Departures’ Guide to the Hong Kong Art Fair

Asian Art Fairs Limited

The Hong Kong Art Fair has transformed the city from a cultural desert to a major hub.

At an entrance to this year’s Hong Kong International Art Fair stood Paul McCarthy’s 60-foot-tall inflatable sculpture of a ketchup bottle. The piece by the L.A.-based contemporary artist was whimsical, unforgettable and symbolic of the global reach the fair has achieved since launching only four years ago. “McCarthy’s work spoke to a universal audience and captured the excitement and ambition of the fair,” says Neil Wenman, director of London, New York and Zurich gallery Hauser & Wirth, which arranged the installation.

In the last few years, the reputation of Hong Kong’s art scene has gone from “not” to blazing-hot. The city, a thriving global financial center with excellent international shipping infrastructure and no export or sales taxes, has become the world’s third-largest auction market and home to what many now consider to be the world’s most important art fair.

“Hong Kong was a cultural desert, but this event has changed that. The city is becoming a major art hub,” says Chinese art star Zhang Huan, whose first solo show in Hong Kong was organized by New York’s Pace Gallery and local dealer Edouard Malingue Gallery to coincide with this year’s fair. Today, about 20 auction houses hold marketing exhibitions and sales in Hong Kong twice a year. And Art HK, as it’s commonly called, has become a highlight on the global art calendar, attracting leading art dealers, artists, collectors, critics and advisors, surrounded by throngs of the socially active and curious. The event’s renown was further enhanced when the organizers of Art Basel, who run some of the world’s most prestigious art fairs in Switzerland and Miami, purchased a controlling stake earlier this year.

“Asia is playing a more important role in all our lives economically and, increasingly, culturally,” says Art HK director Magnus Renfrew. “In a very short space of time, the fair has built the reputation for being a place to discover and learn more about work from a huge variety of cultural backgrounds, in addition to showcasing the very best galleries from the West.”

Spread across two floors of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, each the size of several football fields, were 63,500 visitors—a nearly 38 percent increase from 2010—who browsed works by more than 1,000 artists from 260 galleries—from the Gagosian Gallery to David Zwirner to Acquavella Galleries and White Cube. For four days, the city hosted prominent Chinese artists like Zhang Huan, Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong. Zeng Fanzhi, whose work commands some of the highest prices for a living artist, dropped by since François Pinault’s art foundation sponsored a solo exhibit of the Chinese painter’s expressive work next door at the convention center, with the French luxury goods tycoon personally officiating. International art stars like David LaChapelle and Takashi Murakami wandered the halls and dropped by many of the parties, while mega-collectors such has Miami’s Don and Mera Rubell (who own one of the world’s largest assemblages of contemporary art) mingled with Asia’s major art patrons, like real estate heiress Pearl Lam. Hans Ulrich Obrist, a director at London’s Serpentine Gallery—2009’s “most powerful man in the art world,” according to Art Review magazine—was ubiquitous as a judge of the fair’s Art Futures, which awards emerging talent. He has called Hong Kong “the art world miracle.”

Though dealers and collectors voiced concerns that not enough artists from the region were getting the spotlight, Valentine Willie, an important art advisor and gallerist in Asia, says, “Hong Kong is the teat to which the world will come to suckle China’s riches. Proof of that can be seen in the number of leading Western galleries rushing to open branches here.” Gagosian has an outpost in the city, and London dealer Jay Jopling, godfather of the Young British Artists movement, will open the 6,000-plus-square-foot White Cube next year in a new Robert A. M. Stern–designed building. A number of other dealers are looking for space to rent.

As Sean Kelly, owner of the gallery bearing his name in New York, makes plans to return in 2012 (works by such legends as Marina Abramovic, Tehching Hseih and Rebecca Horn drew collectors to his booth this year), he says Hong Kong “presents an extraordinary opportunity to observe a new market emerging and forming in a single moment, rather like seeing a galaxy being born. The advantage to us is its ability to expose us to so many new collectors from such a large and diverse, cultural, demographic and geographic area.” Adds Andy Hei, founder of the art and antiques fair Fine Art Asia, which takes place every October, “We are showing clients from China what else they can buy, who else they can collect and invest in. Because it’s all happening in Hong Kong now.”

Hong Kong Art Fair: The Details

The 2012 Hong Kong International Art Fair will take place May 17–20 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre at 1 Expo Drive on Hong Kong Island. For information on the galleries and artists attending next year, visit hongkongartfair.com.