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Art Market Watch

by Rachel Corbett
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The Art Basel art fair is facing an increasingly "Asian-ized" future, according to predictions from both art dealers and fair staff at the 43rd annual fair, June 14-17, 2012. The forecast follows logically enough from the dramatic growth of the Chinese sector of the art market. Significant here is last year’s purchase of the Art HK fair by Basel parent company MCH Group. Adding to the evidence was the announcement earlier this week on June 12, 2012, that Swiss collector Uli Sigg would donate most of his contemporary Chinese art collection -- 1,463 works worth $163 million -- to the M+ art museum that is slated to open in Hong Kong. (The museum is purchasing an additional 47 works from Sigg for $22.7 million, so the deal isn’t pure philanthropy.)

Art Basel co-directors Annette Schönholzer and Marc Spiegler said they’ve been consciously building a bridge between Switzerland and Hong Kong for some time now. “Five or six years ago we weren’t really prepared for their needs” in Asia, said Schönholzer. “Now we have five VIP relations reps in Asia and will add several more this year.” Spiegler, meanwhile, pointed to the fair’s youngest sector, Art Statements, in which seven of the 27 galleries this year are from in Eastern Europe, the Middle East or Asia -- a noteworthy movement towards a more global fair “in the sense that these predict the future.”

Some dealers are already seeing the effects. “More and more Asians are coming and I would assume that with Art HK more will be coming over here still,” said Randy Moore of South Korea’s Kukje Gallery. Japanese dealer Taka Ishii said he thinks Chinese buyers in particular are eager to come to Art Basel in Switzerland rather than Art HK simply because it’s the better fair "in terms of quality of art and galleries.”

Long March gallery director Lu Jie, who moved his booth to Basel’s main stage this year after spending the last two in Art Statements, says he’s already seen an increase in the number of Chinese collectors by 20-30 percent this year. “They've opened their minds,” he said. That, or perhaps they just needed help feeling at home in Basel. “Many of our clients come to us and we help them arrange their trip,” he said. “Basel’s not just about the fair -- it’s museums and activities. It helps them to feel engaged.”

The growing Asian art scene should do more than bring a new class of buyers to Switzerland. It may well change the kind of art that gets exhibited. As it stands now, Asian artists tend to need name recognition to get wall space at Basel. Or they may need to be included in specially curated historical exhibitions, like the Gutai-themed show at McCaffrey Fine Art’s booth. This style of postwar Japanese art has been part of McCaffrey’s program in New York since it opened in 2005, but the small-show format at Basel also helps western buyers put unknown artists into context.

And we can almost certainly expect to see more contemporary art from China in the years to come. Sigg’s collection, which dates back to 1979, the year Social Realist propaganda art finally began to wane, should serve as a measuring standard. “There’s very little opportunity to encounter Chinese contemporary art, so this is an absolutely historic moment,” said Art HK director Magnus Renfrew. “Undoubtedly, when people are able to put things in a historical context they’ll be more interested. And there’s some cachet in collecting artists that are also in an important collection.”

The word “emotional” has been used a lot to describe the impact of the new “M+ Sigg Collection,” as it’s officially called. “It’s fantastic, it's beautiful, I'm touched,” said Long March’s Lu Jie. “We’ve seen several cases of collectors who fail to keep their word and it's not a very good ending. We see people build serious collections and then sell them. This is a promising Asian institution and a very good example of the alternate joy of collecting.”

Sigg said he chose to make his gift to Hong Kong partly because it has a more progressive view toward art than the mainland. His collection “is not so much the Chinese paradigm of harmony and beauty, but the European paradigm of doing away with the past and being radical,” he told reporters yesterday, June 13, 2012.

He seems to have chosen M+ specifically because it’s part of the massive government-funded West Kowloon Cultural District development, for which “the money is already in the bank,” said M+ director Lars Nittve, the global museum hand who made his name at both the Louisiana Museum and Tate Modern. Added the district’s executive director Michael Lynch, “I will sign it in blood to Uli and his wife, Rita, that [the museum] will be there in 2017.”

Plus, the institution agreed to Sigg’s terms. It will display at least 30 percent of the collection at all times and dedicate at least one quarter of its 65,000-square-foot exhibition space to Sigg works.

Nittve suggested that Sigg must feel a bit like he’s giving his children up for adoption. “Yes,” Sigg agreed, but before elaborating, Nittve jumped in: “Well, I’m a very proud new father, or godfather. We’ll stay in touch.”

RACHEL CORBETT is the news editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email