On the Eve of Art Basel Hong Kong, Major Institutional Players Paint an Optimistic Outlook for the City’s Art Scene - The World News

On the Eve of Art Basel Hong Kong, Major Institutional Players Paint an Optimistic Outlook for the City’s Art Scene

Last Tuesday, Hong Kong lawmakers passed an overarching national security legislation, widely known as Article 23, through a unanimous vote that augments the existing national security law imposed in June 2020, passed despite intense domestic protests, the pandemic, and its ensuing travel restrictions. The new law’s provisions, which critics have labeled as “incredibly vague,” allow authorities to detain and punish anyone found to possess “intent” to endanger national security, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Nonetheless, ahead of the opening of Art Basel Hong Kong this coming week, the city’s art market and its increasingly mature web of art infrastructure seem undeterred thus far, with a renewed frenetic pace of expansions, programming, and international engagement, since last year, even amid signs of China’s economic slowdown. 

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Portrait of Angelle Siyang-Le, seated in front of greenery.

“Despite reports of China’s economic woes, the art market in Hong Kong appears resilient and even thriving,” ABHK director Angelle Siyang-Le, who will be helming her first edition of the fair this year, told ARTnews. “Hong Kong as a city has a long-established and reliable infrastructure, a strategic location in the relative center of Asia, tax-free benefits, and still holds its status as the leading international arts hub in the region.”

For the very first time in four years, Art Basel Hong Kong, which runs from March 26–30, is back to its pre-pandemic size, with 243 galleries from 40 countries, increasing the exhibitor count by 37 percent compared to last year. While a few leading galleries, like Marian Goodman and Sean Kelly, that exhibited in 2019 are not returning for this edition, the fair has brought on 25 first-time exhibitors from various countries including Denmark, Ghana, New Zealand, Portugal, and Saudi Arabia.

The mega art fair also seems to be banking on the city’s positioning as the gateway to mainland China, with an increase in off-site programming to include conversations in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

“These discussions cover topics such as the digital art market in China, the evolution of the Greater Bay Area’s arts ecosystem, and efforts to create alternative art sites and structures in Hong Kong,” Siyang-Le said. “We hope these conversations continue to cement Art Basel Hong Kong as a leader in the space, further deepening the show’s strong dialogue with its host city and region, as is seen across all Art Basel shows.”

The ICC International Commerce Centre, and Hong Kong's brand new M+ museum of visual culture, Victoria harbor, Hong Kong, China. (Photo by: Bob Henry/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

View of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, including the M+ museum.

Photo Bob Henry/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Other key art industry players and institutions are also gearing up for this year’s Hong Kong Art Week.

West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA) is hosting the first-ever Hong Kong International Cultural Summit, from March 24–26. Titled “Connecting Culture, Bridging Times,” the Summit aims to be the largest international cultural conference staged in Hong Kong in recent years, supporting the city’s development into “the East-meets-West center for international cultural exchange,” according to WKCDA’s chief executive Betty Fung.

In an email interview with ARTnews, Fung connected the “flourishing art scene” in Hong Kong with the “successive openings of the flagship arts and cultural facilities in the past years, particularly the two world-class museums, M+ and Hong Kong Palace Museum, in WKCD in 2021 and 2022, respectively, as well as other cultural institutions such as Tai Kwun and the renovated Hong Kong Museum of Art.”

Additionally, according to WKCDA, nearly 700,000 square feet of office and retail, dining, and entertainment space will be available when the Artist Square Towers project is completed in 2026. However, Fung told local media outlets earlier this year that WKCDA would run out of funding next March if the government does not approve its new finance plan.

Hong Kong’s influential real estate conglomerates have also amped up their presence in the art scene. Henderson Land Development Company Limited is presenting an exhibition of diverse regional artists titled “Collected Light: From Legacy to Future” that is curated by Vera Lam, the director of the Hong Kong nonprofit arts organization HART and a former curator at M+. The show is inspired by the company’s latest development, the Henderson, that is designed by Zara Hadid Architects and slated to open later this year. The company has also commissioned local artists Elaine Chiu and Zoie Lam to create a 721-foot-long mural titled, Realising Central Cityscapes, at its New Central Harbourfront Site 3 Project.

While most aspiring or established art capitals tend to have a surge of activity around the time of a new or expanded art fair edition, over the past few years, Hong Kong has witnessed a concerted surge in the auction market and gallery sector, despite its beleaguered state. 

In 2021, Christie’s announced plans to take over four floors—and 50,000 square feet—at the Henderson this fall. Last year, Phillips moved into new, expanded premises in the West Kowloon Cultural District, next to M+. The auction house even launched a new café this month. And, Sotheby’s will also be moving to its brand-new headquarters at the upcoming Six Pacific Place in Hong Kong, a stone’s throw away from its year-round exhibition space, both set to open later this year.

A painting that has its bottom two-thirds painted red with the outline of a clenched fist and arm resting on a table next to an empty glass with ice, all on a light blue background.

Hauser & Wirth will offer Philip Guston’s The Desire (1978) at its booth at Art Basel Hong Kong this year.

Photo Genevieve Hanson/©The Estate of Philip Guston/Courtesy the estate and Hauser & Wirth

This January saw mega gallery Hauser & Wirth moving to a new street-level, 10,000-square-foot space in Hong Kong’s central business district, down the road from their original premises on two uppers of the high-rise H-Queen’s, one of the city’s famed art gallery clusters. “It was incredible to experience the enthusiastic response to our new space in Hong Kong from the art community and beyond,” Hauser & Wirth president Marc Payot told ARTnews. “Hong Kong has an undeniable dynamism and a highly engaged and enlightened audience for art.”

Payot said that enthusiasm is what led the gallery to double down on its presence in Hong Kong. “Hong Kong is a long-established and vibrant art and cultural hub, with undeniable advantages, from its geographical location that connects to wider Asia to the language advantage of English being widely spoken. Even during pandemic, the city didn’t stop moving forward,” he said.

Global art market players aside, on the local front, new spaces proliferated in 2021 and 2022 such as Double Q Gallery by local collector Queenie Rosita Law; Property Holdings Development Group (PHD Group) by former De Sarthe director Willem Molesworth and his wife, Ysabelle Cheung, the former managing editor of ArtAsiaPacific; and Odds and Ends by Natalie Ng and Fiona Ho, formerly of David Zwirner and the recently closed Gallery HZ, respectively.

Odds and Ends itself is expanding, moving to a new space in Sheung Wan this month. Its inaugural exhibition will feature women artists, who recently graduated from Baptist University Hong Kong, as will its booth at Art Central, the satellite fair that takes place alongside ABHK.

“We wish to inject freshness and introduce new talents to respective markets—young Hong Kong artists who just graduated to an international crowd which flocks to the city during March,” cofounder Ho said of Odds and Ends.

Nonetheless, the Guardian reported this week that a number of artists “no longer feel safe working in Hong Kong” and have left the city, amid concerns about the state and cultural institutions censoring works. This includes artist duo Lumlong and Kacey Wong. The new security law provisions may inadvertently heighten these concerns.

Installation view of a museum exhibition showing various artworks in a dark-lit room.

Installation view of “Myth Makers—Spectrosynthesis III,” 2022–23, at Tai Kwun, Hong Kong.

Photo South Ho

Even still, one of the most talked about exhibitions during last year’s edition of ABHK was “Myth Makers–Spectrosynthesis III” at Tai Kwun, which was organized by collector Patrick Sun and his Sunpride Foundation. Sun told ARTnews that many visitors who dropped by the exhibition focusing on LGBTQ artists from Asia and its diasporas were “pleasantly surprised to see such a ‘daring’ exhibition with a queer theme being presented at a major public institution here.”

He added, “I’m glad that in some small ways our exhibition seemed to have helped assure visitors that Hong Kong remains a city that celebrates diversity and equality.”

Ho agreed, “The spirit and eagerness of the people here are what keep us going strong. This also contributes to the open-mindedness of Hong Kong residents, who are always excited and supportive about new ventures and ideas, making us an ideal place in Asia to have a presence.”

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