The bigger the (art) wave, the harder it crashes

Illustration adapted from the 'Great Wave off the coast of Kanagawa' by Hokusai.

In winter, I often like to remember the warmth of summer. And last summer, at the beach (where we’d all rather be on wintry days), I observed: the bigger the wave, the harder it crashes. So, what does this have to do with art? 

Well, when Art Basel and MCH Group cancelled the fair’s Hong Kong edition last week, a big wave crashed. 

After all – thousands of visitors were planning to attend and millions in art deals were ready to be made. But months of preparation were ended by the coronavirus – now called COVID-19 – which the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a “public health emergency of international concern”.

It is worth remembering, though, that tensions were running high before the WHO’s declaration. Hong Kong’s protests had compelled five galleries to pull out of the fair in January. In fact, a letter from 20 top Western exhibitors recommended cancelling the event. 45 local galleries, represented by Hong Kong Art Gallery Association (HKAGA), opposed claiming the view was myopic and insisting that the proverbial show must go on.  

Where are we now?

There is palpable displeasure from galleries and dealers, most of which consistently refuse to comment on the situation. Although they will be compensated for 75% of the booth fees at the fair, the losses made through packing, shipping and art unsold are sure to pinch.

One art advisor told me: “They have more of a virtual presence these days. Galleries rely majorly on the art fairs for their sales.” An alternative might have been relocating the fair to Singapore or Taipei. Or even online, when you think of what virtual exhibition software is capable of these days. 

Meanwhile, Spring sales in Asia remain on schedule and with Art Basel in June, the only thing to do is look forward.

No matter how big, the best surfers will always be ready to ride the next wave.