What is Going on at Art Basel Hong Kong?

by Michael Anthony Farley on March 24, 2016 Art Fair + Newswire

hong kong skyline dark
If you ask someone how the art market is doing in Hong Kong, get ready for an earful. We’re unfortunately not in town for Art Basel, so we can’t speak to that topic first-hand. But as a person with internet access, I’ve been bombarded with more contradictory facts and opinions (let’s be honest, mostly opinions) about the state of the unstable Chinese economy, the tastes of the Asian art market, and the manic-depressive cycles of art fair outlooks than I ever thought I’d need to know.

Mostly, it has to be one rough week for Adeline Ooi, Art Basel’s Asia director. She’s had to deal with headlines like ARTnews’ “WITH DARK CLOUDS OVERHEAD, ART BASEL HONG KONG OPENS FOR BUSINESS” and a pack of journalists hungry for doom-and-gloom reports on the Chinese economy. She’s handled the PR situation pretty well, with smart (if not always consistent) quotes to various outlets about how we maybe shouldn’t be worrying as much as we are.

Below, we’ve aggregated some of the uneven reporting on Art Basel Hong Kong, including some quotes from Ooi and other industry experts, to get a better idea of just what China’s market troubles mean for the art world:

Yesterday, the Daily Mail reported that Ooi was “shrugging off” economic concerns: “Maybe I think collectors will ask a lot more questions before they agree to a sale, but I think generally speaking it just feels like everyone is very excited about the art world.” They also highlighted projects that seem tailored to keep that buzz, such as Zhang Ding’s Instagram-friendly “18 Cubes” installation. Visitors are invited to scratch the reflective gold surface of the sculptures with black crystals. It’s the ultimate, customizable selfie machine—a publicity gift that will be sure to keep giving throughout the week. Also noteworthy (and sure to generate buzz) is Kyungah Ham’s “Chandeliers for Five Cities,” a series comprising embroideries outsourced to North Korean craftsmen. Good luck figuring out how to declare that at customs.

But Ooi told The Wall Street Journal, “I expect for the worst, and hope for the best” in a piece predictably more focused on the impact of Chinese stock market turbulence on sales. This comes in the wake of Chinese art sales contracting by 23% in 2015 and the enormous nation losing its #2 art market rank to the UK. The WSJ predicts a big hit for the middle market, where sales in the range of US$50,000 to US$150,000 are likely to cool. Real estate tycoon/art philanthropist Adrian Cheng sees Hong Kong collectors’ preferences polarizing: “People are going back to ‘blue chips,’ and they are buying entry-price point works to which they feel emotionally attached.”

Barron’s, conversely, predicts blue chip sales to take a bigger hit while Chinese buyers gravitate away from flashy, investment-focused purchases towards more connoisseurship-based collecting. Art Basel’s global director Marc Spiegler attributes some of the market anxiety to the misleading headlines generated by auctions sales. Those comprise only part of the global art trade, and he sees Chinese collectors dealing with more artists and dealers directly. That doesn’t always translate into success for fairs, though. Fred Scholle, of Hong Kong’s Galerie Du Monde claims more Chinese collectors are buying directly from artists, cutting out the middlemen. This could spell trouble for Asia’s art industry. But the article also points to Western investment in Chinese art as a glimmer of hope for the unpredictable market. Yesterday, Adeline Ooi also reminded artnet News that “Asia isn’t just China.” Art Basel Hong Kong remains the largest and most important art fair on an increasingly wealthy continent. Even if the economy of its host country is in flux, there’s plenty of deep pockets in the surrounding region.

Today, we’re getting a clearer image of what all of this means. South China Morning Post reports numerous sales to collectors from Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and yes, China in the “affordable” range ($10,000+) while a handful of blue chip Western galleries like Pace and David Zwirner reported deals in the millions. Everyone concedes that the fair is attracting less crowds and slower sales. Still, dealers are breathing a sigh of relief—the market isn’t white hot, but it’s not as bad as it could be.

Even Chinese powercouple Lin Han and Wanwan Lei, who founded Beijing’s M Woods museum, were taking their time. The New York Times followed the pair around the fair’s opening and observed that they seemed interested in looking at a lot of work, but were in no rush to purchase anything. By the end of the day, they hadn’t. The tone of their interactions seemed to imply that the market slowdown might be good for China in the long run—again, the notion that Asian collectors will begin focusing on quality rather than economic return was brought up. And of course, the article included an obligatory chat with Adeline Ooi, who offered the surprising frank quote: “The fair has had a reputation for being a dumping ground for galleries. But that’s changing, and people are taking our clientele more seriously. No one thinks they are going to sell out in an hour within the fair opening. But I think that’s good for us, because it means the quality of the show has to be solid, the galleries have to bring their best stuff to Asia.”

Timothy Chui of China Daily agreed, citing a less-flashy fair more focused on quality than glitz. Chui also noted that despite thinner crowds from mainland China, a flock of new faces from Southeast Asia is slightly helping to offset losses. Many of those new collectors are bringing fresh blood (and cash) into the troubled scene.

Which of these predictions and on-the-ground reports will play out by the end of the week? If you’re in Hong Kong, let us know in the comments. If not, you can follow the market madness with Blouin Artinfo’s surprisingly-addictive Live Sales Report. It’s showing sales in a wide range of prices (and a baffling mix of currencies). Perhaps most tellingly, though, it’s showing a lot less volume than one would’ve expected at this point a few years ago.

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