Art Basel calls off Hong Kong fair amid coronavirus outbreak

After weeks of speculation Art Basel has cancelled its Hong Kong Fair, due to “the severe outbreak and spread of the new coronavirus”.

In a statement released this week, the Swiss fair’s owner, MCH Group, expressed growing concern for health and safety at the fair and the difficulties of travelling to Hong Kong.

The decision to cancel Art Basel Hong Kong was an extremely difficult one for us,” reflected Bernd Stadlwieser, chief executive of MCH Group. “We explored every other possible option, including postponing the fair, and gathered advice and perspectives from many gallerists, partners, and external experts. However, today, we have no other option but to cancel the fair.”

Art Basel’s announcement followed calls from many participating dealers to abandon this year’s fair. London-based dealer Richard Nagy emailed to demand that the international fair be “put out of its misery… there is absolutely no doubt in our minds that this art fair is now commercially on artificial life support.

At the end of January, Hong Kong closed museums and schools in an attempt to slow the rate of infection. Coronavirus has now killed 1,016 people in China, while more than 40,000 cases have been diagnosed worldwide. Speaking to the BBC, infectious disease expert Prof. Neil Ferguson warned “I think we’re in the early phases of a global pandemic at the moment.”

The deadly outbreak was first reported in the affluent Chinese city of Wuhan and authorities have since banned its 11 million residents from travelling. “This is a war where no killers can be found,” remarked Ke Ming, an artist who has lived in Wuhan since 1997.

As one of the most prestigious art fairs in the world, Art Basel vitally attracts a global audience each year to Hong-Kong based galleries. “We are acutely aware of the important role that the fair plays within the region’s cultural scene and for our galleries, both in Asia and around the globe,” commented Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel. “Our thoughts are with those affected by the recent coronavirus outbreak all around the world.”

Over the past few weeks, the Hong Kong art community pleaded with Art Basel not to cancel. Several participants criticised the Western media for propagating false information and exploiting the ongoing political crisis in the city. Last month Katie de Tilly, founder of the Hong Kong gallery 10 Chancery Lane, said “when I was in the US and Europe over the summer, I saw that the news is very skewed, first with the protests, and now with the coronavirus.”

Galleries will be reimbursed for 75 percent of their stand fee by Art Basel’s organisers. Ben Brown, an exhibitor at the 2020 fair, also confessed his sadness but concluded that “I can understand that people just don’t want to go. It’s better to cancel the fair, than have a fair where everybody loses money.

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