Art fairs’ raison d’etre may be to sell art but that’s far from the whole story.
New York gallery owner Ethan Coen offers an explanation: “We gallerists are ambassadors of culture. It’s exciting that Art Basel and Art Central can be recognized. There’s a big enough group of clients in Asia who can support these fairs.” The Asian art expert added that “Art Basel has more established dealers who are dealing with much more international art than you might find in Basel.” For Mikala Tai director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, “Art Basel is a superlative iteration of Art Basel Switzerland. Hong Kong is its Asian arm, run to service the business of consuming art.” Sydney-based Tai is quick to point out the benefits the presence of the colossus and former partner Art Central will bring.
“Art fairs have allowed, of course, the market to come in but with (that) has come attention, money, investment; so we’re seeing (seminal) places such as Para Site, Spring Workshop, being allowed to really diversify their practices, and had the support to do so. The influence that art fairs and the market has is just astronomical”. Both Para Site and Spring Workshop are partners of Art Basel providing associated events both at the fair and in the city.
However, with massive attention boosting prices for top tier names, the lower level artists are at risk of being squeezed out, London artist Henry Hussey explains. “There are too many galleries with too many collectors and multiple artists showing at different galleries vying for a position. The roster is getting bigger and bigger. The industry cannot sustain itself. It’s a sinking ship.”
Ethan Coen, whose eponymous gallery goes back to 1980’s NYC, where he curated the then unknown Ai Weiwei’s first exhibition, disagrees. “The market is large. There’s room for everybody.” Adding that, “it’s exciting that they have two really excellent fairs here in Hong Kong.”
Aside from the fairs’ business side there’s the educative role. For Derek Black, Associate Dean of Academics at Savannah College of Art and Design, Hong Kong fairs are a “cultural opportunity for the community… able to bring a large body of work, especially contemporary work, that’s relevant in contemporary art and design to the public. Art Basel or Art Central or any other art fair should leverage their connection with the community and the masses to help create a better connection to those [who] don’t have a high level of education in art or design … and how to appreciate it at a more commercial level and artistic credit thought level.” Nevertheless, while an art fair of this kind is not necessarily for the masses, the less formal the environment can be more attractive than a museum.
“It’s an event; they have to draw a certain amount of audience. It’s definitely going to appeal to the more highly visually literate than the general person on the street. However, I think that an art fair gives a more open or more accessible means to access the art because it’s not in the typical walls of a museum, specifically Art Central in its erected temporary facility. Having it outside of a typical museum environment breaks down some of the preconceived barriers which is created for much of the public and brings in many more different people.
Nevertheless, not everyone in the art world is a fan of these kinds of events. Hong Kong and Macau-based artist Konstantin Bessmertny is highly critical of fairs even though he enjoys the gathering of fellow professionals. “I was never a supporter of these types of conventions as this is probably the worst way to show art: bad lighting, crowds of onlookers, noise, exaggerated exhibitionism of all kinds, mediocrity, populism, sensationalism, institutionalized art doctrine, art corruption, art favoritism, etc. Everything you don’t like about contemporary art is on display.” He added that, “the concept of ‘Profit is everything’ simplifies everything divine and complex into mass culture, pop art, etc. Creating ‘Society of Spectacle.’ Everything becomes entertainment – panem et circenses. The standards of high culture have been downgraded to mass understanding. Tribal and folkloric was what it’s all about with the illusion of being famous, illusion of being a genius, illusion of being wealthy, illusion of being cultural, illusion of being educated. Still I don’t want to sound pessimistic, as it’s just the world we live in now. And art fairs just found a way of how to profit from the ‘Society of Spectacle.’
“But it’s the only way for professionals to get together. It’s not just Art Basel, but the events that come with it. The talks and exhibitions, professionals and amateurs, art lovers that fly here for the event that makes it all special. We live in exciting times of transition.”
Bringing the art world’s individuals together has been Art Basel’s intention all along. While the first years were more of an outreach to Asia, this year was more of a consolidation. Art Basel 2016 saw a much larger number of museum representatives attending as well as collectors. The fair has also increased its outreach globally with a new initiative called Art Basel Cities, which was announced during this year’s fair. Cities will see Art Basel working with cities to develop cultural programs tailored to local culture and realities which will link up to the world through Art Basel’s network. Robert Carroll, Hong Kong, MDT Correspondent