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As Protests Grip Hong Kong, Art Industry Watches and Waits, Nervously

Protesters in Hong Kong on August 23.

Protesters in Hong Kong on August 23.

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Even as troops from mainland China assemble in Shenzhen, a Canton metropolis within striking distance of Hong Kong, hundreds of thousands of protestors have continued to gather in the city’s streets, asserting their freedom of expression and pushing for more local autonomy, despite ardent opposition from Beijing. As I reported in June, artists have been playing a vital role in the protests, which are now in their third month.

As the unrest continues and the threat of escalation looms, many in the international business community are watching warily, trying to ascertain how Hong Kong’s reputation as a hub for commerce will be affected. That is no less true in the art industry, where dozens of Western galleries have opened spaces over the past decade and auction houses have developed a multibillion-dollar business. Depending on how events transpire, such operations could take a hit.

Dealer Pearl Lam, who has galleries in Shanghai and Hong Kong, said of the effect of the protests: “It’s been very bad. People are not in the mood to think about art and basically there are no visitors, so it’s crazy bad in Hong Kong.” It is summer in the city right now, and the marquee event of the year, Art Basel Hong Kong, does not arrive until March, but with the start of the art season arrives in a couple weeks, there is uncertainty in the air.

Earlier this month, demonstrators took over the Hong Kong International Airport, one of the largest in the world, causing the cancelation of hundreds of flights. On Sunday, August 18, an estimated 1.7 million people—a quarter of the population—marched from Victoria Park to Central peacefully, in marked contrast to earlier clashes with the police. This weekend, though, the authorities escalated their response, carrying live ammunition in addition to tear gas and rubber bullets. So far, no one has been killed at the protests, but several activists have committed suicide and there have been many arrests.

Hong Kong protesters.

Some protests have resulted in clashes with the police.

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The initial cause of this outpouring of resistance is a proposed extradition law that would permit sending Hong Kong residents facing criminal charges to mainland China for trial, where the system is much more opaque and fraught with human-rights violations. In June, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, announced that she would postpone action on the bill indefinitely. But protestors, who are calling for her resignation, demand total withdrawal of the extradition law, which they view as an incursion on their rights by the central government in China, violating the One Country, Two Systems policy established when Hong Kong was given back to the Chinese in a handover from British rule in 1997. The protest has since expanded to include demands for an investigation of police brutality toward demonstrators and full universal suffrage—Beijing currently nominates candidates for local elections. Such election reform was a key cause of the Umbrella Movement that dominated Hong Kong streets in 2014.

For now, businesses have remained open during working hours, since most of the protests take place on weekends or in the evenings. While many galleries have been on vacation for the summer, some dealers said they are feeling a downturn from the protests and worry what will happen if they continue into the fall. While all agree that much more is at stake than the sale of a few paintings, some worry that if China sends in troops to halt the resistance movement with violence, the city’s status as a safe haven for international trade will be damaged, causing businesses to seek refuge elsewhere in Asia, such as Singapore or Taipei.

“It’s impossible to know the full impact of the protest because it is the summer season and it’s really dead there during the summer,” said Marc Glimcher, the CEO of Pace Gallery, which recently shuttered its space in Beijing, shifting all of its business in Asia to Hong Kong, where it opened last year.

Glimcher said that staff members at Pace had been having phone meetings throughout the summer about the fall season in Hong Kong, where they plan to open a show of works by Louise Nevelson and Yin Xiuzhen. “There are two sides of it,” he said. “One is that no one is in the mood to buy art when these issues are on the front-burner. On the other hand, no one … wants to abandon our program anymore than the protestors want to abandon their protests.”

Protesters in Hong Kong

The protests began in June and have escalated in the ensuing months.

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Glimcher and Lam were among the few dealers willing to speak on the record for this article, with most shying away from comment. This is not mere paranoia. The Chinese government has been pressuring businesses to condemn employees who have participated in the protests and to voice support for the effort to suppress resistance. Ever conscious of their hopes for China, dealers and other businesspeople who speak out risk retaliation that could hinder their activities. In one notable incident, Beijing has insisted that employees of Cathay Pacific who have attended marches not be allowed to fly to mainland China, where one fourth of its flights go. In response, the company’s head resigned.

“The sad part is when movements like this just die down; all the businesses in Hong Kong want everything to return to normal,” Glimcher said. “We don’t want things to stay the same way when there is hope that the protestors may really communicate with the Chinese government. The idea of Hong Kong regressing fully into the system of the mainland is a really sad thought.”

Lam said that she has also been monitoring events closely. She plans to open her fall season with an exhibition of works by Korean artist Hoon Kwak, but Lam was in South Korea when I reached her, meeting with the artist to see if the exhibition should be postponed. The artist will come to Hong Kong in the next two weeks to see the situation for himself and make a decision. “Of course, it is summer now, so we are hoping that the unrest will be stopped, and hopefully it will calm down and go back to normal,” Lam said, “because we don’t know how it will be resolved so we just hope for the best.”

“The situation in Hong Kong is naturally affecting all walks of life, including the art scene,” said Fabio Rossi, of Rossi & Rossi, whose gallery is in Wong Chuk Hang, far from Central, where most of the protests have taken place, and where many blue-chip galleries are located.

Protesters in Hong Kong

The Chinese government has pressured businesses to voice support for efforts to shut down the protests.

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Rossi, who also has a London space, said that his current show in Hong Kong, of works by contemporary Tibetan artist Tenzing Rigdol, is scheduled to close after September 21, when dealers in his section of the city will hold South Island Art Day, an event where maps and tours of the galleries are provided. “There is disruption but it tends to be localized and, therefore, easily avoidable,” he said. “I do feel the media are, as usual, exaggerating what’s going on. I grew up in Italy in the ‘70s and that was a much more violent and volatile situation.”

On September 28, Rossi will open a survey of Massimo Antonaci, an Italian artist that has lived in New York since the early ’90s. “Looking ahead, I am confident a dialogue will soon start and a solution will be found,” he said. “Hong Kong is too important to too many people and to China.”

“For me, the protests represent a kind of postcolonial identity crisis,” said one dealer who spoke only on condition of anonymity. Saying that Hong Kong had gone straight from British rule to that of authoritarian Beijing, this dealer said that the city has not had the opportunity to develop its own political system. Still, she and some others do not see Hong Kong’s position as the central trading point in Asia threatened.

Confident that she can proceed as usual, this dealer is planning to participate in art fairs in Shanghai and Hong Kong in the fall, emphasizing that mainland China is still the major source of collectors in Asia. “Companies will use this as an excuse to send more expats to Singapore, where housing is cheaper and it’s easier to get your kid into good schools, but there’s no way you can service the mainland from Singapore,” said said.

While no one will know for sure how the protests are affecting the art business in Hong Kong until the fall, when business usually returns with a bang, it is significant that most dealers want the disruptions to cease and things to return to normal. It is the rare dealer who, like Glimcher, expressed support for the protestors and disagreement with the central government in Beijing. It is clear that under Xi Jiping’s rule, China has become increasingly authoritarian, a situation that many in Hong Kong find intolerable and frightening.

If Carrie Lam resigns, that would be the first step toward a resolution with the activists. For now, though, the protests show no signs of abating.

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