March 20, 2016 12:00 pm JST

Cautious optimism greets Art Basel Hong Kong

DEAN NAPOLITANO, Contributing writer

The Hong Kong event is one of Art Basel's three annual shows, along with those in Basel and Miami Beach. © Art Basel

HONG KONG -- Art Basel Hong Kong, Asia's largest art fair, opens to the public on March 24 amid a challenging global economic environment, but the annual event is staying focused on its stated goal of offering a strong forum for galleries to display their best works to international collectors.

     "The mission is to highlight amazing content from this part of the world," said Adeline Ooi, Art Basel's Asia director, but she also points to the event's "unique platform" of being a global art fair. "If you look at the way the ratio of galleries is made up, it's 50% Asia and 50% the rest of the world," she said.

     Knowledge and an appreciation of Asian art "is still in its very nascent stages," Ooi said. "There's still extensive research being done with so many nonprofits and institutions, which are still learning about the art histories in this part of the world, because it's so vast. So for us, even in the Asian community, we're still learning so much about ourselves. There's so much material there."

     The Hong Kong event is one of Art Basel's three annual shows, along with those in Basel, Switzerland and Miami Beach, Florida.

     Art Basel's role in Hong Kong is crucial because it offers an important platform for Asian art to be shown to an international audience, said Pearl Lam, owner of Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong. "It also pushes the standard of art in Asia upwards, bringing all of the galleries here to a sufficient level where they can really compete with the West," she said.

     Australian artist Ben Quilty said that Art Basel has been "incredibly important" for the profile of artists from Down Under. "It has opened many opportunities to engage with Asia and with the rest of the world for us," he said.

     Now in its fourth year, Art Basel arrives this year as some collectors, including those in China who are nervous about a sluggish global economy, have pulled back from buying.

     The European Fine Art Foundation said in a report this month that global sales of art fell 7% last year to $63.8 billion, noting a marked decline in China. "In 2015, against the backdrop of economic contraction and uncertainty alongside poor sales in many sections of the auction market, the Chinese market experienced a significant decline, with total sales dropping 23% to $11.8 billion," the report said.

Tricky times

"The truth is, we are living in tricky times," Ooi said, adding that over the past year some Chinese collectors have become more careful in their buying and are taking more time to make purchases. However, she added: "That is not a bad thing at all." While the current economic situation has made collectors more discerning, she said, "I also like to think there's a certain amount of maturity in one's collecting pattern."

     "This will be the time when [you will see a distinction] between the speculators and the true art buyers," Ooi said. "I think those that are really in love with the art will continue to buy."

     Lam offered a similar view. "In my personal experience, China seems to be purchasing more art, not less," she said. "Everyone's hoping for a really positive result from this year's Art Basel in Hong Kong. It will verify whether the Chinese economy is really slowing, and whether or not there is a genuine loss in appetite for Chinese contemporary art, which I don't think there is."

     Chinese artist Qiu Deshu said that little has changed for him in the current economic climate. "I am confident that we will be able to work towards more ... exhibitions, allowing collectors to better understand the best of contemporary art from China."

     Quilty said that Australian artists often keep their prices low, which in turn enables them to get by in difficult economic times. "As we branch out to the world, those prices move upwards more rapidly, and my inclusion in fairs and curated shows with Pearl Lam Galleries has meant that my work has really not been affected by the poor economy."

     While artworks by both Qiu and Quilty will be presented at Art Basel Hong Kong by Pearl Lam Galleries, one of the city's most prominent galleries, smaller galleries often face daunting challenges amid a growing and increasingly crowded global market.

     "For [newer and young galleries], this fair is so important because it's about pushing the boundaries for themselves," Ooi said. "To be accepted in the fair is for them another confidence boost," she said. "We all acknowledge that it's really tough times right now. That's just the way it is."

     That makes Art Basel's role in Asia especially vital, as it continues to establish a deeper involvement in the local art scenes. "The whole Art Basel platform is really about highlighting galleries," Ooi said. "We're in Hong Kong, and we're here to stay."

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