After weeks of uncertainty, the organisers of Art Basel in Hong Kong have finally announced they are cancelling the eighth edition of the fair due to the coronavirus outbreak. The Hong Kong show was due to run from 17 to 21 March.
In a letter sent to exhibitors on 6 February, Marc Spiegler, the global director; Adeline Ooi, the director Asia; and Noah Horowitz, the director Americas, said there was “no option but to cancel”. Postponing to a later date was considered but ultimately rejected. Dealers will be reimbursed 75% of their stand fees.
“Numerous factors informed this decision, including: fundamental concern for the health and safety of all those working at and attending the fair; the severe logistical challenges facing the build-out and transit of artwork to the show; and the escalating difficulties complicating international travel, all arising as a result of the outbreak of the coronavirus,” the organisers said.
Spiegler added that the decision to pull the fair was “an extremely difficult one” for his team. “We explored every other possible option before doing so, gathering advice and perspectives from many gallerists, collectors, partners and external experts.
“Our thoughts are with those affected by the recent coronavirus outbreak around the world,” he added.
The virus has so far infected more than 28,000 people in China and killed more than 560—more than during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s. The World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus a global emergency on 30 January, prompting outcry from several dealers who said they could not send staff to work in such an environment.
In Hong Kong, where 21 cases have been confirmed and one person has died, museums and schools have been closed, while authorities said that beginning this weekend they would mandate that anyone entering the city from mainland China “self-quarantine” for the 14-day incubation period of the virus. There has also been widespread cancellation of flights in and out of the region and cross-border trains are no longer running.
Last week the New York-based dealer David Zwirner told ArtNews that he had pulled his Luc Tuymans exhibition, which was due to open in Hong Kong to coincide with the fair. The show will be moved to another of the gallery’s territories. Meanwhile, Gagosian's exhibition of new paintings by Jenny Saville, which was due to open next month, has been removed from its website.
Spiegler said the fair organisers were “acutely aware” of the important role that the fair plays in the cultural scene in Asia and for its galleries, both in the region and beyond. Last year, the event attracted a record 88,000 visitors. “Our team dedicated extensive time and effort to ensure our show in March would be a success over the course of the past year. Unfortunately, the sudden outbreak and rapid spread of the novel coronavirus radically changed the situation,” he said.
Before the outbreak of the virus, fair organisers offered to refund 75% of booth costs if the fair was cancelled. According to their announcement, they are still committed to that pledge. Exhibitors “will not be invoiced for special orders placed with Art Basel”, the directors said. Some dealers have suggested that Art Basel’s insurance should cover further costs, while insurers were said to be monitoring the situation closely; epidemics and pandemics are often deliberately excluded from cover.
It is only the second time an edition of the Art Basel global franchise has been cancelled; the first edition of Art Basel in Miami Beach was postponed in 2001 after 9/11, costing the organisers an estimated $4m.
Art Basel had faced increasing pressure from dealers to cancel the fair in the lead up to the announcement; the pro-democracy protests that have rocked Hong Kong for the past seven months had already put a strain on business. As many as 24 leading galleries including Lévy Gorvy, Lisson and Paula Cooper wrote a letter to the organisers on 16 January expressing concerns over a drop off in the number of collectors and patrons attending, as well as threats to freedom of expression due to increased Chinese control in the semi-autonomous region.
“Many of our artists are unwilling to have their work shown at the fair,” the exhibitors wrote, because increasing Chinese control is not “consistent with their core belief in the freedom of expression”.
According to The Canvas industry-insider newsletter last week, 12 dealers had already confirmed they would not participate. One anonymous dealer said the fair would have been “a full scale disaster” if it had gone ahead, while the London dealer Richard Nagy had described the show as “fatally wounded” and “commercially on artificial life support”.
Ooi acknowledged the difficulties faced. “We are deeply grateful to our exhibitors, partners and friends all over the world, and especially in Hong Kong, who have stood by our side, lent their support, and shared insights and opinions over the past days and months," she said. “Our commitment to Asia and Hong Kong has not changed, and we look forward to the 2021 edition."
Following Art Basel’s decision, on 7 February Christie’s announced it would move its inaugural 20th-century and contemporary art evening sale in Hong Kong, which had been scheduled to take place to coincide with the fair on 19 March, to May when the auction house's spring sales are held at the Hong Kong Convention Centre. Its March wine sale will also move to the same slot in May.
The fallout is also being felt in New York, where Christie’s is postponing its spring Asian Art Week sales from March to June, with the exception of its South Asian modern and contemporary art sale, which will still take place on 18 March. A spokeswoman said: “Christie’s has been monitoring the situation on a global level to assess the potential impact to our business, our staff and our clients. We believe these are the right decisions to take now to ensure the best sale environment on behalf of our consignors and our clients.”
Also on 7 February, Art Central announced on social media that it would also cancel its planned fair from 18-22 March, “in view of the current challenges facing us in Hong Kong”. A statement on Instagram said the fair “will return to the Central Harbourfront in 2021, dates will be announced shortly”.