time.

But with so many of the major galleries already working in Hong Kong, what can Basel bring to the mix? Renfrew says Basel will bring “unparalleled expertise” in organising events and hopes the new team will “drive” greater numbers of European and US collectors to the event. “A more international art fair will draw collectors, curators, museum directors, dealers, and artists from all parts of the world to the region which is important for the advancement of art in any developing market,” says Richard Chang, the founder of the Domus Collection in Beijing and an advisory member to the fair.

Sales at the fair have proved stable, with Asian art at the big Western galleries proving most popular. Lehmann Maupin, the New York-based gallery, is due to bring a fabric specimen series by Do Ho Suh and Lee Bul’s Bruno Taut. The two artists have recently enjoyed major museum shows at the Samsung Museum in Korea, and Mori Museum in Japan, respectively.

Tied in with all these ambitions for an increasingly international affair is the hope that it will also boost the local cultural scene. Kate Bryan, the former director of Hong Kong-based Cat Street Gallery, says that being positioned next to larger galleries helps local galleries open a dialogue with established artists like Peter Blake. She is also confident that the fair will not lose its individual flair to Basel’s reputation. “Last year the fair experimented with ideas—this is the year it will begin to refine them.”

Who’s new at Art HK12

Andersen’s Contemporary, Copenhagen; The Breeder, Athens; Carlier Gebauer, Berlin; Casa Triângulo, Sao Paulo; Annie Gentils, Antwerp; Richard Gray, Chicago; Greene Naftali, New York; Green on Red, Dublin; Karsten Greve, St Moritz, Switzerland; Rhona Hoffman, Chicago; Annely Juda, London; Peter Kilchmann, Zurich; Leo Koenig, New York; Koyanagi, Tokyo; Hans Mayer, Dusseldorf; Gebr Lehmann, Dresden; Soledad Lorenzo, Madrid; Marlborough Gallery, New York; Mirchandani and Steinruecke, Mumbai; Mark Müller, Zurich; Christian Nagel, Cologne; Nathalie Obadia, Paris; Lorcan O’Neill, Rome; Maureen Paley, London; Joan Prats, Barcelona; Nara Roesler, Sao Paulo; De Sarthe Fine Art, Hong Kong; Shanghai Gallery, Shanghai; Stuart Shave, London; Sies and Höke, Dusseldorf; Soares, Lisbon; Stevenson, Cape Town; Daniel Templon, Paris; Tornabuoni Art, Paris; Two Palms, New York; Volte, Mumbai; Michael Werner, New York; XL, Moscow.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Basel digs in at Hong Kong fair'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 235 May 2012