Hong Kong Spotlight by Art Basel: The case for physical art fairs

With online viewing rooms flourishing, the art industry appears to be among the few to make a successful digital transition in the wake of the pandemic. But the recent Hong Kong Spotlight by Art Basel in November 2020 proved the enduring relevance of the physical art fair for galleries and collectors alike

Photo: Hong Kong Spotlight by Art Basel

Art fairs in Hong Kong can be recognised by their distinctive smell – part paint and possibly part venue. But it’s been almost two years since art enthusiasts have been able to breathe in the unique aroma of Art Basel Hong Kong, in which more than 200 of the world’s galleries typically descend upon the city in March.

Having cancelled its 2020 show, Art Basel organised Hong Kong Spotlight last November in conjunction with Fine Art Asia. The condensed 22-booth fair showcased galleries that have permanent physical spaces in the city, and it’s a testament to the importance of physicality that despite successfully establishing online viewing rooms for collectors, attendance at the fair – which kicked off the same time as the fourth wave – remained enthusiastic and robust.

Even at the end of a long day, gallery owners and representatives continued to excitedly greet one another as if reuniting with long-lost friends. While it had been a long time since so many well-dressed people assembled in one place, the only major difference from shows of the past was the fact that everyone was wearing face masks.

Photo: Hong Kong Spotlight by Art Basel

“Our aim [in hosting] Hong Kong Spotlight was to provide an opportunity to experience art in person again and bring together Hong Kong’s arts community, and we were very pleased with the result,” says Angelle Siyang-Le, project lead on Hong Kong Spotlight and regional head of gallery relations, Asia, for Art Basel. “The event was greatly appreciated and well received by galleries and collectors, all of whom had the opportunity to meet in person to exchange ideas, deepen existing relationships, and to develop new connections and new projects.”

While Art Basel is known for its more modern and contemporary pieces – a Yoshitomo Nara here, an Alex Israel there – Fine Art Asia is a local fair focused on fine art and antiquities. The result of their collaboration was a bringing together of a wider cross section of the city’s art community.

Hong Kong Spotlight by Art Basel has brought in a steady flow of truly interested art appreciators and we have met a wide range of collectors that we hadn’t known before,” says Katie de Tilly, director of 10 Chancery Lane, Hong Kong.

“No matter how good a digital platform is, the experience of seeing art in a physical fair is irreplaceable.”

Henrietta Tsui-Leung

Mariko Kawashima, director of Axel Vervoordt Gallery in Hong Kong agrees: “We are thrilled with the positive responses from our solo presentation of Yuko Nasaka, as well as the public installation by Kimsooja. After 10 months of turbulence, we are grateful that Art Basel was able to organise this intimate art fair to help the local arts community. As a new exhibitor, we’re impressed by the group of new collectors and professionals that the fair has attracted to visit our booth.”

Photo: Hong Kong Spotlight by Art Basel

Despite advances in digitalisation and the establishment of viewing rooms in the wake of COVID-19, almost all members of the art community continue to insist on the irreplaceable benefits of a physical art fair.

Of this, Siyang-Le says, “As we have seen thus far, digitalisation has changed the art world dramatically, making art more accessible than ever before, a development largely accelerated due to the onslaught of the pandemic. Online viewing rooms are a great way to stay connected or for collectors to engage with galleries and their programs when they are unable to attend physical fairs.

“However, they cannot replace the experience of seeing art in person or visiting a fair itself. The recently published 2020 mid-year survey by Clare McAndrew, ‘The Impact of Covid-19 on the Gallery Sector,’ found that 70% of high-net-worth collectors from the US, the UK and Hong Kong would prefer to attend a physical or offline art exhibition, so we’re thrilled to offer to this opportunity to our Hong Kong audience members to enjoy in person.”

Photo: Hong Kong Spotlight by Art Basel

Reinforcing the sentiment, co-founder of Galerie Ora-Ora Henrietta Tsui-Leung says, “No matter how good a digital platform is, the experience of seeing art in a physical fair is irreplaceable. The Chinese ink art we were showing needs people to ‘read’ in person and to ‘wander’ in the literati of the painting. I’m particularly pleased that these works can be presented in a physical setting and of course even happier that they are sold.”

Small though it may have been, the conclusion Hong Kong Spotlight has drawn seems inevitable – the physical show is here to stay, for sales, of course, but more so for the inimitable human connection. “We’re delighted to see the highly positive response from collectors and visitors at the fair. Not only have we received a lot of interest in the works of our artist, but also feedback that our works have brightened up their days amid the current global situation,” says Alice Lung, partner at Perrotin Hong Kong.

“As a long-time supporter of Art Basel Hong Kong, this is especially heart-warming and epitomises how art can impact others. Despite a shift in the audience demographic due to the different scale and format, the fair has provided us an opportunity to reunite with existing Hong Kong based collectors while establishing relationships with new ones.”

See also: Art agenda: 5 Hong Kong exhibitions to see in January

In this Story: #PRINT / #culture / #art & design