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WILLEM DE KOONING, Untitled XII, 1975, oil on canvas, 202.6 × 177.2 cm. Copyright the Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York. Courtesy Lévy Gorvy, London/New York.

Stayin’ Alive

Also available in:  Chinese

At the turn of the 21st century, China emerged as the world’s future art market hotbed. That premonition is now a reality. Since 2010, China has been the second-largest global art market after the United States, except in 2015 and 2016, when it briefly fell behind the United Kingdom. In 2017, China accounted for 21 percent of the USD 63.7 billion in total worldwide sales. 

As part of this growth, numerous art fairs in the last 15 years have attempted to set up shop in the region. The most important and successful of these commercial platform is Art Basel Hong Kong, owned by Swiss conglomerate MCH Group, who have had a presence in the Special Autonomous Region since 2013. The fair’s leading position in the region was fully evident at its 2018 edition (3/29–31), when the headline sale was made by Lévy Gorvy gallery of a Willem de Kooning abstract canvas, Untitled XII (1975), for USD 35 million on opening day—a record for the fair. Sales of offerings by Asian artists across the board were equally brisk, with works such as Lee Ufan’s painting With Winds (1987), selling at the booth of Tina Kim and Kukje Gallery for more than USD 1 million. 

While there is no doubt that many of the region’s major transactions happen at Art Basel Hong Kong, the fair is highly selective with its participants. With new fairs cropping up, the question is whether this positioning will remain advantageous for the organizers. With rising participation costs and slim profit margins, galleries are increasingly critical about where they invest. 

Those looking to enter the China market have the option of signing up for one or both of the Shanghai fairs held in November: Art021 (11/8–11) and West Bund Art and Design (11/8–10). While Art021 hasn’t found its footing yet, at the West Bund fair there were no shortages of sales reaching past the USD 1 million mark. Ben Brown Fine Arts placed a Gerhard Richter canvas Abstraktes Bild (1990) in a private Chinese collection for just under USD 1.6 million, while Yayoi Kusama’s 2015 pumpkin sculpture was snapped up on opening day for between USD 1 and 2 million at the Ota Fine Arts booth. There are, however, major trade-offs to selling on the mainland. To import art and catalogs into China, dealers must submit content details to a city cultural bureau and customs authorities weeks in advance. Canvases by market favorites Georg Baselitz and Francis Bacon were reportedly among those banned in 2018, as nudity, sexual content and political subjects are all strictly prohibited. 

Exterior view of Hall A of the West Bund Art Center, the venue of the 2018 West Bund Art & Design fair. Photo by Ophelia Lai for ArtAsiaPacific.

Woe Is the Middle 

Emerging markets around the world, from Russia to Brazil, Turkey, India, the Philippines and many other places, have experienced downturns in both economic fortunes and political liberties in the last six years—as part of what some economists are calling a slow-motion crash. Those vulnerabilities have impacted even the larger players in 2018. The MCH Group announced a series of rollbacks on November 2, including its withdrawal from Singapore’s new Art SG fair, which had just been revealed on July 13, and the sale of its 
60.3-percent stake in India Art Fair, acquired by MCH in September 2016. The downscaling was intended to stabilize the parent company in light of the “profound transformation required to meet the fundamental changes coming about in the exhibition and event industry,” according to interim CEO Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard. 

MCH Group also noted that patrons are growing progressively more confident with buying remotely, leading to a necessary re-examination of what art fairs offer. Despite this, the 11th India Art Fair will go ahead from January 31 to February 3, 2019, under the management of Angus Montgomery and MCH, while Art SG, overseen by Tim Etchells and Angus Montgomery, is scheduled to take place from November 1 to 3, 2019. 

In Dubai, the vulnerability of art fairs to corporate fortunes was starkly apparent. After Art Dubai’s 12th iteration (3/21–24), which saw a revival of sales—most notably that of Diana al-Hadid’s painting The Falcon and the Bandit (2017) for USD 120,000 at Marianne Boesky Gallery—remediating from the previous years’ mini-recession, organizers confirmed the end of their ten-year partnership with the fair’s lead sponsor, private-equity firm 
Abraaj Group, on September 13. Abraaj had filed for liquidation 
in June after its founder was accused of misusing investor funds. 
In October, the group put up its entire art collection for sale across 
a series of auction houses in London. Meanwhile, Art Dubai 
turned to the government, announcing their new partner, the 
Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy, which was established in 2018 under the United Arab Emirate’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 
on October 10. 

Installation view of Marianne Boesky Gallery’s booth at Art Dubai 2018. Photo by Sebastian Opellion. Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York/Aspen.

New Digs

As art markets in major regional hubs are shaken up, entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the uncertainty to build new destinations for collectors. For instance, though Art Busan was launched in 2011 as an alternative to fairs in the South Korean capital Seoul, galleries have been offering much of the same fare, namely Dansaekhwa paintings. In 2018, the event (4/20–22), attended by an unprecedented 60,000 visitors, targeted younger, first-time buyers by launching an art advisory service—with the returns on this investment still to be seen.

Australia saw the comeback of the biennial Melbourne Art 
Fair (MAF, 8/2–5) after the 2016 edition was canceled. With 46 galleries, sales totaled USD 6.7 million, comparing favorably to the 20-year-old platform’s record of USD 8.9 million across 89 galleries in 2008, though MAF is still dwarfed by Sydney Contemporary (9/14–16), which reported a record sales total of USD 14.9 million at its 2018 edition. 

Completely new fairs were birthed as well. For the first Art Chengdu International Contemporary Art Fair (4/26–29), co-founders Huang Zai and Huang Yu, an art advisor and collector respectively, roped in 31 Chinese and international galleries, including high-end participants Pace, Sadie Coles HQ and ShanghArt, by waiving booth fees. Over 32,000 visitors descended on a large tent in the city’s commercial center. Beijing’s Shixiang Art Space set the pace, selling a USD 2.3 million work by Wu Dayu. The majority of attendees nevertheless agreed there’s much room for improvement. 

WU DAYU, Untitled 125, circa 1980, oil on canvas, 53 × 38.2 cm. Copyright and courtesy Wu Dayu Art Foundation.

In the Chinese capital, the inaugural Jingart (5/17–20), from the team behind Art021, drew 32 participants, including blue-chip galleries David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth and Perrotin—all venturing to a Beijing fair for the first time, though slow sales suggested galleries have to be in it for the long game. 

The jostling for new market niches isn’t a phenomenon unique to China. Iran’s first-ever art fair, Teer Art (6/24–30), opened in the country’s capital with 11 invited participants. Iranian painter Aydin Aghdashloo’s diptych The Ultimate Destruction (2014), presented by hometown heroes Dastan Gallery, sold for USD 70,000—the highest price fetched at the event. 

In 2019, fairs will continue to proliferate. Taipei Dangdai, directed by Magnus Renfrew, will kick off on January 18 with 80 exhibitors spread across five sectors. A week later, SEA Focus, an initiative by STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, will bring 25 galleries from Southeast Asia to Singapore’s arts enclave Gillman Barracks, joining the already crowded Singapore art fair lineup. 

For some, impossibly inundated art fair calendars, rocketing overhead costs and questionable potential profits point toward
the need for a serious reconsideration of how the art world conducts its business. For those intent on surviving, however, the broken system merely points to more opportunities—after all, the only way out is through. 

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