Hong Kong ups its art game

25th May 2012

Now that the dust has settled on the latest Hong Kong International Art Fair (Art HK), with cleaners sweeping away the detritus of busy buyers, wandering artists and gregarious media folk, deals signed, paintings sold, and art logistics worked out, the conversation naturally shifts from anticipation and speculation to rumination and deliberation.

Held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Asia's biggest art fair – considered the third-biggest of its kind behind only New York and London – will undoubtedly be considered to have been a triumph, notable for an increase in galleries and artists from the west (among a total of 266), a significant rise in attendees (a six per cent rise to 67,205), and, it goes without saying, prominent sales (more of which are to come).

Magnus Renfrew, fair director of ART HK, commented that the progress that the expo has made over the past five years has been nothing short of staggering, where the boundaries between eastern and western art have slowly but progressively crumbled. In particular, the exponential growth and cultural importance of the event in the arts calendar suggests that there is an emergent prestige associated with knowledge of the Asian market. It pays to be au courant.

"It will take time to develop the market here but we have witnessed this week an increased openness internationally in engaging with work from different cultural and aesthetic backgrounds and sales have been solid," Mr Renfrew added.

"The buzz in town this week has been exceptional and the city has become more and more confident in its potential to be one of the great art hubs globally. I look forward to working on the launch of the first edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong for 2013."

Indeed, actions speak louder than words. The seminal moment occurred last July, when it was revealed that MCH Swiss Exhibition, which owns both Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach, had acquired a 60 per cent stake in Asian Arts Fairs Ltd. It was perceived as a figurative acknowledgement of the east's mounting importance in art.

This isn't about a new world order defined by Asia representing the only future – western art's value and history gives it a certain intransigent and endless stature – instead, what it does demonstrate, is the end of the west's monopoly. From here on in, Art HK will be rebranded and next year will see the debut of Art Basel Hong Kong.

It'll be interesting to see how many changes will occur under the new owners and what impact these will have. Though the fair is radiating confidence, there is much discourse about a need to not so much remain cautious about lauding Hong Kong as the "new home of art", but to maybe ease the hype surrounding it. No one wants a bubble. For example, in an interesting piece for Art Info, Madeleine O'Dea, in her analysis of Art HK, observed how the Asian market is still very difficult "to crack" and there appeared to be a palpable absence of major collectors in attendance.

Nevertheless, as an Economist editorial pointed out, sales figures suggest a very positive development. Last year, Chinese collectors buying at auction in Hong Kong outstripped their US counterparts. This accounted for a 41 per cent share of global art auction revenue.

These collectors are buying both western and eastern art, as was the case at this year's event. This included Los Angeles-based Blum & Poe selling two works by Zhu JInshi – No.5, 2006 and Thick Strokes, No.4, 26 – for $70,000 (approximately £44,626) each to independent Asian collectors; White Cub selling George Baselitz's Stalin und Woroschilov pissen von der Kremlmover for £399,549 to an Asian collector; and De Sarthe Gallery selling Chu Teh-Chun's No. 313, 1969 for an impressive £1,913,688 to a south-east Asian collector.

And this is only the beginning. In an interview with the New York Times ahead of the launch of Art HK, Mr Renfrew reminisced how on his arrival to Hong Kong in 2007, he was told that the city-state was a "cultural desert". This was a correct observation, at least at face value. So he dug a little deeper and found that there was a vibrant underground scene, it just wasn't visible. It needed something to galvanise it. Art HK has been doing that ever since.

"It’s different from fairs in the west because we created it completely from scratch," he told the newspaper. "There’s been an art market in the US for decades and in Europe for centuries. It’s a very young scene in Asia and Hong Kong, so we feel that has a cultural function as well as a commercial function."

Perhaps the Basel connection was inevitable. As Yuko Hasegawa, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, acknowledged, Art HK has played a very important role in creating a platform for contemporary art in Asia. That has been established, signalling the end of part one. Part two now shifts towards growth and Art Basel will be looking to make sure 2013 is a year to remember. The pressure is on but is eased ever so slightly by the fact that things have changed. Hong Kong is here to stay.

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