Late spring is art fair season, and last week's dramatic news that Art Basel, the best art fair in the world, will take ownership of Asia's new star Art HK has caught much of the art world by surprise. Under new ownership, the fair, already recognized as the premier contemporary art event in Asia, has the chance to become truly world-class. China has wanted a world-class fair for about as long as it's had an art world to speak of (as opposed to a tiny art "circle"), which is to say, for about five years. Many have wondered why, despite the surging market and growing cultural authority, China has not been able to give rise to a truly international fair of its own.
In their essence, art fairs are like any other trade show. Substitute the manufacturers for galleries, the product specimens for paintings and sculptures, and the nametag-wearing traders for smartly dressed high-net-worth individuals, and you basically have the idea. But since art is a commodity of symbolic rather than actual value, the art fair offers a chance for individuals and brands to showcase their sophisticated side, and make an impact in the small but influential circle of art collectors. And since people in the art world tend to be, well, smart and attractive, there instantly emerge opportunities for sharp conversations and great parties.
The art fair in its contemporary form traces its roots back to the late 1960s in Cologne. Held in the cultural capital of a divided Germany, that fair brought together a new group of dealers who were working with postwar European art just as they reached a critical mass. A few years later, in 1970, a renowned dealer in the cultured but relatively peripheral town of Basel, a few hundred miles down the Rhine, decided to launch a Swiss rival to the other fair. And within a few years, Art Basel--known to this locals to this day singly as "The Art" (an English word at a time when English was not yet universal--had emerged as a major destination on the international calendar. Today it boasts 300 galleries, 45,000 visitors, hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, and a hugely successful sister fair held each December in Miami Beach, Florida, now in its tenth year.
The thing is, a good art fair can't just be willed into existence. It is the final step in a mature system of artists, galleries, and collectors. At their best, art fairs use their selection committees to enforce a high standard of quality (as in Basel) or become the central focus for a week of art events in a city (as in London's Frieze). This still has yet to happen here. I moved back to Beijing in April 2006, the day before the first edition of CIGE entirely under the direction of Wang Yihan opened. A few weeks later, her former collaborator Dong Mengyang announced that his fair, Art Beijing, would open a the Agricultural Exhibition Center in September. And all summer long, rumors of a bigger, better fair to take place in Shanghai the following year swept through the scene. Five years later, Beijing remains a two-art-fair city, separated by a single week, and insuring that both remain local affairs.
That summer, I went to Art Basel for the first time, and was overwhelmed, like many a new visitor, by just how much incredible art could be packed into a single exhibition space. This was the height of power of fair director Sam Keller, a charming bald-headed philosopher largely responsible for the model now in vogue, where an art fair must include not only a collection of stands, but a special exhibition, a sponsored fleet of cars, a series of talks and panels, and a carefully curated VIP program of visits to private collections and museums. Like many others at that moment, Keller was thinking about expansion to China; I came as translator to a group of distinguished Chinese journalists and collectors, invited at the fair's expense. In September of the same year, we staged a special edition of Art Basel Conversations--the fair's signature series of panels--in the atrium of the National Art Museum of China, at the invitation of director Fan Di'an. Art Basel China looked to be just around the corner, or so many thought.
In September of 2007, I was already working for Art Basel, helping them find their way through China. Together with the incoming directors and the selection committee, I attended the opening of that fated fair. Italian trade show execs and city officials mounted the rostrum of the Soviet exhibition hall, surrounded by a few hundred meter long line of qipao girls holding a ribbon. The cover of the catalogue boasted a work from the collection of Pierre Huber, who would soon be disavowed by the art world for selling his collection in a single-owner sale at Christie's New York and sued by his partners for fraud. Exhibitors Chinese and foreign complained about rigorous customs regulations, monopolistic freight handling, and capricious censorship. Very few came back for the following year. The Shanghai fair would go down as the great false start in recent Chinese art history.
Then, unassumingly, a fair appeared in Hong Kong a few months later, in April 2008. With all eyes on the Beijing Olympics, no one thought much of a tiny fair thrown together by a few English and Australian trade-show veterans and housed in the Wanchai convention center. The Asian galleries brought fare not unlike what was on offer at the Beijing fairs; a few intrepid foreign galleries--Eva Presnhuber, Peres Projects--brought complicated conceptual work by artists like Terence Koh and Fischli/Weiss, only to be completely ignored by the Hong Kongers. I remember the strange sensation of a collector's preview at 3pm (Basel's is at 11am) that was barely attended; only after work wrapped up for the day, at five or six, did the potential customers start to arrive. A fair for the working collector, we joked.
No one would have assumed then that three years later, Art HK would be among the most important fairs in the world, attracting the same roster of blue-chip galleries drawn to Basel, Miami, and London's Frieze. The Basel acquisition, which takes effect on July 1 but will not see the fair's name changed until at least 2013, promises to continue to lure the highest quality galleries and collectors from the region and beyond. Just as in so many other industries, "one country two systems" seems to have scored another victory, as ease of entry and display allow the world to meet China at its doorstep. For the moment, that's the most we can ask.