As the first edition of Art Basel Hong Kong closed its doors, visitors, exhibitors and critics shared mixed responses.

The first edition of Art Basel Hong Kong ran from 23 to 26 May 2013. Crowds of as many as 60,000 visited the fair, and 245 galleries from 35 countries exhibited artworks from over 3,000 artists. Art Radar rounds-up insights from the media, exhibitors and collectors.

Kukje Gallery, Art Basel Hong Kong 2013

Kukje Gallery, Art Basel Hong Kong 2013. Image courtesy Art Basel Hong Kong.

Running like clockwork

There was one question on most art scene watchers’ lips as Art Basel Hong Kong closed out its inaugural edition: how did the newly branded fair compare to Art HK, of which Art Basel bought a majority share back in 2011? Fair Director Magnus Renfrew promised The New York Times that this year would be bigger and better

The quality is really a step up. The architecture is much improved. We have a huge VIP lounge with views of the harbor. The expectations of the visitors are higher, and there is increased interest from collectors, both from the US and around Asia.

Media commentators agreed that, for the most part, the fair delivered on Renfrew’s promise. Many media reports praised Art Basel Hong Kong’s better management and spacious displays compared to its predecessor, with Darryl Jingwen Wee’s description of the fair’s “clockwork-like efficiency” in ARTINFO setting the tone. Georgina Adam, writing in the Financial Times, backed the consensus on improved organisation but noted that a well-laid out display is only half the battle.

While the transformation from the Art HK fair is not radical, the new owners have smoothed some things out, for instance distributing stands better between the two floors and placing the VIP lounge upstairs. The fair is spacious and well lit, flattering the art on view. But with “Basel Basel” round the corner, some galleries have not brought their best works, and others are frankly a muddle.

Exhibitors agreed that this year’s event was better organised, with Andrew Moran of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery telling Art Radar that the improved stand layout and spacious walkways made for a better visitor experience. Martin Clist, Director of Rossi & Rossi Gallery, told ARTINFO that, organisation aside, the differences between Art HK and Art Basel Hong Kong were minimal.

We haven’t noticed any new collectors, and honestly haven’t observed a great difference between this year and the last. This year’s fair is better organized, but it doesn’t feel as ‘family.’ We are still relating and connecting with the same Art HK people, but this year, with Basel on board, there seems to be a more rigid Swiss shell.

Wang Gongxin, ‘The House’, 2007, 3-channel video installation with 3 screens, 3 min 40 sec, colour, stereo, 300 x 400 cm each screen. Image courtesy Xin Dong Cheng Gallery and the artist

Wang Gongxin, ‘The House’, 2007, three-channel video installation with three screens, 3 min 40 sec, colour, stereo, 300 x 400 cm each screen. Image courtesy Xin Dong Cheng Gallery and the artist.

Asian galleries under-represented?

Although better in terms of organisation and layout, several publications commented on the selection of galleries and artworks, drawing attention to the fact that there were relatively few galleries from Hong Kong displaying works. The New York Times reported that,

Local galleries planned their best shows, installations and openings for this week. But of the fair’s 245 galleries — chosen from more than 600 applicants — only 26 have a permanent presence in Hong Kong, and many of those are relatively recent imports like White Cube, Gagosian, Ben Brown and Lehmann Maupin.

Some exhibitors also felt that the representation of Asian galleries should have been more impressive, as Hong Kong-based art dealer Pearl Lam told The New York Times.

They made an effort to include Asian galleries, but, of course, they have to choose the right galleries. What we need is to increase standards so that our own galleries can compete with Western galleries. It’s not good enough to just have Art Basel here.

Collectors too sensed a tilt towards artists and galleries from outside Asia, with Indonesian collector Deddy Kusuma telling ARTINFO,

I see a lot of Western art here […] we should promote Asian art because we are in Asia. Western art has other platforms around the world, but it should be up to places like Hong Kong and Singapore to promote Asian art.

EddiE haRA, ‘SEA FOOD’S NOT COOL!/SAVE OUR EMPTY OCEAN’, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 113 cm, first painting from a series of 3. Image courtesy Semarang Gallery and the artist

EddiE haRA, ‘Sea Food’s Not Cool!/ Save our Empty Ocean’, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 113 cm, first painting from a series of three. Image courtesy Semarang Gallery and the artist.

Sales slow for some, strong overall

While most media reports suggested strong sales, not all press coverage was wholly positive. The South China Morning Post suggested that business was slow during the first couple of days for galleries from Asia-Pacific, who had to work extra hard to draw attention from collectors.

Speaking to Art Radar on 24 May, before the fair weekend, Renuka Sawhney of The Guild, India, agreed with the overall view that: “the management is better but sales are slow.” GalleristNY noted that Art Basel Hong Kong, in contrast to some other international art fairs, did not have a “collecting feeding frenzy” on opening day.

Nevertheless, blue chip galleries with Hong Kong bases showed strong sales, according to The Art Newspaper.

The exhibitors are keen to turn this critical mass into sales, and the big-name galleries, particularly those who now have a presence in Hong Kong, benefited from their increased brand recognition here. White Cube (1D12) reported several sales to Asian collectors, and Lehmann Maupin (1C09), which opened a space in Hong Kong in March, also sold well (including Tracey Emin’s neon Now Love is for You!, 2013, for USD75,500). At Galerie Perrotin (1C37), the stand was having its third rehang by Friday morning. “This is one advantage of having stock and storage in Hong Kong,” said the gallery’s Stephanie Vaillant.

ARTINFO spotted some big name Asian artists selling, tweeting on the first day of the fair,


Basel and Hong Kong – a bright future?

Some art watchers wondered whether the coming of the Art Basel brand signified Hong Kong’s ascendancy to Asia’s official art hub. Speaking to the New York Times, Nick Simunovic, Director of Gagosian Gallery’s Hong Kong branch, said that the advent of Art Basel Hong Kong had “unquestionably cemented the city’s position as a mandatory destination for collectors, curators and critics in the global art circuit.” The Art Newspaper noted that while the Swiss re-brand of Art HK had almost undoubtedly strengthened Hong Kong’s position as Asia’s art hub, factors such as the growth of the Chinese art market obviously also play a part in the city’s current success.

The Guardian claimed that smaller local art dealers were concerned by the increasing numbers of international players. Pui Pui To, director of Hong Kong’s 2P Gallery, told the newspaper, “Now that the blue chip galleries have arrived, it’s become much tougher for us to survive.” But New York dealer Sean Kelly, speaking to GalleristNY, said that the internationalisation of Hong Kong’s art scene was a process of give and take.

This is about us showing up, showing face, answering questions and taking inquiries seriously. But it is equally about us learning from their culture. It’s a two-way street.

Organisers announced that the second edition of Art Basel Hong Kong will take place from 15 to 18 May 2014, with a preview on 14 May 2014.


Click here to read our coverage of Art Basel Hong Kong 2013

Related Topics: Hong Kong artists, promoting art, art fairs

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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