Global Health Emergency declared, Will Art Basel Hong Kong 2020 be cancelled?

The organisers of Art Basel Hong Kong 2020 have written to art dealers and exhibitors after mounting reports of growing coronavirus infections and the increasing death toll dominated global news headlines during the last 7 days. According to a newsletter from Canvas, a digital communique delivering news to the global fine arts community, “multiple dealers and two sources within Art Basel” have expectations that Art Basel HK 2020 to be cancelled. Further more sources speaking to Canvas revealed that up to 12 exhibitors at Art Basel Hong Kong 2020 already have plans to drop out of the 8th annual edition of the art fair, while Art Basel HK organisers wait for a WHO declaration on the status of the coronavirus as a global health emergency.

HONG KONG, CHINA – JANUARY 31: Residents line up to purchase face mask outside of a pharmacy on January 31, 2020 in Hong Kong, China. Hong Kong faces supply issues of surgical mask amid the coronavirus crisis. With over 9800 confirmed cases of Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) around the world, the virus has so far claimed over 200 lives (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Following the second meeting of the Emergency Committee on 30th January convened by the WHO Director-General regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus 2019 in the People’s Republic of China, the World Health Organisation declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). This announcement meets the threshold for Art Basel HK 2020’s organisers to declare the Hong Kong art fair cancelled but so far, they have resisted despite the urging from multiple exhibitors and partners to do so.

“This is a challenging time for all of us. Our team is working hard to review all possible options. Needless to say, the contemplation of postponing or cancelling an event of this scale—which takes a full year to produce—is a complex process, with many factors and multiple stakeholders.” – Art Basel HK 2020 letter to exhibitors addressing cancellation Art Basel organizers—Noah Horowitz, the director Americas; Adeline Ooi, the director Asia; and Marc Spiegler, the global director expressed concerns for exhibitors’ health and safety, but cited that cancelling the event would be a “complex and arduous” process.

Museums and Schools already closed, Medical Staff protesting in Hong Kong

“If there is no full border closure, there won’t be enough manpower, protective equipment, or isolation rooms, to combat the outbreak,” – Winnie Yu, chairwoman of the newly-formed Hospital Authority Employees Alliance According to Bloomberg, insiders close to the organisers of the 8th edition of the Hong Kong fair poised to open in March say “Art Basel Hong Kong 2020 is on life support” with participating galleries writing to Horowitz, Ooi and Spiegler to cancel. Meanwhile in Hong Kong, 15 confirmed cases of the virus in the city have led to museums and schools being closed with non-essential medical staff going to strike demanding the border with mainland China be completely closed to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading. Meanwhile Hong Kong, a Southeast-Asia transport hub, has suspended rail service to and from the mainland as well as reduced number of flights by half.

Art Basel Hong Kong 2019 included 241 galleries from 31 countries, drawing 88,000 people and The Art Basel franchise, which also includes Miami and Basel Switzerland editions, is part of Switzerland’s MCH Group AG, organisers of another beleaguered exhibition – Baselworld – a watch fair which has seen most of its prominent exhibitors withdrawing save Rolex, Patek Philippe, Tudor, while LVMH is contractually bound to the Basel Watch Fair 2020 and during LVMH Watch Week in Dubai, Bvlgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin admitted that they had not renewed and that Baselworld’s mid-year dates were problematic for the group’s brands  and their retailers moving forward.

Riots & Virus Outbreaks: Reasons for Art Basel HK 2020 cancellation

“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. 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.” – Richard Nagy, Owner Richard Nagy Ltd gallery, letter to Art Basel Hong Kong 2020

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Hong Kong has endured almost 6 months of anti-government protests and riots, plunging the tourism, retail and property sectors into chaos with falling arrivals,  shuttered malls and 25% fall in property prices, immediately setting the economy into a recession. The rise of the coronavirus gave momentary pause to civil unrest which has now turned into a medical protest on fears of stretched medical resources for the former British crown colony.

Richard Nagy, owner of renowned London Bond Street gallery, Richard Nagy Ltd.

Richard Nagy, a Modernist Art since 1980s and a prominent art gallerist in London’s Dover and Old Bond Street venues, recently wrote a terse missive to organisers of Art Basel Hong Kong 2020 urging cancellation and to take the fair off “life support” citing the example that first edition of Miami Basel was postponed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, rejecting claims that from organisers that it would be contractually difficult to withdraw when terms for cancellation include “economic or political situations that strongly compromise” the 2020 Art Fair.

So far, one unnamed exhibiting dealerhas categorically told ARTnews, “There is no way we are going,”Numerous art collectors are avoiding travel to Hong Kong and neighbouring regions and it stands to reason that dealer participation in a non-event with low visitors, especially when UBS – the lead sponsor of Art Basel – has barred its employees from travel to China and ordered its 2,500 Hong Kong employees in  to work from home – would be a sensible decision.

In a phone interview with CNN, Jasdeep Sandhu, founder of Gajah Gallery in Singapore said, “The (coronavirus) final nail in the coffin. It’s staring us in the face right now, and my advice is that it shouldn’t happen.” With VIP previews slated for 17th March 2020, organisers said it was “too early” to tell whether the show could go ahead. The Financial Times reported that fair organisers had offered exhibitors more time to take up a withdrawal offer, which would see 25% of their booth fees returned and that while there were contingencies that 75% of exhibitors’ fees would be refunded if the fair was cancelled due to protests, there is no word that this clause applies to Art Basel HK 2020 cancellation due to the coronavirus.

“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?” asks Nagy speaking to South China Morning Post. Wuhan coronavirus update: 425 deaths, 20,438 infections and 23,214 suspected cases