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At Art Basel HK, local galleries struggle to get in on the action

For them, it's not a profit-making opportunity but rather a necessary marketing cost - and an expensive one at that

Above: A visitor in front of Japanese pop artist Keiichi Tanaami's Dream Diary Drawings during the media preview of Art Basel in Hong Kong on March 27.

Above: Local artist Kwok Mang Ho, also known as "Frog King", in his booth during the preview.

Hong Kong

JUST two hours into the VIP preview of the sixth edition of Art Basel Hong Kong on Tuesday, it became clear why the centre of gravity in the art world is shifting toward Asia.

That's when the Lévy Gorvy gallery announced that it had sold Willem de Kooning's Untitled XII (1975) to a private collector. It came from the coveted collection of Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder.

The asking price for the painting was US$35 million - making it one of the highest-priced works in the fair's history.

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With Art Basel Hong Kong offering a premium platform for sales and access to top international collectors, heavyweight galleries that were previously dipping their toes in the Asian market are taking the plunge.

Earlier this year, both David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth opened outposts in Hong Kong, joining other major dealers like Gagosian and White Cube, which already have spaces in the city.

Galleries like Galerie Perrotin and Pace Gallery, which have a foot in the door, have been expanding their sizable presence in Asia, while Lévy Gorvy has opened offices in the region and is looking for an exhibition space here.

To the extent that art follows money, the tilt toward Asia comes as no surprise. A report released last year revealed that, for the first time, there are now more billionaires in Asia than in the United States.

That increase in wealth appears to be translating into more art sales. Last year, the Asian market accounted for 23 per cent of global sales and Asian buyers accounted for 15 per cent of dealer sales, according to an annual art market report commissioned by Art Basel and UBS released this month.

Many credit the recent explosion of the regional market in part to Art Basel's arrival in Hong Kong.

Today, it is still regarded as the premier regional art fair - a place where nearly every who's who in the Asian art world wants to see and be seen.

"Without the fairs, nobody would know the Asian galleries because we are too far away from the Western world," said Lorenz Helbling, founder of ShanghART Gallery, with locations in China and Singapore.

But there are signs this year of a backlash among some local dealers who are concerned that while the pie may be bigger, not everyone is getting a chance to partake.

For mid-tier and emerging galleries in Asia, the costs of participating in Art Basel - upward of US$100,000 for many, including booth rental, shipping, and staffing - are huge.

"There's definitely pressure," said Jasdeep Sandhu, founder of Gajah Gallery in Singapore, one of the 248 galleries taking part in this year's fair.

"Being an Asian gallery, our prices in general are still very affordable compared to the Western artists so put that alongside the cost of a fair like Basel and you really feel the pressure."

As a result, Asia-based galleries are beginning to re-evaluate how they approach international art fairs like Art Basel.

While being selected for the Hong Kong edition continues to be a badge of prestige and a vital selling point for a gallery's reputation, the fair is increasingly being seen by many local galleries not as a profit-making opportunity but rather as a necessary marketing cost - and an expensive one at that.

"The big galleries are only getting bigger so it's getting harder to compete," said Anthony Tao, director of Gallery EXIT in Hong Kong. "But at the end of the day, Basel is Basel. We need the exposure."

Some dealers say that the atmosphere in the Hong Kong edition of Art Basel is typically slower than those of Miami and Basel.

Indeed, as the doors swung open at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center on Tuesday afternoon, the scene at first was not so much a "running of the billionaires" - as the journalist Tom Wolfe once called the fair's Miami edition - as it was a casual saunter.

"At Art Basel in Basel, the successes are more tangible; things happen quickly," said Isa Lorenzo, founder of Silverlens Galleries in Manila.

"But here in Hong Kong, it's circuitous. There's a lot of window-shopping, a lot of information-gathering, and a lot of talking and meeting people who may or may not get back to you."

Not everyone is dismayed. With the rise of smaller, more local art fairs like West Bund Art & Design in Shanghai and Art Stage Jakarta, dealers say there is no shortage of opportunities to sell art.

So when it comes to Art Basel Hong Kong, they say, they can experiment more and present more cutting-edge work.

"This year, we chose to present a more academic booth instead of focusing on making sales," said Olivier Hervet, a partner of HDM Gallery in Beijing and Hangzhou, which brought a solo booth of works by the young Chinese artist Li Jingxiong that call to mind industrial ruins.

Acknowledging the concerns, Adeline Ooi, director of Art Basel Hong Kong, said: "From the Asian standpoint, we are still growing and developing and I think art fairs are still important in this part of the world."

She added: "But I fully understand the difficulties and why sometimes gallerists feel they need to opt out because they feel like it's a race they can no longer sustain. We are trying our best to make sure that it adds up for them, and that includes possibly cost-cutting."

The word "learning" comes up a lot in conversations at Art Basel Hong Kong - Western galleries are "learning" about what Asian collectors are looking for, Asian galleries are "learning" about what Western collectors are seeking, and everyone is "learning" about the many artists - both Asian and non-Asian - being presented.

That's why even critics say that Art Basel Hong Kong remains one of the most exciting events on the ever-growing art fair circuit.

"This fair is really the only one I'm sad about leaving," said José Freire, a veteran art dealer and founder of Team Gallery in New York who recently announced in a candid interview with Artnet that after Art Basel Hong Kong, he was quitting art fairs for good to focus on the gallery's exhibition programme of emerging and mid-career artists back in New York and Los Angeles.

"The people who come to this fair are not jaded," he added. "They don't pretend to know it all, they are curious about art, and they kind of remind me of what things were like in the past." NYTIMES