Lai See

Art Basel coming to Hong Kong in a cloud of cigar smoke

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 March, 2014, 1:34am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 March, 2014, 1:34am

Art Basel, the art fair jamboree par excellence, comes to Hong Kong in May. Last year's event was fun and attracted all those art sophisticates like Roman Abramovich, Kate Moss and so on. But much as we enjoyed the show we were a little disturbed at its relationship with the cigar company Oettinger Davidoff Group, which is one of the fair's principal sponsors along with UBS, AxaArt and Netjets.

When governments around the world are trying to stop people from smoking because one out of every two people that smokes ultimately dies from a smoking related disease, it seems strange to say the least that Art Basel thinks it is okay to take tobacco money. Tobacco sponsorship is pretty much banned in Hong Kong. So it is something of a surprise to see it surface at Art Basel.

Davidoff signed an agreement with Art Basel in 2012. At the time Hans-Kristian Hoejsegaard, president and CEO of Oettinger Davidoff Group said: "Davidoff and Art Basel is a perfect fit." The company also said then that its products are "deeply connected to the handicraft traditions involved in the rolling and blending of fine cigars as well as the art of marquetry", portraying Davidoff as a kind of upmarket craft company.

Art Basel's co-director Marc Spiegler went on to say: "We seek partners like Davidoff who are intensifying their engagement with the arts."

When we asked Art Basel about its connection with tobacco money, Spiegler, via its public relations company, told Lai See: "Alongside its enduring support for Art Basel as an associate partner, Oettinger Davidoff has also developed the Davidoff Art Initiative, which is making a significant contribution to the arts by fostering cultural exchange between the art scenes in the Caribbean and in cultural capitals across the world. The two organisations both have roots in the Swiss town of Basel, and both are strongly committed to art and artists."

We all know why Davidoff is "strongly committed to the arts". It's because it is one of the few areas where it can market itself. High art and fine cigars - they're a natural fit? Wrong. While having an interest in art might be true, the main motivation is that art provides good "cover" that helps to make it look like a good citizen, tries to normalise cigar smoking "as a way of life", smartens up Davidoff's corporate image, enhances it products and corporate visibility, and of course helps it to sell more cigars.

Its association with Art Basel, despite what perhaps can be called the hype about art, is a commercial decision, and a marketing cost to promote its business. The fact remains that smoking kills and rather than helping Davidoff seduce more customers, Art Basel should look for other sponsors.


Numbers game

The Italian Consulate has been keeping us up to date with the numbers of people visiting the painting Supper at Emmaus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

"We are delighted to communicate to you that the Caravaggio Exhibition has already reached more than 5,000 visitors in just a very few days and that the press coverage continues to be plentiful and uniformly laudatory," an e-mail statement from the consulate says. As of 5pm yesterday, day eight of the exhibit, the number had risen to just over 7,000.

The consulate is keeping a proprietary eye on all this as it was instrumental in enabling the painting to be viewed here since its normal place of repose is in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. It's on display at the Asia Society Hong Kong until April 13. The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities trust has given HK$4.2 million to ensure it got here in one piece.

When the Asia Society approached the Jockey Club it was asked how many people it thought would view the painting. The Asia Society said 40,000 even though the most it had done in previous exhibitions was 16,000. To achieve this target it needs to attract 1,500 a day. At current attendance levels it will be pushed to achieve that. We note that there has been some comment about this being the "famous Caravaggio Supper at Emmaus". This is not the case.

The "famous" one hangs in the National Gallery in London and is the one that is cited when referring to Caravaggio's masterful dramatic light and movement technique. The one on display here was painted later and is an altogether darker production.


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