If any proof were needed of the dizzying rise of the Asian art market in recent years, the news that Art Basel is launching a new edition in Hong Kong next year has surely clinched the argument. The blue-chip contemporary art fair, which started life in the moneyed Swiss city in 1970, has so far only lent its name to one offshoot, the Art Basel: Miami Beach fair, which has been bringing collectors to the sunny climes of Florida since 2002.
Over the past decade, as the internationlised art market has shown both a broadening of the collecting base and an ever-increasing willingness for clients to dig deep into their pockets, the fair has been approached by numerous cities hoping to take advantage of Art Basel’s brand value. But it has taken until now for its directors, Marc Spiegler and Annette Schönholzer, to succumb to temptation.
“Asia has been on our radar for a long time,” reveals Spiegler as we speak in a quiet room away from the bustle of last month’s Art HK fair. “We knew it would have to be a pan-Asian city, and there are only three.”
“Shanghai has tax and government issues, Singapore has censorship issues. The one thing that attracted us to Hong Kong was its long history of freedom of expression. This is not a place with a history of censorship, and that was a really crucial factor,” says Spiegler.
Unlike its launch of the Miami Beach fair, Art Basel is building on a firm foundation in Hong Kong. Art HK reported a highly successful return to mark its fifth year, attracting 266 galleries from 38 countries, and more than 67,000 visitors, an increase of 6 per cent over last year. Sales included the $3m purchase of a work by the Chinese artist Chu Teh-Chun to a south-east-Asian collector.
The gradual increase in those numbers over the past few years has evidently impressed Art Basel: in July 2011 its parent company acquired 60 per cent of Asian Art Fairs, which had launched Art HK. The fair’s director, Magnus Renfrew, will remain in charge of its new incarnation next year, and spearhead Art Basel’s Asian activities.
Schönholzer says that the timing of the takeover is perfect. “The scene here in Hong Kong has come on in leaps and bounds. When we came here two years ago it was clear that Art HK had gained world recognition, and that was what finally drew us here.”
Renfrew, for his part, says the involvement of Art Basel in what is already a successful fair will be good for the city-state. “One of the things that has been exciting for us has been the cultural impact of the fair on the city, in terms of new galleries and collectors. The one thing Art Basel can bring to the table is incredible access to the wider art community. It has extraordinary reach to every corner of the globe.”
Spiegler and Schönholzer are coy about what they will bring to the fair in the way of innovations, but they promise a good deal of extra-curricular activity outside the main fair. “We don’t believe in change for change’s sake,” says Spiegler. “But there is great potential for the VIP programme. More and more people will be coming from the west, and we need to give them a great experience to turn them into repeat customers.”
Renfrew believes the fair will not just be about educating western collectors about Asian art. It will have the broader aim of getting them to “open their minds to new aesthetics that they may not immediately understand. When I first came to China, I would go on studio visits and I found it difficult to engage with works that were so far from my own cultural upbringing.”
Spiegler has a broader ambition still: to teach the wider world about those “pockets of Asian art history” that remain relatively undiscovered by the west. “Art Basel’s strategy has always been to show how contemporary art is grounded in art history, and how that history is dynamised by the contemporary.”
I ask if the increasingly global spread of Art Basel denotes the emergence of a new breed of art collector who is intuitively international in outlook. “Collectors are very competitive with each other,” replies Spiegler. “When you see the leading collectors redefining themselves by collecting not only their own country’s masterpieces, but masterpieces from all over the world, people are going to want genuine world-class collections, not just works from the Nato countries. And then they start to think about interesting juxtapositions.”
With its latest addition, Art Basel (from now on, all three of its fairs will only bear that name) has most of the globe covered, says Spiegler.
“Basel is a medieval city and a capital of culture. Miami is a Latin city on the cusp between two continents. And Hong Kong is an international metropolis in Asia. We are now able to cover all the areas that should be covered.
“And we can convince galleries in this part of the world that Art Basel is not some crazy, distant thing on a mountaintop. It is here, and we want to encourage people to be part of it.”
Art Basel runs June 14-17, www.artbasel.com
Upcoming fairs and events
runs to June 10
Earls Court Exhibition Centre, London
More than 50 galleries from the Americas, Europe and London showcase a range of works by established and emerging Latin American artists, including abstract, concrete, neo-concrete, kinetic and conceptual art
Olympia International Fine Art & Antiques Fair
runs to June 17
Olympia Exhibition Centre, Grand Hall, Olympia Way, London W14
More than 150 dealers present work from a broad range of art and antiques, including sculpture, design, jewellery, contemporary art, clocks, silver, ceramics, scientific instruments, fossils, memorabilia and glass
Dreispitzhalle, Helsinkistrasse 5, 4053 Basel
One of several smaller fairs running at the same time as Art Basel and now returning for its eighth outing, this contemporary art fair focuses on emerging talent. For the first time, emphasis is placed on single artist presentations and on booth concepts that bring the work of two artists into dialogue
Kaserne, Klybeckstrasse 1b, 4057 Basel
Another satellite fair returns with 30 participating galleries specialising in contemporary art. Scope also holds events in New York, London and Miami
Liste: The Young Art Fair in Basel
Burgweg 15, 4058 Basel
The satellite fair presents galleries no older than five years and artists under 40. An exciting “discoverer” fair
Art Antiques London
Albert Memorial West Lawn, Kensington Gardens, London SW7
Art Antiques London takes place in a purpose-built pavilion in Kensington Gardens close to the site of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It brings together around 70 of the world’s leading art dealers and incorporates The International Ceramics Fair and Seminar
FIA 2012: Feria Iberoamericana de Arte
June 27-July 2
Hotel Tamanaco Intercontinental, Caracas
The 21st edition of the contemporary art fair
Master Drawings Week
June 27-July 5
London, various venues
17 established Mayfair and St James-based dealers open their galleries to showcase seven centuries of art, from the Renaissance to the present day. “The formula is simple: get people into the galleries. It’s worked for 12 years,” says the founder, Crispian Riley-Smith
June 28-July 4
The Royal Hospital Chelsea, London SW3
Stationed in the old Chelsea Barracks, Masterpiece London is an eclectic affair: cars, wine, contemporary design and jewellery are presented alongside fine and decorative arts
Master Paintings Week London
June 29-July 6
Old Master galleries and auction houses in Mayfair and St James’s join forces. Exhibitors open their doors to a special display or event in their gallery, focusing on great paintings to be found in London