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  • Jan 31, 2020

Gallerists Pressure Art Basel to Cancel 2020 Hong Kong Edition

General view of Art Basel 2016. Courtesy of Art Basel.

While the art world is waiting to hear from Art Basel and its parent corporation MCH Group about its intentions for the 2020 edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, scheduled for March, many galleries based outside of Asia are attempting to convince the fair to cancel the event due to the spread of the coronavirus from mainland China to countries in the region.

With more than 240 exhibitors, Art Basel Hong Kong attracts nearly 90,000 visitors to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, and is the anchor event for Hong Kong art month, which also includes the Art Central fair on the Victoria Harbour waterfront and exhibitions across the city’s galleries and art spaces.

For commercial galleries there is serious money at stake, whether the fair happens or not, as participation fees, shipping, insurance, and travel arrangements have to be confirmed or cancelled, as the event is now just six weeks away. With international freight-shipping dates approaching, Art Basel sent exhibitors an email on January 30 saying that the organization is “cognizant of the many impending deadlines” and “will provide a resolution as soon as we can.” 

This week Bloomberg published excerpts from a letter by London-based secondary-market dealer Richard Nagy in which he claimed that none of his gallery’s foreign clients would be visiting the fair and said that this edition was already “fatally wounded.” The same article quoted New York-based Metro Pictures gallery co-founder Janelle Reiring, who said: “Hong Kong is not the place where anyone wants to go right now . . . Because of the politics, the protests and now the virus. No one wants to send people to work there the way things are.”

According to an email seen by Artnet’s Nate Freeman, two weeks earlier, a cohort of 24 galleries, including international heavyweights like Lisson, Blum & Poe, Lévy Gorvy, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Paula Cooper Gallery, Metro Pictures, and Sprüth Magers, sought a 50-percent reduction on booth costs from the fair because they claimed many of their clients would not be in attendance. These galleries also cited as a reason for the concession their artists’ fears about potential censorship, even though many of these galleries are regular participants in heavily censored events in mainland China, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere in the world. 

On January 31, the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association (HKAGA) released a statement saying that its member galleries in Hong Kong would support Art Basel’s “ultimate decision to proceed with, reschedule, cancel or otherwise make necessary changes to the fair,” and that “HKAGA will do its utmost to make March’s art week as eventful as possible, even should Art Basel Hong Kong 2020 be cancelled.” The statement stopped short of calling for Art Basel to continue with the Hong Kong fair.

Collectors and patrons are also divided over what should happen with Art Basel Hong Kong, with many recognizing the fair’s importance for the art scene in Asia, while others are not keen to travel to Hong Kong at this time. Collector Alan Lo, the owner of Duddell’s restaurant, which hosts many events and an exhibition during Art Basel Hong Kong, called out Richard Nagy for previously owning Nazi-looted artworks, adding that “He’s not welcome in Asia.” Lo also criticized Metro Pictures in profane terms.

Since it was first reported in December 2019, the coronavirus has sickened nearly 10,000 people and led to more than 200 deaths. The respiratory ailment has stirred public memories of the SARS epidemic in 2002–03, which killed 774 people in 17 countries. By comparison, more than 15 million people have been infected and more than 8,200 people have died of influenza in the United States in the 2019–20 flu season through January 18, 2020. 

While Hong Kong has just 12 reported cases and zero fatalities to date of the coronavirus, many large-scale events have been cancelled, including the Hong Kong Marathon scheduled for February 9. The announcement by the World Health Organization on January 30 that the coronavirus is an international public health emergency has now increased the odds of Art Basel Hong Kong’s cancellation. 

HG Masters is the deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.