A number of galleries set to attend at the five-day fair, which last year attracted almost 90,000 visitors from over 70 different countries, have called for its cancellation citing health fears and commercial concerns.
Visitors at Art Basel on March 27, 2019 in Hong Kong. Credit: Theodore Kaye/Getty Images
“It’s staring us in the face right now, and my advice is that it shouldn’t happen,” said Sandhu, founder of Singapore’s Gajah Gallery, in a phone interview.
“With regards to getting clients and staff there, I think it’s a no-brainer. Everyone’s got reservations. Some have an axe to grind (with the organizers), some are genuinely concerned and some have got an altruistic view — that it’s a pity, because a lot of jobs are dependent on this, galleries are dependent on this and so is Hong Kong.”
“Regretfully, we believe this situation needs decisive leadership and the fatally wounded Art Basel Hong Kong 2020 needs to be put out of its misery and quickly,” he is quoted as saying. “Having taken soundings and we can tell you, not one of our foreign clients will be attending and they are surprised the fair is still on.”
A city in lockdown
But with the fair’s VIP previews not scheduled to begin until March 17, more than six weeks away, organizers said it was “too early” to tell whether the show could go ahead.
“Art Basel is taking the situation very seriously and we are monitoring the developments closely, including assessing the situation with risk specialists and with Selection Committee members,” a spokesperson said in a press statement. “At this stage, it is too early for us to discuss how the recent outbreak of the new virus will impact the show.”
In a letter sent to exhibitors Thursday, the fair’s directors said they were “working hard to review all possible options.”
“Needless to say, the contemplation of postponing or canceling an event of this scale — which takes a full year to produce — is a complex process, with many factors and multiple stakeholders,” said the letter, which was seen by CNN.
“The health and well-being of you, your team, our team, and everyone involved is of paramount concern, and we are equally cognizant of the many impending deadlines. We fully recognize the urgency of the situation, and we will provide a resolution as soon as we can.”
The effect of demonstrations
Fears about the coronavirus have further compounded concerns surrounding the impact of the pro-democracy demonstrations that have unfolded across Hong Kong. A number of exhibitors had already pulled out over fears that demonstrations could disrupt the event or deter collectors from attending.
A file image of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong on November 26, 2019. Credit: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Despite recent developments, some exhibitors said they intended to join the fair — if it goes ahead. Hong Kong’s Blindspot Gallery, which is set to show work by local and mainland Chinese artists, described the event as “one of the most important dates in our calendar.”
“I understand the fear in Hong Kong given our traumatic experience with SARS in 2002 (and 2003),” said the gallery’s development officer, Nick Yu, via email. “But I think it will be a pity if the fair gets canceled, as it is one of the most looked-forward-to art events in the region.
“From my knowledge, quite a few galleries have the same feeling. I hope the fair organizer will provide adequate support and concession to participating galleries, while allowing the fair to happen.”
The Hong Kong Art Gallery Association (HKAGA) also offered its “unanimous” support for Art Basel’s “ultimate decision to proceed with, reschedule, cancel or otherwise make necessary changes to the fair.” In a statement emailed to CNN, the group’s board added that other art events planned during Hong Kong Art Week, which runs alongside the fair in March, could still go ahead.
“Provided a healthy and safe environment within the city, the HKAGA will do its utmost to make March’s art week as eventful as possible,” the statement read, “even should Art Basel Hong Kong 2020 be canceled.”