As Appeals to Cancel Art Basel Hong Kong Amplify, Local Gallerists Criticize “Myopic” Media Coverage

Local galleries are pushing back on largely Western arguments that Art Basel Hong Kong should be cancelled because of political unrest, but as coronavirus spreads, the argument for cancellation strengthens.

Hong Kong at night (courtesy of [email protected]/Flickr)

In the past few weeks, a number of international galleries slated to participate in this year’s edition of Art Basel Hong Kong have raised concerns about the fair moving forward, citing political turmoil in the region and, more recently, the coronavirus outbreak. In response, Hong Kong-based galleries are offering a counterpoint to what they view as largely uninformed arguments by Western media and institutions.

Willem Molesworth, vice president of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association (HKAGA) and director of the de Sarthe Gallery in Hong Kong, has been vocal on social media about his support of the fair and misperceptions surrounding the city’s political climate.

“Freedom of expression within the arts continues to thrive within Hong Kong, while it is certainly under threat in other arenas. The right is exercised across the city as artists continue to express themselves in complex and often times overtly political ways without fear of reprisal or censorship,” said Molesworth in an interview with Hyperallergic. “I find it hypocritical that five of the galleries who signed a letter of concern sent to Art Basel on January 16th asking for discounts and concessions cited a ‘core belief in the freedom of expression,’ yet they also participated in mainland Chinese art fairs in 2019 and willingly subjected themselves to the censorship regime there.” (Molesworth confirmed that one of the letter’s signatories is also a HKAGA member gallery.)

Last Friday, HKAGA’s board of directors issued a statement expressing support for the fair and its organizers, emphasizing Hong Kong as a thriving cultural center and calling out “myopic and narrow coverage” from abroad.

While Molesworth said he would stand by Art Basel’s decision to cancel this year’s show in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus, he warns of equating political upheaval in the region with censorship in the arts or a shrinking art market.

Over the past few weeks, several exhibitors have expressed fears of low collector attendance to the fair and poor sales, such as the London-based dealer Richard Nagy, who asserted that “not one of our foreign clients will be attending.”

Molesworth agrees that the coronavirus has complicated the fair’s attendance prospects. “Before the outbreak, attendance from Asian collectors largely would have been unaffected by the political unrest. I can only speak for myself and de Sarthe, but we’ve continued to do good business throughout the past year,” he said. “[Now,] extremely low attendance is a very real possibility. Just today, the Hong Kong government declared that anyone coming from the mainland into Hong Kong will be quarantined for 14 days upon arrival. Before this, the government had also stopped issuing individual travel visas to mainland Chinese as well.”

“If these policies are maintained through to the opening of the fair, there would be an extremely limited presence of mainland Chinese collectors, if any. I’m of the conviction that the fair should now reschedule or cancel altogether,” he said.

Still, the fair would be a boon to Hong Kong’s local artists and galleries, a reality some believe is lost on those who fervently advocate for its cancellation. HKAGA’s statement, explained Molesworth, was written because many of its 47 member galleries were troubled by the one-sided coverage of Hong Kong Art Week. 

“It’s the one week of the year where the focus of the international art world trains in on the city. With a fair of real quality like Art Basel Hong Kong, you always make new connections and business comes from that,” he said. “One of our young HK-based artists, Andrew Luk, has a major artwork due to be displayed in the fair’s ‘Encounters’ section. It would be a great shame if it were not shown as he has worked very hard on the artwork.”

Molesworth acknowledges the coronavirus’ severity, but believes that “we should always carefully examine the information we consume.” In particular, he said, “The outbreak of xenophobia and racism has been extremely troubling and must be actively shut down and addressed.”

“Throughout the unprecedented turmoil the city has also embraced the arts in many ways as it navigates these waters,” stressed Molesworth. “Galleries and arts organizations across Hong Kong can attest to the fact that they have continued to host events, talks, openings, and symposiums with success. And in the case of galleries, we’ve continued to makes sales and support our artists, many of whom live and work here.”

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, Art Basel shared an interim update sent to participating galleries on January 30 addressing concerns around the spread of the coronavirus. “Our team is working hard to review all possible options. Needless to say, the contemplation of postponing or cancelling an event of this scale — which takes a full year to produce — is a complex process, with many factors and multiple stakeholders,” it said.

Art Basel’s letter to exhibitors did not mention the political conditions or ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, museums and institutions in China and Hong Kong continue to shutter at a rapid pace, and upcoming art events are pushing back their opening dates or canceling altogether. Last week, the CAFA Art Museum (CAFAM) in Beijing announced its decision to suspend its inaugural CAFAM Techne Triennial, and Gallery Weekend Beijing has postponed its 2020 edition.

Update 2/6/2020 4:28pm EST: Art Basel Hong Kong 2020 has been canceled “due to the outbreak and spread of the new coronavirus.”

Correction 2/18/2020 10:28am EST: An original version of this article identified Gallery Weekend Beijing as “Beijing Gallery Weekend.” We regret the error.

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