Dealers Call on Art Basel to Cancel Hong Kong Show Over Virus Fears

(Bloomberg) -- The spread of the deadly coronavirus may jeopardize Art Basel Hong Kong, one of Asia’s most prestigious art fairs, with participating galleries asking organizers to cancel the event’s eighth edition in March.

The death toll from the virus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has risen to at least 170 while the number of cases has topped 8,000.

In Hong Kong, where 10 cases have been confirmed, museums and schools have been closed. The Hong Kong Marathon, which was set to take place early next month, was canceled. Rail service from the mainland is suspended and flights are being reduced by half.

The World Health Organization on Thursday declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency.

Dealers Call on Art Basel to Cancel Hong Kong Show Over Virus Fears

“Hong Kong is not the place where anyone wants to go right now,” said Janelle Reiring, co-founder of Metro Pictures Gallery in New York. “Because of the politics, the protests and now the virus. No one wants to send people to work there the way things are.”

Art Basel Hong Kong, which drew 88,000 people last year, is scheduled to open to VIPs on March 17 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. UBS Group AG is the show’s lead partner.

Dealers Call on Art Basel to Cancel Hong Kong Show Over Virus Fears

Exhibitors would include 241 galleries from 31 countries and territories, according to the website. The Art Basel franchise, which also includes fairs in Miami and Basel, Switzerland, is part of Switzerland’s MCH Group AG. The parent company has been struggling financially, and any cancellation in Hong Kong may complicate things further.

“This is a challenging time for all of us,” the fair’s directors said in a letter to exhibitors on Thursday. “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.”

Final Payments

Even before the coronavirus, Hong Kong was rocked by months-long anti-government protests that turned parts of the city into battle zones on weekends, wreaking havoc on the tourism and retail sectors and plunging the economy into a recession.

Dealers Call on Art Basel to Cancel Hong Kong Show Over Virus Fears
Dealers Call on Art Basel to Cancel Hong Kong Show Over Virus Fears

While the demonstrations affected almost all industries, at the very top end, people were still spending. A five-day auction by Sotheby’s in October set a new world record for Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, whose painting of a cute but menacing cartoon girl -- “Knife Behind Back” -- sold for $24.9 million.

Artificial Life Support

Some dealers have asked for Art Basel Hong Kong to be canceled and a few have already dropped out. One group of gallery owners recently gathered in New York to address the situation.

Earlier this month, 24 galleries signed a letter to the fair organizers demanding concessions. But the outbreak of coronavirus was a game changer, dealers said. The anxiety among galleries is further augmented by approaching deadlines to make final payments for exhibiting and to book expensive shipments of art to Hong Kong.

Richard Nagy, the owner of a prominent London gallery, wrote to organizers Wednesday asking them to cancel the show. A copy of the email was seen by Bloomberg.

“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,” Nagy’s letter said. “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.”

“There is absolutely no doubt in our minds that this art fair is now commercially on artificial life support,” he wrote.

There is precedent for a canceled Art Basel. The first edition of Miami Basel was postponed in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. In addition, the fair’s contract with the galleries states that reasons for cancellation may include “economic or political situations that strongly compromise” the organization of the show, according to Nagy’s letter.

“Surely this point is now passed,” Nagy said. “Please tell us what and where the line has been drawn -- at what point will Art Basel Hong Kong cancel the show? Is it 100 infected cases in Hong Kong? Is it a death in Hong Kong? Exactly where is your line in the sand drawn?”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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