Between 239 galleries, nightly satellite events, and VIP lounges, Art Basel has made the city of Hong Kong one of Asia’s largest playgrounds in contemporary art. Having established itself as the absolute highlight for art in Asia, the city is not just a punctual phenomenon. The market is a growing magnet for collectors from Asia and beyond and, over the years, global players from the West have certainly caught on. With names like Gagosian, White Cube, Sundaram Tagore and Lehmann Maupin opening large outposts in the city, the energy of Art Basel Hong Kong is exceptionally multilayered.
Owing to the fair’s rigorous selection process, and internationally acclaimed array of galleries, the work is by very definition world-class. According to the Almine Rech booth, the fair has progressed on this trend. The level of presentation in this year’s fair was of a “higher quality with more interesting art,” which shows a growing precision of taste and knowledge of art in Asia. The contemporary market there is becoming more professional and structured, an evolution represented in the fair.
One gallerist had a very insightful take on this cultural metamorphosis. Pascal de Sarthe, who owns one of the leading galleries in Asia, De Sarthe Gallery, discovered talent ahead of the market. He relocated to Hong Kong in 2010 after bringing global attention to the works of the Chinese painters in Paris, such as Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh Chun T’ang Haywen, and Chen Zhen. His gallery, now based in Hong Kong and Beijing, represents a new generation of Chinese contemporary artists, including Lin Jingjing, Ma Sibo, Wang Guofeng, Wang Xin and Zhou Wendou.
As Pascal has studied and pioneered the Asian art market firsthand, his perspective on the fair’s progress over its four years was particularly invaluable. He echoed the same tune as many attendees: the market is maturing quickly, a pace reflected in the speed of sales. “It is competitive,” he said. “People are contemplative, they want to think things through, but often times they come back [to our booth] the next morning and the work is already sold.” Moreover, Pascal elucidated an apparent trend in Chinese buyers’ interest in modern masters. “They instantly gravitate to our works by the likes of Míro and Calder.” Shown at his booth, he points to them. “They respond to works with art historical value and are very fast learners, with business relationships founded on knowledge and trust.”
He drew an interesting comparison to the contemporary Beijing art scene and the watershed New York School. “Hong Kong is the market place for Asian art and Beijing is the place for creation. I liken what is happening there to New York in the 1950’s.” A reveting time to be had, it would seem, to see such a rapid evolution unfold. It is as if these upcoming artists are rewriting art history and “subverting the supremacy of the Western art market.”
Other gallerists I spoke to were not veterans in the Asian art scene per se, but having been either to Hong Kong art fairs in past years or this season marking their Asian debut, each gallery remarked on the same things: the contemplative pace and conversant interest of collectors and fairgoers alike. Director of Greene Naftali Gallery, Vera Alemani, found the pace to be different than at other fairs. Based in New York, the gallery is habituated to a local collector base known for fast decision-making. “Here,” she evinced, gesturing to people meticulously filming the installation pieces at all angles and discussing, “people want to understand and learn about the works to make a knowledgeable decision. It’s natural; and it’s refreshing for us to see their curiosity and desire to learn.”
Galleries responded to the general pace of the fair in divergent ways. As director Andrew Silewicz of Sprüth Magers relayed, the interest was rather “inscrutable,” perhaps due to language and cultural barriers. Others saw this foreign element as an “opportunity,” so said ARNDT gallery (Singapore). They regaled it as a chance for those in greater Asia to “experience and learn about contemporary art from all over the world.” Director Kurt Mueller at David Kordansky Gallery (Los Angeles) also found the general response to his booth striking. “I am impressed with how the people respond to Western abstract art they have not heard of,” he said. “The Mary Weatherford piece, for example, was immediately popular to everyone, a response that was exciting to see.” And finally, Simon Devolder of Xavier Hufkens gallery reiterated what most other galleries expressed. He found the energy to be “exciting and emerging” with a collector base of a “genuine curiosity” and “commitment to understand” each work.