Art fairs mushroom in Hong Kong

Art fairs are a growth industry in the city and each event looks to stand out from the crowd, reports Enid Tsui

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 9:23am

The swift rise in the number of contemporary art fairs in Hong Kong is akin to the proliferation of cupcake stores. After all, it's only been five years since the first such show was launched and, this month alone, we have five, including the more established Art Basel - Hong Kong. Holding so many fairs around the same time seems like a surfeit of riches - art buffs and collectors can't possibly attend all of them.

But organisers insist there's nothing faddish about it, as the city continues to grow as an international art centre. "I don't think there are too many art fairs in Hong Kong. In Miami there are 27 art fairs held at the same time as Art Basel. And each one brings something different," says Tiziana Manca, an art dealer from Italy who will launch the three-day Link Artfair on May 24.

Just as Art Basel - Miami Beach sparked off many so-called satellite art fairs in the American city, the new Hong Kong shows have all been spawned by a common progenitor. Art HK, which started in 2008, is a textbook example of first-mover advantage. The show, held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, quickly became the biggest of its kind in Asia by capitalising on the need for top galleries to test out the world's third-largest art market.

The inaugural edition of Art Basel - Hong Kong, as Art HK is now called under its new Swiss ownership, has become more selective in its choice of participating galleries, says director Magnus Renfrew.

Featuring nearly 10 per cent fewer galleries this year, Art Basel - Hong Kong's strict selection criteria (with over 60 per cent of applicants rejected) and the high cost (starting from US$535 per square metre) leaves enormous appetite for alternative platforms.

We aren't an Italian or Korean. We are locals and we engage with local artists and collectors 24/7
Mark Saunderson, director of the Asia Contemporary Art Show 

Other organisers all admit that they are piggy-backing on the success of Art Basel - Hong Kong, which along with the Christie's spring auctions, draws a large crowd of art aficionados to town.

"Art Basel is the Steven Spielberg of the art world. Its Hong Kong show will feature artists and galleries which they think are the best," says Mark Saunderson, director of the Asia Contemporary Art Show (ACAS) which opens on May 23 at the JW Marriott. "We see opportunity for art fairs featuring emerging artists or mid-career artists."

Now in its second year, the list of 76 galleries taking part in ACAS does not feature heavy hitters, who tend to make repeat bookings with the main show.

But it is the biggest satellite art fair in terms of the number of participating galleries, and it boasts the broadest geographical spread, featuring works from Australia to Vietnam.

Saunderson, a long-time art collector who owns Fabrik Gallery in Wan Chai, also stresses the local nature of ACAS in terms of its management and a dedication towards promoting local interest in art. It has a competition for emerging Hong Kong artists coinciding with the fair, one of which is a people's choice award judged by Facebook participants, and exhibition space is given to winners for free.

"We are not an Italian lady or a Korean gent coming to Hong Kong to put up a show. We are locals and we can engage with local artists and collectors 24/7," says Saunderson.

The Korean gent in question is Kim Dong-myeong, publisher of a Korean art magazine and veteran art fair organiser in Seoul, who brings over nearly as many galleries as ACAS. "My intention is to create a platform where international artists can interact with each other in Hong Kong, a melting pot of nationalities," he says.

Like ACAS, the Bank Art Fair will feature relatively affordable emerging artists, with works selling for HK$10,000 to HK$30,000 on average. Highlights from his show feature noteworthy Korean names such as Hong Sang Sik and Yoo Sun-tai, as well as up-and-coming Chinese artists.

Kim has decided to call his Hong Kong debut Bank Art Fair, because the word "bank" evokes "prosperity and happiness". He also means to convey the idea that, rather than just leaving their money sitting in a bank, people should circulate it by buying and selling art.

Saunderson says the ACAS, which takes up four floors of the JW Marriott, will be in the black this year after launching its first show just last October.

It charges exhibitors less than half what Art Basel charges on a per square foot basis. The smallest room costs just over US$200 per square metre, compared with Art Basel's entry level booths costing US$535 per square metre.

He is confident that ACAF will be able to sustain the momentum for its next show planned for October, when it will have less competition from rival art fairs but can benefit from the overseas traffic brought over by the Sotheby's autumn auctions.

A rival organiser, Roger Lim of Hong Kong Contemporary, says he is determined to bring an artist's perspective to an industry dominated by dealers.

"My partner, Paris Moon, and I are both trained as artists and I think our selection of artwork will reflect that. We are awarding prizes to emerging local artists who are engaged in fine art making. This means artwork which reflects something from within, rather than public art meant for a park or a shopping mall," he says.

"We also feature video artists from around the world - that's definitely a not-for-profit exercise." Lim is aware of the need to jazz up his event to lure visitors confused by the different art fairs happening in the same week. Korean starlet Ku Hye-sun, and Gigi Chao, the daughter of tycoon Cecil Chao, will attend the opening on May 24.

It's not always easy for a hotel art fair to stand out. Apart from the other art fairs and the Christie's auctions, they also have to compete for foot traffic with Asia Week Hong Kong, a series of cross-media art exhibitions, talks and museum tours backed by the Asia Society and Orientations magazine.

One show that has been crowded out is Spoon, which debuted just last year.

And that is why Manca is taking a very different approach with Link Artfair. The family-friendly fair takes place in giant marquees set up on the waterfront in front of Kennedy Town's China Merchants Wharf.

"I hope to set the trend here with the two marquees. The hotel art fair model is outdated and has been abandoned in London and New York. I want Link to be about the accessibility of art, for people to just come and relax, and enjoy a carnival-like atmosphere." Prices will start from around HK$30,000.

With support from the Italian consulate, there will be a fair share of Italian artists represented. But like the other art fairs, special sections are allocated to local artists. Manca, who has a background in psychology, has also lined up art therapy sessions for visitors.

Manca is prepared for Link to be a loss maker for the first four years. But she hopes that Hong Kong will be the launch pad for an ambitious plan to take her art fair to Seoul, Nagoya and Kuala Lumpur. "I've been coming to Hong Kong for 25 years and the mistaken belief that it is a cultural desert has always annoyed me," she says.