Art Basel Hong Kong’s opening this week is a joyous occasion for the city’s art world: the first proper (that is, quarantine-free) edition of the fair since 2019. It is also a high-stakes one, as the global art industry tries to ascertain the state of play here, following a political crackdown from Beijing and interminable pandemic measures—and as other Asian cities aim to compete for a greater slice of the action. Already, this much is clear: Local dealers are delighted to be playing host again, and they are eager to maintain Hong Kong’s status in the art-market firmament.
“Stay six, seven days,” Hong Kong dealer Fabio Rossi has been telling people, “because there’s so much to do and to see right now, especially if you haven’t been for four years.” As co-president of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association (HKAGA), Rossi is required to boost the city, but he has a point. Herzog & de Meuron’s long-delayed M+ museum finally opened in late 2021, and the Hong Kong Palace Museum followed this past summer. All the while, the gallery scene has been growing, with the young HKAGA aiming to continue the momentum.
Most major art economies have some sort of dealer association, but HKAGA is unusual in several ways. For one, it was founded only in 2012, as the city’s market ascended. (By comparison, the New York–based Art Dealers Association of America dates to 1962, the Society of London Art Dealers, to 1932.) Also, “we are still relatively small, because that’s the reality in Hong Kong,” Rossi said in a recent video from Dusseldorf, as he was on his way to attend the TEFAF Maastricht fair in the Netherlands. The HKAGA counted 62 members at the end of last year—a modest number compared to the ADAA’s almost 200—but up from the 49 it had at the start of 2021.
In other locales, such gallery groups are heavily involved in government lobbying, but Rossi pointed out that Hong Kong already has a quite favorable environment for art dealers. His Rossi & Rossi firm also has operations in London, where taxation, artist’s resale royalties, and Brexit are sources of concern. Hong Kong has none of those issues (it does not even have a sales tax), so the association has focused on strengthening the commercial gallery community.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, the HKAGA got to thinking about what it could do, dealer Amanda Hon, of Ben Brown Fine Arts, said, “because everyone is now bored in Hong Kong because we’re stuck here because of the stupid quarantine.” It quickly put together a miniature fair called Unscheduled, with a dozen member galleries, each showing one artist apiece in space provided by the Tai Kwun art center. Just about every participant sold to new clients, Hon said, and they repeated it the next year, with a few more participants.
The association also regularly hosts professional development activities on topics like art handling and shipping, teaching the kind of mundane skills that are essential for an art scene to thrive. “The staff that we have here, that we tend to hire, the resumes that we tend to get, are not as extensive as New York or London,” said Hon, who was on the call from Dubai, after taking part in the fair there. (Also—and this is no small thing, given that people have been away for so long—HKAGA has compiled a robust guide, online and in print, to the exhibitions on offer all over the Special Administrative Region this week.)
All these efforts come as other Asian cities are hosting major art fairs and watching as foreign dealers set up outposts. Do Hongkongers think about potential rivals? “I think especially this year,” Hon said wryly, “with all the media that’s been surrounding, you know, Korea and Singapore, people are like, ‘No, we are not letting any—I don’t care—we need to squash them.’” Rossi cut in: “Just kidding! Just kidding!”
Journalists love a rivalry, but the truth is that Hong Kong continues to tower over its potential competitors, at least when measured by dollar value. South Korea also has a largely tax-free setup, and in 2022 did a record 1.04 trillion won (about $782 million) in total art sales, according to government statistics; meanwhile, at just its spring auction in Hong Kong, Sotheby’s rang up nearly $500 million. (For 2021, ArtPrice put Hong Kong’s total auction turnover at $1.7 billion.) The bluest of blue chips continue to operate in the city, a key hub for the $13.4 billion Chinese market. Over in Singapore, the VAT is going from 8 percent to 9 percent next year, and at the Art SG fair there in January, “the amount of supply did not match the amount of demand,” Hon said. (There was more of the former.)
Which is not to say that Hong Kong is a panacea. Tensions over Taiwan could upend the situation in an instant, and political changes in the city have led some artists to decamp for democratic climes. Rossi said that he respects anyone who leaves, “but there are a lot of people who could leave, and have decided to stay, and actually that’s the majority of people.”
As Rossi sees it, “it’s great if other places in Asia develop their own ecosystems as well,” and he pointed to the landscape in Europe. “You have London, you have Paris, you have even Brussels, Basel,” he said. “So, you have different moments, and different things happen.”
Now, though, as some 180 exhibitors take over the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre for Basel, it is the city’s moment. “You have to understand that we had two illnesses, one after the other, not one illness,” Rossi said. “So we had a social unrest and then when we were just recovering from that, we had the pandemic. So imagine your body had two major illnesses, one after another. Now we are healed, we are ready to go and we are excited, and we want to show what we have to offer. That is not what Singapore has to offer, that is not what Seoul has to offer. It’s different and hopefully it has its advantages.”
Hon summed up the attitude in the city succinctly. “There is a sense of pride in being in Hong Kong, even though we all have other passports,” she said. “We all come from different places. We choose to make Hong Kong our home.”