Almost two years after the group behind Art Basel bought a majority stake in Asian Art Fairs Ltd., which founded the Art HK contemporary art fair, the newly rechristened Art Basel in Hong Kong opens to much international fanfare on May 23. “The fact that there is an Art Basel show in Hong Kong now is an indication of the art world’s interest in the region and the importance of Chinese and Asian collectors,” says Hiromi Kinoshita, the Hannah L. and J. Welles Henderson associate curator of Chinese art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Boasting work presented by 245 of the world’s leading galleries, and an improved floor plan and architectural design (sited at the waterfront Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre), the show promises to provide Western audiences with the context to explore the diverse histories, ideas, and aesthetics of Asia’s visual arts, a segment of the art market that has skyrocketed in recent years. Art Basel’s expansion into Asia also gives the storied fair an unparalleled three-continent, year-round engagement with art-world cognoscenti, with its other shows in Switzerland and Miami Beach.
Magnus Renfrew, the original fair’s director who is now Art Basel’s Director Asia, has overseen the transformation and is confident that both attendees and participants will be impressed. “With an emphasis on the highest quality work and presentation,” Renfrew says, “the fair will showcase artworks by more than 3,000 artists—ranging from young stars to the modern masters of the early 20th to 21st centuries, hailing from both Asia and the West.” Renfrew has always been a firm believer that Hong Kong is the natural home for a major international art fair.
“We are geographically positioned at the heart of Asia, and we are the region’s financial center,” he offers. “There is no tax on the import or export of art, and Hong Kong has an increasingly expanding cultural sector and a culturally interested population.” And with the rapid proliferation of art fairs creating a climate in which dealers are forced to carefully select where to devote their resources, it’s telling that many of the most prestigious gallerists are putting effort into building their Asian audience at Art Basel in Hong Kong.
The Basel shows are perhaps most renowned for an unflinching curatorial rigor in choosing participating galleries and developing various fair sectors. “Each year will be an opportunity for galleries to participate, with every applicant undergoing the identical review process and [being] given the same consideration,” explains Renfrew. “New committee members are appointed by Art Basel’s director and generally serve for five to 10 years.” More than 170 modern and contemporary exhibitors will show in the main section of the fair this year, including participants like New York–based Dominique Lévy gallery and 303 Gallery. Eyes will be on the Insights sector of the fair, which highlights site-specific projects from 47 galleries from Asia and the Asia-Pacific regions. The Discoveries segment likely will be the most experimental, presenting solo and two-person exhibitions by emerging artists and, in an exciting twist, will feature a $25,000 prize. But Renfrew reiterates that the fair is also attractive because of its outstanding ancillary activities. “In addition to the quality of art brought by our galleries, Art Basel is known worldwide for the programming surrounding our shows,” he says. “That includes conversations and salon discussion panels, and ambitious collaborations with powerhouse local partners, including museums and institutions.”
Special exhibitions and events at local galleries are poised to draw immense interest. The Hong Kong gallery scene has been invigorated over the past few years by the arrival of major international blue-chip players like Gagosian Gallery and White Cube, which have joined local stalwarts Hanart TZ Gallery and Osage gallery. The multitude of special exhibitions and events at Hong Kong cultural institutions and not-for-profits is dizzying. The government is getting in on the art act, too, by celebrating the opening of its new venue, Artspace @ Oil Street—a space converted from a 1908 heritage building. Asia Art Archive, widely regarded as the most important collection of source material for the recent history of art in Asia, has grown from a single bookshelf in 2000 to more than 35,000 records, including physical and digital pieces. This unique institution, which has diligently recorded and saved material about art across Asia to make it accessible to the public, will also be hosting a series of panel discussions, as well as a keynote lecture, during Art Basel.
Not surprisingly, the Hong Kong show has proven attractive to corporate sponsors looking for a foothold in the fast-growing region. Deutsche Bank has signed on as lead partner, joining existing associate sponsors Davidoff, Audemars Piguet, and Absolut Art Bureau, among others, which also support the shows in Switzerland and Miami Beach. Comparisons are being drawn between today’s Hong Kong art market and that of 10 years ago in Miami Beach. “The market is in a relatively early stage of development here, much like the atmosphere in [South Florida] when we opened there,” says Renfrew. “We want to be part of the cultural surge in this dynamic city, and the show provides the perfect global platform for that.” Adds Philly curator Kinoshita, “Hong Kong is a good gateway to China for Westerners, as it combines both East and West.” Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, 1 Expo Dr., Wan Chai, Hong Kong.