All eyes on Hong Kong as Art Basel hits city, bringing tourism boost with it
Hong Kong's newest arts fair may reflect the cultural and economic value of art, but also a globalisation of culture that can stifle artistic expression
As the curtain goes up on the first Hong Kong excursion of the Art Basel international art show today, it will become the focal point not just for the art world, but for the city's tourism efforts.
The Tourism Board is promoting the Asian outpost of the world's largest contemporary art fair as the centrepiece of an "Art Month", which also includes a range of satellite fairs and the irrepressible, inflatable Rubber Duck. Even Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will attend the fair's opening ceremony this morning - the first time the city's top leader has presided over the opening of a major art fair.
The dramatic boom in Hong Kong's art fair business since the forerunner to Art Basel - Art HK - made its debut in 2008, has resonated across the region.
So also has the emergence of the city and the West Kowloon Cultural District as centres for art auctions. Cities from Singapore to Tokyo and Abu Dhabi to Manila, are embracing art fairs not just for the lucrative business opportunities they create, but also for their power in branding the city and bringing in affluent visitors.
But as more Asian cities rush to join the game, there are growing warnings of the key risk from the trend; the globalisation of culture via contemporary art.
"Culture is very important in marketing a city," says cultural critic and consultant Desmond Hui. "Similar to the construction of cultural districts and the cultivation of a creative economy, art fairs are part of the equation."
Unlike art biennales - which are organised by the authorities as an official presentation of arts and culture - art fairs are engineered by market forces and have a different role, and can forge a close relationship with a city. Governments should recognise the fact that art fairs play an important role in cultural and creative industries, Hui says.
"In Hong Kong everything is market-driven, so the government doesn't have to think. But if the government can provide appropriate support and let the private sector grow, the impact could be bigger," Hui says. "A city's cultural infrastructure does not equal the commercialisation of art."
Hong Kong government statistics released this month shed light on the attraction of building a cultural industry. Cultural and creative industries were worth HK$89.6 billion in 2011, 4.7 per cent of gross domestic product and a marked increase on their 3.8 share in 2005.
Amid general growth in the number of art fairs, the Art, Antiques and Crafts sector was ranked as the third most lucrative cultural and creative industry, generating just over HK$10 billion - almost double the HK$5.4 billion recorded in 2007, the year before Art HK made its debut.
It's inevitable that other cities are doing their best to replicate such growth. Taking Singapore as an example, the government proactively supported the Art Stage Singapore fair in January. The Singapore government also offers overseas galleries the use of the historic Gillman Barracks, a contemporary art site put together by the government's Economic Development Board. A tax-free zone has been created to draw auction business away from Hong Kong, while government bodies such as the National Arts Council and the Singapore Tourism Board actively co-operate to generate a creative buzz.
Art critic John Batten says an art fair can draw the attention of outsiders and also takes on a wider public perception - thereby adding something to the city. But while a successful fair can serve as a branding tool for a city and draw cultural events to take place around it, it also needs the city, he adds.
"The art scene wants to associate with Art Basel. But a good art fair also wants to associate with a city - an art fair wants to be seen as part of the fabric of a city," Batten says.
Art Basel Asia director Magnus Renfrew says that rather than simply being a forum for the trading of artworks, an art fair shares both cultural and commercial functions. He wants the art fair to form a positive relationship with Hong Kong, and even serve as an ambassador for the city.
"Art fairs can help promote a city as a cultural destination. We want to benefit the cultural scene in Hong Kong. We are not just bringing audiences to discover the city, but also curators and museum directors," he says.
"There is this increasing recognition of Hong Kong as a major centre, not just for the trading of art, but also as a networking and meeting place for the international art world. The fair helps build the brand of Hong Kong as a cultural and financial hub."
Renfrew recognises that cities also hope to ride on the back of art fairs to promote themselves.
"It's very natural for a host city of an art fair to use this opportunity to demonstrate their cultural strength. Governments are more aware of the importance of art fairs [as] key events of the cultural calendar. Culture is an important part of the identity of a city, and art fairs can play a strong PR role," he says.
But, Hui says, other cities such as Taipei and Tokyo, which host art fairs on a different scale, can benefit from a more established cultural infrastructure - the network of public and private institutions that cultivate creativity - than Hong Kong, Singapore, or mainland Chinese cities.
Take, for example, March's Art Fair Tokyo. It may not be the most glamorous event on the arts calendar, but it is able to showcase local art to a local audience already familiar with the subject from the city's museums and other cultural institutions. Surrounding the fair is the Roppongi Art Night, an all-night art happening in the hip Roppongi Hills area. A smaller contemporary art fair, G-Tokyo, is held concurrently. These events, crowded with local youngsters, offer a different side of Tokyo to visitors.
"There's a long history of art in Japan. The Japanese like to appreciate art with their own taste. We don't have to follow the global trend," says Art Fair Tokyo's executive director Takahiro Kaneshima. Kaneshima says many young art fairs in the region look up to Art Basel and Frieze, a contemporary art fair in London and New York. But by achieving a "global standard", he says, they end up featuring the same galleries and the same artists.
"We try to make our own style of art fair. It doesn't make sense to have just another Art Basel," he says. "The rich can go to Switzerland and Hong Kong. We feel that we should make a fair that is more interesting locally."
Kaneshima says he wants his fair to be a platform for local artists and collectors, and make art accessible. This year's fair attracted 44,000 visitors viewing art works brought by 136 galleries - almost all of them from Japan. The balance is in stark contrast to Art Basel Hong Kong, where half of the galleries came from the West.
"I always think; why doesn't our fair have big international galleries? But the truth is, few people here are interested in them," he says. "We should learn about the global context, but Asia has different aesthetics. We want to show and create our own. For Asian people, it's nice to have this kind of 'global' art fair ...but isn't such a Western-style strategy some kind of colonisation?"
Kaneshima says it is inevitable that art fairs will follow a western model. But he believes creating a uniquely Asian system is important. Japan's economic troubles of the past two decades have been a wake-up call to collectors and artists, he says. They now take time to sell works of art through galleries and there is more effort to cultivate talent.
"It takes five years to sell an expensive sculpture, and it takes 20 years to make an artist," he says.
Internationally popular Japanese artist Takashi Murakami is in Hong Kong for a solo exhibition of his new works at Central's Galerie Perrotin Hong Kong. He says that today's art fairs and the market are vibrant.
"When I debuted [in the international scene] 20 years ago, I hoped for such conditions," the artist says. "But young people misunderstood the concept of making money. Auctions put up the prices [of art works] in a short time, but there's also a short lifespan for artists."
Murakami is helping the next generation of artists. He "coaches" emerging artists under his company, KaiKai Kiki, ensuring they create art with a "healthy" mentality so that the money goes into the pockets of the artists' families as well as the artists themselves, reducing the temptation for them to blow their new-found wealth. In 2002, he founded the GEISAI Operation, an art fair offering emerging Japanese artists a taste of the art market.
The development of Tokyo's largely homegrown art fair scene contrasts starkly to that of Hong Kong and other cities, which have a weaker cultural infrastructure and rely on foreign-run fairs. The concern is that the interest of foreigners in a city can be transient.
"Foreigners bring the Western style to Hong Kong, which serves as a platform for them. But what if they move away from Hong Kong?" Hui asks.
This worries artist and critic Anthony Leung Po-shan. She believes the vibrant art scene - a parade of glamorous openings, parties and free-flowing champagne - is in fact sending an alarming signal to the city.
"It is a new form of globalisation," Leung says. "Contemporary art becomes a tool, the best social occasion for global elites. It is not about the cultural diversity that [UN cultural body] Unesco advocates. Contemporary art becomes a new label, like Louis Vuitton, that people are after."
Leung worries that such globalisation of culture through the contagious art fairs obsession will eventually undermine or even extinguish most indigenous local craft and cultures in Asia in the long run.
In fact, Britain is already experiencing such a phenomenon, with officials deciding that the country's age-old craft industries no longer warrant inclusion within its creative industries. While the British contemporary art scene has blossomed, last month Britain's Department for Culture, Media and Sport released a consultation paper proposing to remove craft as a category within the creative industries as "most craft businesses are too small to identify in business survey data ... we've not been able to provide gross value added data".
Leung says the growth of the culture sector in Hong Kong is mainly in contemporary art, while traditional art forms stagnate.
"Will it kill the local art forms? It depends on the local authorities," she says.
"Art fairs create great synergies. The positive side is that these fairs help widen the spectrum of arts and culture. But with this developmental-state mentality dominating Asia, and creative industries becoming state policy, Asia becomes a place that is just about making money. Art fairs then become a merger not just of culture, but also of capital. Cities have to beware of art fairs."