After weeks of speculation, Art Basel, one of the most prestigious international art fairs, has cancelled its Asia edition in Hong Kong over public health concerns around the fast-moving coronavirus outbreak, dealing a blow to the festival that has weathered a tumultuous year in the semi-autonomous region.
With 241 exhibitors lined up, the show had been slated from March 17 to 21 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center.
Art Central, another art fair in Hong Kong which coincides with Art Basel, has also been cancelled.
“The decision to cancel Art Basel Hong Kong was an extremely difficult one for us. We explored every other possible option before doing so, gathering advice and perspectives from many gallerists, collectors, partners and external experts,” said Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel.
“Unfortunately, the sudden outbreak and rapid spread of the novel coronavirus radically changed the situation.”
The statement cited several factors informing the decision, including health concerns.
As the worldwide toll surpasses 29,000 cases with 638 deaths, predominantly in mainland China, fears over the new mystery virus are shaking Hong Kong, with the number of cases in the Chinese territory rising to 24 infections and one death, reported on Tuesday.
Hong Kong and the Philippines are the only places outside mainland China to have reported the death of an infected patient.
Long queues are forming outside shops in Hong Kong as the city faces a shortage of masks, schools are closed until at least March and museums are shut indefinitely.
The decision was inevitable after the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency, says Meg Maggio, director of Pekin Fine Arts, a Beijing and Hong Kong-based contemporary art gallery and arts consultancy.
“I was expecting it, we were all expecting it,” says Maggio. “They really didn’t have much choice.”
The cancellation also comes amid mounting travel restrictions to and from mainland China, one of the major players in Art Basel.
While Hong Kong has not gone as far as many airlines and countries in cancelling all mainland China flights, it has imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine on anyone arriving from the mainland.
With thousands of people arriving from mainland China every day, the city’s embattled leader Carrie Lam has come under fire for not shutting the border entirely, prompting thousands of public health workers to strike, demanding a sealed border.
While many flight restrictions to China exclude Hong Kong, some airlines are beginning to cancel flights to the territory, including United Airlines and American Airlines. Hong Kong’s flagship airline, Cathay Pacific, called on its 27,000 staff to take three weeks of unpaid leave in the coming months as it grapples with the outbreak.
Art Basel had already been under pressure since the eruption of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in June of last year. In spite of millions taking to the streets and months of demonstrations, there was still an attitude of “the show [must] go,” says Daphne King Yao, director of the Hong Kong-based Alisan Fine Arts.
But in January, galleries started getting cold feet, with three dropping out and 15% of exhibitors taking up an offer to reduce the size of their booths, which would lower their financial commitment, the Financial Times reports.
Two dozen high-profile participating galleries also had penned a scathing letter to Art Basel in January for what they saw as a poor response to the political unrest, ArtNet news reports.
On top of many indications people would not attend the fair, the letter said “many of our artists are unwilling to have their work shown at the fair” because the threat of Chinese control in Hong Kong is not “consistent with their core belief in the freedom of expression.”
Last year’s show drew 88,000 visitors.
The cancellation is not unprecedented. The last time Art Basel cancelled a fair was in Miami, in the US state of Florida, due to the September 11, 2011, attacks.
Art Basel said it remains committed to Hong Kong and will host its next edition there next year from March 25 to March 27, 2021.