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Art Basel HK: Is the inevitable slowdown here?
HAS Chinese contemporary art lost some of its lustre? According to the annual report released by Artprice and Art Market Monitor of Artron, China's art market contracted for the first time in 2015 to US$4.9 billion from US$6.6 billion in 2014.
China had been the world's biggest art market in the world from 2010 to 2014, with Chinese billionaires driving up the prices of their compatriot artists.
But last year, China lost its pole position to previous frontrunner the United States, whose art market value reached US$6.2 billion.
As China faces an economic slowdown, its collectors have begun diversifying their portfolios with more acquisitions of Western art instead.
Last year saw a number bidding aggressively for the blue-chips: Liu Yiqian shelled out a stunning US$170 million for Modigliani's Reclining Nude, Wang Jianlin purchased Monet's Bassin aux nympheas, les rosiers for US$20.4 million, and mainland Chinese buyers acquired Van Gogh's L'allee des Alyscamps for US$66.3 million.
When Art Basel Hong Kong (ABHK) opened its doors to VIP guests on Tuesday and the general public on Thursday, early sales reports indicated similar trends. Switzerland's Galerie Gmurzynska sold to numerous Chinese collectors works by Colombian artist Fernando Botero, including a painting for US$1.3 million and two sculptures for US$400,000 each. David Zwirner Gallery sold five paintings by Michael Borremans, Luc Tuymans and Oscar Murillo for between US$250,000 and US$1.6 million - all to collectors from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea.
Art Basel director Marc Spiegler told The Business Times: "Nobody eats just their national food anymore. There's the Internet and global travel; so, of course, tastes have broadened. No Chinese billionaire is focused on just Chinese art anymore. They are demanding the best global art - not just Chinese art - and they're getting it."
ABHK, which is on at Hong Kong's convention centre till Saturday, features 239 galleries from 35 countries selling approximately US$1 billion worth of art. Visitor numbers are expected to peak at 60,000. A record number of Singapore galleries made the grade this year - namely ARNDT, FOST, Gajah Gallery, iPreciation, Mizuma Gallery, STPI, Yavuz Gallery, and Yeo Workshop.
But while there was no shortage of celebrity visitors - Leonardo DiCaprio! Hidetoshi Nakata! Song Hye-kyo! Adrien Brody! The Hilton sisters! - the mood was visibly cautious. Several gallerists said business was slower than usual and they had a harder time selling works by emerging Asian artists.
iPreciation, for instance, brought more than two dozen Tay Bak Chiang works to the fair, with the artist in attendance. Tay is well-loved for his delicate, meditative paintings. But at press time, only one work had been sold and three were on reserve. This compares poorly to iPreciation's showing at ABHK two years ago when a dozen Lee Wen works were snapped up or placed on reserve within the first two days.
Similarly, STPI received a lot of interest for Jane Lee's works, but none was sold by press time. Lee, like Tay, is popular in Singapore but relatively unknown to ABHK visitors.
STPI director Emi Eu said: "The works aren't flying off the walls right now, but people are coming in steadily and genuinely taking an interest and asking questions. So that's what matters to me: generating interest in artists such as Singapore's Jane Lee. If we continue to show her works on a platform like this, we know more people will start collecting her works."
In contrast, STPI sold several works by Korean artists Haegue Yang and Do Ho Suh, both popular names in the international circuit. Likewise at ARNDT, works by Indonesian art star Eko Nugroho were snapped up early while those by the lesser-known Rodel Tapaya and Jigger Cruz remained unsold.
"The mood isn't good," said one gallerist who didn't want to be named. "Buyers are cautious and won't take risks with artists they're not familiar with. Everyone's unsure about the economic headwinds, so they're going for blue-chips only. In the long run, it's the blue-chips that hold up their values."
Expansion on the cards
Despite such reservations, the art business in Hong Kong and for Art Basel is on an expansion path. MCH, Art Basel's parent company, revealed plans to acquire or engage in joint ventures and partnerships with existing regional fairs around the world.
Separately, Art Basel revealed a new initiative to work with cities to develop cultural events with "international resonance"; its new board members include celebrity architect David Adjaye, bestselling author and urban studies theorist Richard Florida, and group managing director of Singapore's The Hour Glass, Michael Tay (see related story).
Hong Kong is also seeing a meteoric rise in the number of international galleries - the most recent addition being Massimo de Carlo opening at the Pedder Building, where big galleries such as Gagosian, Lehmann Maupin and Pearl Lam are located.
Meanwhile, leading Hong Kong developer Henderson Land is building a new centre for art and lifestyle called H Queen's on bustling Queen's Road Central. It's expected to be a game changer as the swanky 26-storey building is specifically designed for galleries with its high ceilings, large floor plate area and minimal corridor space.
Now in its fourth year, the ABHK effect is significant, with more than 80 arts-related events springing up this week - rivalling the number of events in Singapore's own Singapore Art Week in January.
Adeline Ooi, Art Basel's Asia director, said she is unfazed by China's economic slowdown and its impact on the art market: "The art world has been through this before. There was 1997, 2008, and here we are again . . . We are confident we have a good show this year, and the business will come."
- Art Basel Hong Kong runs at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, 1 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, till Saturday
Michael Tay set to give cities a cultural boost
CAN a city capitalise on culture to put itself on the global map? Art Basel believes any city can, and wants to help it achieve those goals. Its newly announced Art Basel Cities programme offers to link cities with the Art Basel network to develop international cultural content to raise the profile of the city.
Michael Tay, group managing director of The Hour Glass, was revealed on Wednesday as one of the advisory board members of Art Basel Cities, along with a dozen other luminaries such as "starchitect" David Adjaye, Jacques Herzog of leading architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, urban theorist and bestselling author of The Rise of the Creative Class Richard Florida, and Lars Nittve, founding director of London's Tate Modern art gallery.
Mr Tay is an avid art collector with a sizeable collection. He says: "I hope Singapore will be one of the cities that allows Art Basel Cities to share its expertise and network. I truly believe that a strong emphasis on the arts and culture is what can take the city state to the next level of social and economic transformation."
Mr Tay is married to Talenia Phua Gajardo, founder and CEO of online art gallery The Artling. His appointment on the board comes a year after Adeline Ooi, a Malaysian curator, was appointed Art Basel Asia director, becoming the first Asian to clinch a top position in the world's biggest art fair chain.
By Helmi Yusof