“Are galleries, as a business model, obsolete in this environment?” French art dealer Pascal de Sarthe asked last summer. He was talking about galleries in Beijing, soon after his gallery in the Caochangdi art district was forced out by redevelopers. Pace had also just closed its gallery in the Chinese capital, citing difficult business conditions. Fast forward nine months and we can’t help but wonder if the same question should be asked of Hong Kong galleries, which are not only deserted but plagued by exorbitant rents. Gallery closures in Beijing and the cancellation of Art Stage Singapore last year seemed to consolidate Hong Kong’s position as the region’s primary art hub. During last year’s Art Basel Hong Kong, Lévy Gorvy became the latest high-end international dealer to open a gallery in Central, the priciest part of town. Within months, however, its expansive street-level frontage was frequently shuttered because the area in front of the gallery was often the site of violent skirmishes between protesters and riot police . Then, in the days leading up to Lunar New Year, it suddenly went completely quiet. With the coronavirus outbreak , “nobody is in the mood to buy art”, says Li Danqing, senior director, Asia, at Lévy Gorvy. Travel restrictions and raw fear also mean many collectors are giving Hong Kong a miss . Nine months of business disruption is a long time. Going forward, will galleries stay in Central? Will they stay in Hong Kong, in fact? Do galleries feel they need to maintain a physical space at all? Li says Lévy Gorvy has no regrets and is confident that Hong Kong will bounce back. “There is a back entrance to the gallery so we were all working inside during the protests,” she says. “A lot of what we do is international secondary sales conducted online and by phone. It’s not as if we weren’t doing business for all that time.” But several galleries are moving out of the expensive district. “I would have been out of my mind to take a big space in Central,” says Boris Vervoordt, who last year swapped a small gallery in the Entertainment Building for two large floors with a view in Wong Chuk Hang, the same industrial neighbourhood that de Sarthe moved to in 2017. “We wanted a bigger space and we checked out a number of buildings in Central. But the artists we show are not at a price point that would have made sense for us to pay eight to 10 times more rent than we pay here,” Vervoordt says. “I also like the character of an industrial building and this feels more of who we are. I don’t like the idea of showing art like a luxury commodity.” Art Basel Hong Kong called off over coronavirus fears But with people simply not going out, a lot of space is sitting idle and galleries have to focus on showing art online. Lorraine Kiang, co-owner of Edouard Malingue Gallery, says it’s the same in their Shanghai gallery. “We have an exhibition in Shanghai for Zheng Zhou. We are presenting it as a normal show online but the gallery is closed to the public,” she says. (You can make an appointment to visit though.) Does this signal the beginning of the end for physical galleries? The answer, across the board, is a resounding no. Vervoordt says the materiality of art has become less important than the experience it offers, which makes art harder to present online. “I am thinking of art by artists such as Kimsooja, who we were going to show in Art Basel [in Hong Kong] before the fair was cancelled,” he says. Emerald Mou Tiantian, a co-founder of Mine Project, an art gallery in Wan Chai, says their focus is on young artists and clients are often happy to buy online. “But having a physical gallery is important to the artists. They want their work to be shown in Hong Kong. Otherwise they wouldn’t be working with us,” she says. Speaking of the importance of Christie’s’ twice-yearly auctions in Hong Kong, Francis Belin, its Asia-Pacific president, compares a digital art market to a digital restaurant experience. “It would be impossible. Art is the pleasure of experiencing the object,” he says. Long-term Central gallerist Fred Scholle says his Galerie du Monde is staying put. In fact, the gallery is taking advantage of a quiet period to do some renovation. “From our past experiences of dealing with 1997, Sars in 2003 and other difficult periods that we have survived going all the way back to the riots in 1967, Hong Kong and the gallery business here will survive and Hong Kong will still be the most important art market in all of Asia,” he says. Still, galleries are moving out of Central to less expensive areas, which could mean they are cutting their overheads and minimising their financial exposure to Hong Kong. Perrotin is reopening at K11 Atelier, in Tsim Sha Tsui, in May. Being on the “wrong” side of the harbour may seem a drastic move but the gallery says, without elaborating, that it fits its overall Asian strategy given it has opened its largest gallery in the region in Shanghai. Hong Kong’s creative side flourishes amid economic gloom for art market Edouard Malingue is closing its Central gallery this summer and reopening in a “more permanent space” in Wan Chai early next year. “It’s not so much the cost for us,” Kiang says. “This new space just makes more sense for the gallery’s long-term plans.” But there is no doubt that the past nine months have meant that being in Hong Kong is no longer a given. “Eduoard and I discussed whether to keep a Hong Kong gallery. With the protests and the virus, the gallery was affected,” she says. But their programme is rooted in Asia and Hong Kong is still the best place to trade in the region. And so they are staying. “But it was a tough choice because business in Hong Kong may not pick up for another couple of years for economic reasons and the costs are so high.” Many local galleries, however, don’t have the deep pockets that allow their multinational competitors to get through these difficult times unscathed. But the virus hasn’t stopped them from showing a lot of good art at the moment. So keep an eye on the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association website for a host of fun events and special exhibitions from now to May.