Art Basel makes a difference in Asia

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

It’s still not uncommon to hear Japanese art bureaucrats and administrators speaking dreamily about Tokyo one day becoming the regional art hub — the “show window,” as one local museum director put it to me last year, through which the art of Asia can be presented to the rest of the world.

You have to wonder if they’ve visited Hong Kong recently. It’s been a few years now since the Chinese Special Administrative Region became the third-largest art auction market in the world — thanks largely to Christie’s and Sotheby’s having set up their regional operations there. But even more significant than those two votes of confidence was the announcement in 2011 that MCH Swiss Exhibition (Basel) Ltd. — better known as the organizer of the two most prominent commercial art fairs in the world, Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach — had purchased Art HK, a precocious independent fair that was then only 3 years old.

Art Basel in Hong Kong, as the fair was re-branded, was first held last year, and the Swiss experience and global connections served as a pair of booster jets. When Art HK started out, in 2008, it had 100 galleries and nearly 20,000 visitors; in 2013 the new fair brought in 245 galleries and 60,000 visitors.

Magnus Renfrew, the British director who was retained from Art HK, stopped by Tokyo recently in the lead up to this year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong, which will be held next week. He told The Japan Times about what it means to have Art Basel on board.

“Really we’ve got the best of both worlds — the experience of having made Art HK from the ground up, but also the incredible resources of Art Basel. It is the leading art fair organizer in the world. We’ve been able to apply their learnings to the fair in HK to create something quite special,” he said.

How special? Well, to begin with, he touched on what he called “VIP” clients — that is the cream of the global art collecting class: “We have now access to Art Basel’s VIP database, and they, or we, have one of the best address books in the business. Whereas with Art HK we had one VIP relations manager based in HK, we now have 24 around the world whose job it is to try to direct VIP traffic to the fair, so I think it is a great combination of both.”

As far as galleries are concerned, whether or not to participate in an art fair is fairly simple: Will your expected at-fair, or, at least, immediate-post-fair sales cover the cost of participation (which this year at Hong Kong ranges from $535 to $695 per sq. meter, with most booths being between 50 and 180 sq. meters)?

The answer, in many cases, appears to be a resounding “yes.” Perhaps a reflection of the purchasing power of all those VIP customers is the fact that this year, around 500 galleries, not only from around Asia but around the world, applied to participate at Art Basel in Hong Kong.

And when you have that many applicants, you can afford to be selective. In fact, Renfrew explained, it pays to be selective. He was unabashed in describing what is, in effect, an extraordinarily elitist gathering.

A select group of trustworthy gallery directors — the “selection committee” — is tasked with determining which of their colleagues will be granted access to this kingdom of riches.

What sort of galleries do they look for?

“We’re looking for galleries that have strong programming, that are not overwhelmed by commercial pragmatism. They really are showing artists that are producing interesting work rather than work that is created to satisfy an audience,” he said.

As with last year, 245 of the 500 ended up making the cut, with the loose target of 50 percent “local” (meaning from the Asia-Pacific region) participation being met.

Renfrew added that the 245 gallery figure represents a decrease on the number of galleries included in Art HK (in 2012, when there were 265). He explained, somewhat tellingly, that “you’re only as strong as the weakest link. The last 10, 15, 20 galleries you let in really determines the overall perception of the quality of the fair.”

Thus, assuming Renfrew and his team wanted to achieve a 50-percent local participation rate, it would seem likely that they could only find 122 commercial galleries in the Asia-Pacific region they thought worthy of participation.

That said, there might have been others that decided not to apply in the first place. If so, rest assured it wasn’t through want of Renfrew’s trying. He explained that he actively courts galleries that he thinks “should” be at the fair. This year, he proudly reported, he was able to win over a longtime holdout, Gallery Koyanagi, the grande dame of Japan’s contemporary art world. The gallery is planning to show its star photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, and others.

In all, 21 galleries will make the trip from Japan. Among the artists shown, photographer Nobuyoshi Araki will be included by Taka Ishii Gallery, painter Hideaki Kawashima by Tomio Koyama Gallery, painter O Jun by Mizuma Art Gallery, Tsuyoshi Ozawa by Misa Shin Gallery, and painter Masaya Chiba by ShugoArts. Those galleries will be joined by art-world heavyweights such as U.S.-based David Zwirner and Hammer Galleries, as well as some 31 others from mainland China, including Long March Space and ShanghArt Gallery.

Japanese participation also extends to a special section called Encounters, by which large-scale sculptural and installation pieces (“institutional-scale” works) will be displayed throughout the venue. It has been curated by Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, chief curator Yuko Hasegawa.

Renfrew explained that these and other curated sections, which are composed of works provided by participating galleries, help place the exhibits by Asian artists in the big picture — that is, the global, historical art context.

To an extent this is also where the art fair can best complement what has, to date, been the most prominent venue of the art boom that has visited Asia in the last decade, and that is the auction houses.

Asia’s new art collectors have seen in the auction process a “transparency,” Renfrew explained. “The idea that if someone is willing to put their hand up for a bid there is a reassurance that you are paying the appropriate price for something because there are other people that are willing to pay it.”

Nowadays, though, Asia’s collectors are starting to recognize a different kind of affirmation — that provided by fairs such as Art Basel in Hong Kong. Visitors know that participating galleries have already received “the Art Basel imprimatur,” Renfrew said. “You buy from one of the galleries that you know has been through this rigorous selection process, that there is a certain level of quality and interest.”

Art Basel in Hong Kong takes place May 15 through 18 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center. For further information, visit www.artbasel.com/en/Hong-Kong.