New owners get ART HK supersonic

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Gearing up for an art fair is like preparing for a public stock offering. If there is one way to relate this to my friends working in Hong Kong’s financial sector – this is it! As any gallerist knows, art fairs are the marathons of our industry.

On May 17, all eyes are on Hong Kong as the city takes centre stage for the fifth installment of the Hong Kong Art Fair (better known as ART HK). In July last year, MCH Swiss Exhibition Ltd, the organisers of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach, acquired a 60 percent ownership stake in Asian Art Fairs Ltd, which produces ART HK. If the penny hasn’t dropped yet, it’s basically the equivalent of IBM saying to Samsung ‘hey, love what you’ve built, we want in.’

The huge success of ART HK has solidified the city’s stronghold as Asia’s continental and strategic arts hub – besting Singapore and a struggling Shanghai. Part of this is due to the extraordinary efforts made by the satellite event organisers that greatly add to the holistic experience, and the immensely strong direction of Magnus Renfrew, ART HK director. Critically hailed curator, David Elliott (and point man on the Central Police Station project) notes: “Under Magnus Renfrew’s excellent direction it has become the major art fair east of Switzerland and west of Miami.” You betcha.

This year, with over 260 galleries participating under one mammoth roof, the feel is likely to be quite Euro-American, despite ample Asian art on show. There will be some concern that, with new ownership, the fair may lose its quirky Hong Kong touch. Who could forget Chinese performance artist Li Wei cracking out of his glass mirrored suit at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery’s booth in 2008? And raise your hands if you have a photo on your phone of Nadim Abbas’s gorgeous and seemingly never-ending neon fake coral corridor from last year?

I’m in agreement with Alan Lo, member of ART HK Advisory Group, when he exclaimed: “I hope the new owner won’t just see Hong Kong as an Asian spin-off of the Art Basel franchise.”

Yet Elliott sees another aspect: “I think that the Miami/Basel Art Fair is extremely well run and there are obviously economies of scale in combining contacts and logistics. I am a great believer in making comparisons when looking at art and the big fairs certainly offer plenty of opportunities for doing this.”

Many early ART HK exhibitors claim the new owners are ‘picking favourites’ and under pressure from long-term international exhibitors at Basel, Switzerland, and their second outpost, Basel Miami, to show in Hong Kong. As more and more top galleries apply, pressure is on for the younger, lesser-known galleries to put on fantastic booths. And as we know, it certainly isn’t inexpensive to exhibit! So, are they going to strike the right balance? We shall see.

But let’s put art politics aside for truly the best week of the year for art in Hong Kong. Forget the Rugby Sevens, this is going to be a supersonic event and I’m riding shotgun. Plus it’ll be one hell of a party!

Whitney Ferrare

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