Art Basel Hong Kong 2017March 31, 2017
Why do art dealers clamber over each other to be included in the big fairs even though they expect to lose money? The Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report provides the answer. In 2016 art fairs accounted for an estimated 41% of all dealer sales. As a percentage of the whole this represents an increase of 5% over the past year and 57% since 2010.
The Report, released with great fanfare at this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong, is full of fascinating statistics. Apparently the art market contracted slightly in 2016, largely due to a 26% decline in the value of auction sales. At the same time on-line sales rose by 4% and now represent almost 9% of the market. Galleries that sell works valued at US 1$ million and over, had a very good year; while dealers that sell for prices under a million tended to struggle.
The report is available as a free download on the Art Basel website so you can browse at will. To compile all this useful data Dr. Claire McAndrew, had to rely heavily on surveys and interviews, as the field is immersed in secrecy. An anonymous on-line survey sent to 6,500 art dealers around the world generated only a 17% participation rate.
Even if one needs to be cautious about details, the overall trends seem plausible. Everybody knows that auction sales have been declining. It’s also clear that the gap between rich and poor galleries echoes the growing divide in our society between haves and have-nots. As the rich get richer they buy more (and more expensive) art.
In the political sphere the progress of inequality has generated a wave of unsettling populism, but there is no parallel in the art market. The smaller galleries look enviously at wealthy peers who can afford to choose their clients. They have become accustomed to seeing their most popular artists cherry-picked by the big dealers who turn them into high-priced commodities.
The problems start to emerge when a dealer tries to scale up from grass roots to the next level as overheads increase and new customers prove hard to find. The smaller clients fall away, while the affluent art buyers are all hanging out at Gagosian or White Cube or Zwirner’s. It seems the art world is suffering the effects of its own shrinking middle class.
The great divide was on display in Hong Kong last week, with the fifth edition of Art Basel Hong Kong and the third edition of satellite fair, Art Central. The main fair, spread across two floors of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, boasted 242 exhibitors from 34 countries. Art Central, located in a set of large tents near the Harbour, showed another hundred galleries, with 75% hailing from the Asia-Pacific region.
The quality of work at Art Basel was obviously superior to that on offer at Art Central, but the disparity was more glaring than I’d anticipated. There were relatively few exhibitors at Art Central that stood out from the crowd, with perhaps the most impressive being the unheralded Artemis Gallery from Kuala Lumpur, who featured two excellent emerging painters from Indonesia, Dedy Sufriadi and Indra Dodi.
It was also good to see a couple of large, enigmatic canvases by John Walsh at New Zealand’s Paulnache Gallery. The seven Australian exhibitors – Art Atrium, Artereal, Chalk Horse, Dominik Mersch, .M Contemporary (Sydney) Mars (Melbourne) and Hill Smith (Adelaide) – were solid but not spectacular.
The best aspect of Art Central was that all the participants seemed to be enjoying themselves. Booming attendances and steady sales made dealers feel the trip was worthwhile, even if they didn’t expect to break even.
It was a similar story at Art Basel Hong Kong, but multiplied by about a hundred. The younger galleries in the Discoveries section were crammed into a long, busy alleyway on the first floor, but the bulk of the show felt more spacious than ever. It was generally agreed that this year’s fair set a new standard.
One innovation saw the number of public days reduced by one, with two days given over to the VIPs. It was a change that could be justified by the Art Market Report, which notes that 99% of global sales last year were of works priced at less than US$1 million, but the high-priced remainder accounted for 50% of the total value. Like casinos, who know their real profits lie with the high-rollers, art fairs have realised it’s best to look after the so-called High Net Worth Individuals.
Judging by the strong surge in sales at the start of the fair the tactic seems to have worked. After the first VIP day the major galleries were already announcing profits in the millions. Even Sydney’s Sullivan + Strumpf shared in the spoils, selling a four-piece sculpture by Sanné Mestrom, shown in the Encounters section, for a figure close to $200,000.
Five other Australian galleries were represented this year – Darren Knight, Jensen, Roslyn Oxley9, This is No Fantasy + Diane Tanzer, and Tolarno. As with Art Central, Australia was not disgraced, but I wouldn’t claim any of the exhibitors as stand-outs.
By the final day public attendances had grown to unprecedented levels. The queue for tickets snaked out the door of the Centre onto the footpath and disappeared around the side of the building. Inside their booths dealers struggled to keep the art-hungry masses from touching expensive works.
Ten years ago Hong Kong had no idea about art, now it’s a desirable accessory for the upwardly mobile lifestyle. One keeps hearing about flashy young Chinese entrepreneurs, million dollar sales and all-night parties.
Not all the aspiring collectors of Hong Kong and China are fashion victims. Many of them have a genuine interest in learning about the art they buy, and in the evolution of a truly global market in which Asian artists play a leading role. Accordingly there were plenty of ground-breaking exhibitions of important regio artists who are not yet recognised internationally.
MEM gallery of Tokyo showed the extraordinary works of Yoshio Kitayama (b. 1948), notably two infernal, large-scale drawings of figures collected into a heap that resembled a mass grave. These were complemented by painstaking cosmic abstractions and open-frame sculptures. Across the aisle, at the Park Ryu Sook Gallery of Seoul, were the highly accomplished paintings of Kim Chong Hak (b.1937) who remained a figurative expressionist when the Korean avant-garde became obsessed with abstraction.
Fergus McCaffrey of New York joined the party with work by the late Toshio Yoshida (1928-97), a Japanese abstract artist of the Gutai group – a movement now attracting world-wide attention.
Luxembourg and Dayan of London attracted as much attention as any gallery at the fair with a museum-quality show of works by Italian modernist, Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) whose distinctive slashed canvases are undergoing a revival in popularity. The Fontana show was the best of several booths devoted to the work of modern masters, from Picasso to Motherwell to Morandi.
It wasn’t all art history. A+ Contemporary of Shanghai presented an ingenious installation by Hu Weiyi called Pulp Landscape, which consisted of eight old suitcases, each containing a rotating diorama of tiny reproduction artworks by Picasso, Frida Kahlo, and so on. A camera the size of a drinking straw relayed the images to a row of TV screens.
Another bold, singular display came from Eslite Gallery of Taipei which showed a gigantic folding screen by Cai Guo-Qiang, covered in calligraphic scorch marks.
At every fair there are artists whose appearance in multiple galleries indicates their star is rising. This year saw serial appearances for Do Ho Suh’s streamlined fabric works and prints, and the bulging, cracked surfaces of Su Xiaobo’s imposing abstract paintings.
2017 will be remembered as the year the Asian character of the fair finally and definitively asserted itself. The majority of high quality works were by Asian artists, including many variations on traditional brush-and-ink painting. Nothing was more breathtaking than INK Studio’s presentation of Bing Yi’s Metamorphoses (2013) – two ink drawings on sloping 22-metre sheets of paper, created with the assistance of the natural elements. It was like standing at the foot of an avalanche getting ready to be engulfed – a familiar experience for visitors to art fairs.
Art Basel Hong Kong 2017,
Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 1 April, 2017