Months of upheaval in Hong Kong gave way to one of the most explosive protests yet, with an action at a university leading to hundreds of arrests and threats by authorities to use live ammunition on activists. The chaos in Hong Kong has left many in the art world wondering about whether Art Basel Hong Kong, an annual fair that opens in March and is closely watched by many in the market, would even happen at all. At last, the fair has responded.
In an email obtained by ARTnews this week, the fair told exhibitors that, while this was a “tumultuous time for us here in Hong Kong,” Art Basel would go on as planned, running March 19 to March 21. The organizers of the fair are hoping that the protests, which began in June amid concerns about extradition to mainland China, will be resolved by the time the event is set to begin.
On Thursday, Adeline Ooi, the director, Asia for Art Basel Hong Kong, sent an email to the event’s 242 exhibitors, writing, “Some of you might be wondering if Art Basel is making an unconsidered decision by continuing to plan on holding an art fair in March amidst the unrest that we are witnessing in Hong Kong. The answer is: we are not. The decision to continue with the show is made in support of everything you, we, our partners, the local art scene, art collectors from Asia and beyond have invested into Hong Kong, our fair and Asia in general over the years.”
To woo exhibitors, the fair is offering discounts at local hotels and restaurants, as well as cut fees for services that aid exhibitors in bringing their art to Hong Kong.
In an email to ARTnews, a spokesperson for Art Basel Hong Kong said that the fair has “not had any dropouts” since the exhibitor list was first announced in October. “We are always in close contact with our exhibitors for all our fairs,” the spokesperson said. “It is only natural that our exhibitors are monitoring the situation in Hong Kong closely and have questions.”
Were Art Basel to call off its Hong Kong fair, it would not be the first time it has canceled one of its tentpole events. In 2001, the inaugural edition of Art Basel Miami Beach was postponed a year in response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Exhibitor deposits on booths for the 2001 fair were simply put toward the 2002 one instead.
Although Art Basel will continue as planned, some art shows in Hong Kong have already been directly affected. While most galleries in Hong Kong have kept their doors open, Hauser & Wirth recently announced the indefinite postponement of a planned Annie Leibovitz show that was due to open this month. It was to be the first comprehensive exhibition in Asia devoted to the early work of the renowned American photographer, and the first major show by Leibovitz with Hauser & Wirth since being brought onto the gallery’s roster in June.
On Wednesday, the gallery sent out an announcement about the exhibition’s postponement in which it said, “We are in discussion with the artist and will find an opportunity to present this wonderful exhibition at our Hong Kong gallery in the future. We look forward to seeing you at the gallery soon.” Leibovitz had also been set to appear at an event at the Tai Kwun Center for Heritage and Arts on Tuesday that was also postponed. A representative for Hauser & Wirth did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Halfway around the world, in New York, dealers said they were anxious about potentially bringing their wares to Hong Kong amid the unrest, but few gallerists were willing to speak on the record. Marc Glimcher, president and CEO of Pace Gallery, which has a space in Hong Kong, expressed his support for participating in the fair.
“Our first priority is ensuring our staff and artists feel safe,” he said in an email to ARTnews. “We are following the political situation closely and are in constant contact with our staff on the ground. As long as we are assured of their safety, we plan to go ahead with our projects for Art Basel and Hong Kong gallery space in March.”
Some galleries in Hong Kong are also holding strong, mounting ambitious programming in the face of the protests. Uli Zhiheng Huang, co-director of Perrotin’s Shanghai and Hong Kong locations, affirmed that the gallery’s exhibition of French postwar painter Georges Mathieu would remain on view through December 21. Huang told ARTnews, “As we say in Hong Kong, the show must go on.”