Article written by Alex Frew McMillan.
There were record crowds at Art Basel, held this week at the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, and Art Central, a fair that runs concurrently.
Leonardo DiCaprio came. So too did Victoria Beckham. Paris Hilton played a night at Dragon-I, a popular nightclub.
Art Central came into being at the hand of Tim Etchells – as did, in an indirect way, Art Basel Hong Kong. Art Basel had bought an earlier art show called Art Hong Kong, and changed the name after Art Basel acquired the fair.
Art Central is focused on Asian artists, with at least 50% Asia-based artists. Last year, it attracted 30,000 attendants, and broke that record this year with 32,000 passing through the doors.
There are three “editions” of Art Basel: the original one in Basel, Switzerland; which is slated to occur June 16 to 19, 2016; another in Miami Beach; and Hong Kong. The Miami edition is due to take place from December 1 to 4 later this year.
In the Hong Kong version of Art Basel, some gallery owners complained that there were too many families and children on the public holidays. Art Central was also very full over the holidays. As in Miami, Art Basel encourages satellite fairs concurrent with their own.
It is a key moment however for many galleries and artists who otherwise might not get that kind of exposure.
Angela Li, who is on the five-person board that selects the galleries that show their artists’ work at Art Central, explained how the galleries are selected.
“Artists are artists, some of them are very good promoters of their own art, and some are not,” Li said. As gallery owners, “we are slightly more sensible.”
For gallery owners, both the artists are tricky to deal with and the buyers. Much like real estate, the gallery owner acts as a broker to any deal.
At a fair, gallery owners take the risk of paying for the space and insuring art work to travel to the location. In return, they may gain access to buyers who would not visit their gallery.
“The most important thing is making sure that we attract the audience,” Etchells said. “An audience of collectors and buyers.”
The art world is a pyramid, he said, with serious collectors at the top – numbering in the hundreds – followed by wealthy art fans who simply buy, say, five to six pieces per year for their own enjoyment.
“It’s depending on their whims, depending on whether the colour scheme works, but they're very important,” Etchells said.
Those buyers often don’t go to art galleries, so art fairs are a key point of contact. “The art fairs deliver new customers to the galleries,” he said, citing a Taiwanese buyer who snapped up an artwork for just over HK$1 million (U$$129,000) on the VIP introductory night.
Etchells, for his part, must know that each person emits 1 kilowatt of heat; with 5,000 people in the building, he must allow for air conditioning to handle that load. The 10,000-square-meter structure of Art Central could take 10,000 people, “but we would be like sardines,” Etchells said. “We’re all about the customers.”
He broke even last year on a US$500,000 expense. He sees that as an investment. “You could argue I bought a business for half a million,” he said. “It’s very hard to run your costs to make sure they’re in line with the long-term profits.”
Selling Art Hong Kong was a way to take the fair “to the next level,” Etchells said. “It was primarily about securing the long-term position, and it is about capital gain.” The terms of the sale are covered by a non-disclosure agreement.
Art fairs have a personality, and are fun to run, Etchells said. So he isn’t looking to found a new one, although he has considered Singapore as a secondary location.
It would have to be a fair that the art galleries and artists are passionate about, he said. Hong Kong, without capital gains tax on art imported or exported, will do just fine for now.