the hong kong international art fair 2011

hong kong convention and exhibition centre
26-29 May 2011

The Hong Kong International Art Fair 2011 (ArtHK11) kept a promise made to its future majority stakeholders, the owners of Art Basel, who officially took over in July. As it turned out the new investors secured the best deal of the Fair. With two hundred and sixty participating galleries ArtHK had a larger footprint than any of its three previous incarnations. The blue chip ‘Galleries’ section stayed downstairs, whilst upstairs two sections with almost one hundred galleries were revealed. ‘Asia One’ was devoted to gallerists from Turkey through to the Middle East, and India through to New Zealand, where each showed one artist in depth, and ‘Art Futures’ unveiled young dealers with less than five years in business and young artists under thirty-five.

With ample social and public program opportunities, ArtHK proved it is poised to become one of the superpower forums for art dealing. Both the seller and the buyer of the rights to stage the next event should be happy, and yet there was plenty of room for amateur hour antics during vernissage. When an official announcement was reported that the new controlling interest would move dates for ArtHK12 to February 2012, it did not take them too long to realise the sensitive matter of a clash with Chinese New Year, and the fact that in May the Hong Kong Fair is an attractive stopover for many who go on to the Venice Biennale, Art Basel or Documenta. Wealthy targets, such as the Chinese, do not mix New Year with business, whilst jet setters en route to Venice from the East and West would happily go straight there, and then to Basel, missing Hong Kong. A retraction was soon issued, restoring ArtHK to May in 2012.

At a time when art fairs and their ‘public’ biennale and triennial cousins are virtually butted up against each other in the calendar, regularly recycling similar ideas and artists, ArtHK does offer something unique. Its proximity to China, centrality to Asian markets as a source for new art and its followers, liberal tax and import regimes, ease with English as lingua franca and generosity as a host city—for hotels, food and shopping—give it strong competitive advantages over other models. The Melbourne Art Fair tried a recent international push but had to retreat and settle for the more local arena, while Art Singapore, the Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei Art Fairs lack the total package ArtHK offers. It is worth mentioning also that at this Fair the government of Hong Kong and its civic gatekeepers seemed at ease with posters of the then missing art hero Ai Wei Wei stuck up around the city and close to the venue. There is no doubt this sort of awareness campaign would not have been tolerated in some other regional centres.

What those who pay to be in ArtHK really seek from its new management is equal growth on the other side of the coin. This is a business, not actually established for the good of art, but for the good business around it. Supply, now that a plethora of great dealers is on board, is not the issue. It will prosper only with improved demand, courtesy of a better quantum and quality of visitors. That is not to say there was not a good smattering of global art collector celebs—there was—and sales were considerably up on previous fairs, but it has not yet hit its mark for many dealers to commit for the long haul. The delicate balancing act for organisers is for ArtHK not to compete against its stable (Basel and Miami fairs) but for it to complement them by retaining its distinctly Asian flavour. As Pace Gallery Director Peter Boris was reported to have argued, it is Asian collectors who are now starting to build great collections of art from their region, joining an increasing number of Westerners in the game, and the Fair offers a ground floor, in contrast to auction houses driving for record prices.

ArtHK also represents a brief, tricky, and strategic window for astute Australian operatives, whether collectors or dealers, advisors, curators and artists, as the real impact of cultural globalism settles into stable patterns of exchange into and out of our region. For Australian public and private curators with interests in art from India, Indonesia and South East Asia generally, the ArtHK is a goldmine. The most innovative gallerists are also increasingly aware that showing emerging and leading international artists in Australia slowly earns leverage back into markets abroad. At ArtHK11, amongst other artists Roslyn and Tony Oxley had Isaac Julien and Yayoi Kusama, Anna Schwartz took Antony Gormley (who was a star of the ArtHK public programming event), Irene Sutton had Peter Robinson, and Barry Keldoulis offered Jitish Kallat.

A significant number of expats living in the region also support gallerists showing Australian art at ArtHK. Dealers like Sullivan+Strumpf sold out a Sam Leach show, bolstered by new international collectors and rumours of a major potential alignment for Leach with a London/NY gallery, still undisclosed at the time of writing. If the Fair was not enough you could duck off to Hollywood Road to see their major solo project by Ben Quilty, which sold well. Former Brisbane-ite Benjamin Hampe, now a Director of Chan Hampe in Singapore also reported success upstairs as part of ‘Asia One’, with the Singapore Art Museum acquiring works from his Genevieve Chua (b.1984) show. Tristian Koenig debuted his new Melbourne operation showing Christopher Hanrahan, and nearby it seemed a large number of John Olsen works offered by Tim Olsen might have gone better at home. Overall twelve Australian galleries made it in 2011.

Superstar brand artists in the ‘Galleries’ section, such as Damien Hirst, Zeng Fanzhi, Yang Fudong, Cao Fei and Zhang Xiaogang were sold well by non-Asian gallerists, while another highlight, Greenberg van Doren Gallery’s spectacular solo showing of new paintings by Feng Bin, got close to best new blue chip exhibitor. As ever, those brave enough to mount a solo showing by a top prospect, whilst running the risk of not appealing to broader audiences, found some favour with those who had means and knew what they were doing. Still, as with any fair, there were many galleries who barely covered costs and several who will not come back given the financial stress it takes to participate. If the rumours are correct ArtHK will not be too worried. They can take newcomers from those they rejected, and will pick up, now that Art Basel has the steer. The best non-Fair shows in town were Richard Prince at Gagosian, Miquel Barceló at Ben Brown, a Sebastião Salgardo photo project and, also in a well hidden part of Central known only to locals or the truly dedicated map interpreter, a joint show by Hiram To and Scott Redford.

When Hong Kong authorities get their act together and the mammoth proposed new cultural complex starts to take shape on the West Kowloon peninsula, this will clearly benefit ArtHK. It might even make the current venue, the Hong Kong Convention Centre, more motivated to keep the event on the island, thus igniting the prospect of offsite alternate events and strap-ons across the harbour that usually follow the Basel bandwagon, such as Liste, Scope, Volta or UnFair, even Frieze. The reported 63,000 visitors in 2011 will look paltry in years to come, as will the small number of dealers like Gagosian (USA) and Ben Brown (UK), who have already opened major spaces in anticipation of what the market in Hong Kong will become. In the next twelve months several other major galleries are rumoured as likely to set up in Hong Kong, among them White Cube (UK), leading French dealer Galerie Perrotin, and expatriate Australian Simon Lee, whose London operation already has a toehold in Hong Kong.

It may now be aimed at more than an emerging market, some would say Asia is already a heavyweight contender, but ArtHK of the future will need to increasingly deal on Asia’s terms and resist the gravitational pull of becoming an international generic. How it manages to do this under its impending full rebranding as an Art Basel event in 2013 will be interesting. Its Baselification is well underway, especially now that floor space for 2012 is already being pitched at 25% more than 2011. Now, there’s a return on an art investment!

Installation view, Art Hong Kong, 2011. Courtesy Art Hong Kong.