Art Basel cancels Hong Kong fair

“You can’t really win against Coronavirus right now.”

Words: Camilla Wagstaff

Art Basel Hong Kong organisers have announced the cancellation of the 2020 fair in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

“The decision to cancel Art Basel Hong Kong was an extremely difficult one for us. We are acutely aware of the importance that the fair plays within the region and for our galleries, both in Asia and around the globe,” said the directors in a statement to exhibitors this morning. “However, while we have all worked incredibly hard over the past year to stage a successful show, the outbreak and impact of the novel coronavirus, which on January 30 was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization, has radically changed the situation.”

Gow Langsford director Anna Jackson says the cancellation is a double-edged sword: “We remained committed to attending the fair up until the announcement this morning,” she says. “We understand why the organisers made the tough call to cancel and we’re glad we don’t have to send our staff to a fair that may have posed a health risk – and that ultimately would not have had an audience. That said, Art Basel Hong Kong is an important annual event for the gallery and this year was looking particularly positive for us. Work was made, our artists were participating in talks and Judy Millar was to be included in the Kabinett sector. It’s a shame none of that will go ahead now.”

Sullivan+Strumpf director Ursula Sullivan shared similar sentiments: “There isn’t really any other option for Art Basel Hong Kong, because you can’t really win against Coronavirus right now. But of course, it is a blow to us as a gallery. We love ABHK and the many people we catch up with there, every year for the last 10 years. We will miss that gathering, along with the chance to work with our artists to put together a great stand. But we’ll be back next year and look forward to that. Until then, our thoughts are with those affected by the coronavirus outbreak around the world.”

At the time of writing WHO reports coronavirus has infected more than 28,000 and claimed the lives of more than 500, with 24 confirmed cases and one death in Hong Kong.

“There was no alternative available to the organisers,” says Starkwhite’s John McCormack. “It was a tough call, but the right one. The backdrop of pro-democracy protests and civil unrest was a reason for the art world to go to Hong Kong, not stay away, but the outbreak of coronavirus put an end this year’s edition. However, we are saddened by the news. It’s our favourite fair and this year would have been a great one for Starkwhite with our Fiona Pardington show selected for Kabinett and a project by Yuk King Tan in the Encounters section.”

“This morning’s cancellation of the Hong Kong edition of Art Basel was received with very mixed emotions,” says Andrew Jensen, director of Fox Jensen in Sydney and Fox Jensen McCrory in Auckland. “Of course, we are relieved that we all are not heading towards the virus only to turn around 10 days later and risk spreading it further around the globe… that seemed beyond absurd as an idea.”

Jensen continues: “The political and civil unrest that has caused so many problems in Hong Kong in recent times was something that we hoped would have subsided, and regardless we wanted to continue to be loyal both to the fair and Hong Kong by continuing to support local business despite possible risk. Those fighting for democracy deserve that and for galleries to have turned their tails and retreated would’ve been unfortunate. However, the coronavirus is the proverbial straw… and compared to the challenges they face on the ground both politically, and more importantly health-wise, the loss of the art fair as a commercial opportunity is lamentable but irrelevant.

“The management’s retention of a significant portion of the fees paid to Art Basel Hong Kong is another story however…” notes Jensen. Galleries will be refunded 75 per cent of their payment to attend the fair, resulting in losses upwards of $20,000, according to Anna Jackson. “We’re not sure if we can recoup the lost funds through insurance as yet,” she says.

ABHK organisers say their “commitment to Asia and Hong Kong has not changed”, with the next edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong to take place in March 2021.

Image: Art Basel Hong Kong 2019.

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