Art Basel to bring international flair to Hong Kong

Art lovers, collectors and gallerists will gather on Thursday for Hong Kong's inaugural edition of Art Basel, sealing the city's status as an international art hub and Asia's leading art destination.

The four-day annual show is the world's premier art fair and has until now only been held in Switzerland and the United States each year. More than 2,000 international artists and 245 leading art galleries will come together for the event to be held in the city's waterfront convention centre.

"Art Basel really helps to affirm in people's minds the status of Hong Kong as the art destination in Asia," Art Basel Asia director Magnus Renfrew told AFP.

It replaces Art HK, Hong Kong's former art fair which was set up in 2008 and recently taken over by the high-profile Swiss Art Basel franchise which has been showcasing modern and contemporary art since 1970.

"It really helps to take this from being a fair of regional significance to one of global significance," says Renfrew, who also headed Art HK. "The quality of application this year was far greater than what we received previously, it's getting more difficult to get in."

Renfrew and his team are predicting huge growth potential in the Asian art scene and are expecting a greater presence from collectors from outside Asia.

"There's clearly a huge potential in Asia, there are now more billionaires in Asia than there are in Europe," says Renfrew, adding that 25 VIP relations managers have been deployed around the world to drive VIP traffic to the fair.

Better known as a fast-paced commercial hub which is home to global banks and designer brands, Hong Kong's reputation as a thriving centre for art collectors has only been established in the last few years.

It has surged to third place in the global art auction market behind New York and London and Western galleries are falling over each other to open franchises in the former British colony.

The sudden boom in the international art presence in Hong Kong has come largely thanks to the explosion of personal wealth among mainland Chinese who are investing in art and a growing interest among collectors for different types of art aside from traditional works.

Since Art Basel acquired Art HK in 2011, 11 galleries have opened up in Hong Kong hoping to tap into the growing international art presence, Renfrew said.

"I think the cultural ecology of Hong Kong is really starting to come together," he said.

Gagosian, White Cube, Acquavella, Lehmann Maupin and Pearl Lam are just some of the big-name galleries to have arrived in the city in the past two years, despite sky-high rents.

The local art scene is also buzzing with the government's development of a massive art and culture district on the harbour in Kowloon where contemporary art museum "M+" is expected to boast a world-class art selection.

International art stars are launching shows at major galleries in the city to coincide with Art Basel and tap into the current cultural buzz.

Controversial British siblings Jake and Dinos Chapman -- known as the Chapman brothers -- will be opening an exhibition at White Cube Tuesday, their first exhibition in China.

Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami will launch a show at the French Galerie Perrotin on the same day.

Art Basel's four main sections at the Hong Kong show will focus on significant works from the past 100 years, projects specially developed for the show and large-scale sculptural and installation pieces.

Selected emerging contemporary artists will also vie for a $25,000 prize.

The city's Hanart TZ Gallery which showcases Chinese contemporary art will be exhibiting at the show and is hoping to push its own reputation beyond its regional fan base.

"With Art Basel, the promise is that the international is being brought to Hong Kong," Johnson Chang, the gallery's curatorial director, told AFP.

Chang is hoping the show will help his artists reach global collectors and spark "new interest, new business and new connections".

Hong Kong has already made international art headlines this year with thousands of people flocking to see a giant rubber duck created by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman floating in the city's famous Victoria Harbour.

It also hosted a major Andy Warhol exhibition which received more than 200,000 visitors during its three-month run.

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