May 22 2013

Hong Kong: Bedazzled by Basel?

by Kathy Zhang
YAYOI KUSAMA, Flowers That Bloom at Midnight, 2009, installation view at Art HK, Hong Kong, 2012. Photo by Ann Woo for ArtAsiaPacific

It was the question on the tip of every reporter’s tongue. What will Art Basel, opening this Thursday in Hong Kong, bring to the city? At a press conference earlier this year to mark the flagship’s take-over of local art fair Art HK, Marc Spiegler, the director of Art Basel, responded that the brand would boost Hong Kong’s international profile, citing the economic and cultural precedents in Miami Beach. But what has Art Basel actually done for Miami?

While the state’s low corporate tax rate and proximity to Latin America has made Miami into a commercial goldmine, the city offered little by way of art until Basel debuted there in 2002, effecting astonishing results on the city’s cultural landscape according to some commentators. The central arts district in Wynwood, for example, grew from four galleries in 2000 to over 70 today.

Public and private museums, along with theater companies, also benefitted from the international attention, which has challenged them to create year-round, world-class programming in addition to hosting the numerous satellite events surrounding the fair. In addition, many ambitious expansion projects have been undertaken by the larger institutions, including a USD 13.5 million plan to triple the size of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

But such advances have been slow, particularly for local commercial gallerists and artists. An article published days before last year’s Art Basel Miami still referred to Miami as a “city starting to come into its own.” While galleries continue to proliferate in the Wynwood area, their life spans tend to be short. Galerie Perrotin, a well-established gallery, lasted just over three years in the neighborhood, closing in January 2009. A sustainable gallery culture, moreover, does not exist there, and Art Basel does nothing to foster one. Last year only two out of the 257 galleries present at the art fair were from Miami, making it abundantly clear that the draw for the international collectors and arts professionals is not the local fare.

Art Basel Miami’s strength lies in its ability to foster connections between Latin American and international markets, and in Hong Kong, Art Basel may likewise bring together galleries from the West with those from Asia. Already its first iteration anticipates 48 international galleries, including at least ten from the Asia-Pacific. Hong Kong will receive major representation with 28 local galleries (albeit many among them global galleries with branches in Hong Kong). Unlike Art Basel Miami, locals won’t be snubbed.

While it is clear that the organizers of Art Basel have taken pains to retain the essential character of Art HK, as of yet there is no discernable correlation between Art Basel’s entrance and the advancement of Hong Kong’s art scene. Ultimately, the latter’s vitality will be in the hands of the Hong Kong art community itself.