When Angelle Siyang-Le moved to Hong Kong from Dubai in November 2012, the taxi driver who picked her up at the airport told her that she’d come to the wrong place. “He asked me what I was doing in Hong Kong and I said that I work in the art industry,” Siyang-Le recalls. “He said to me, ‘You’re in the wrong city! Haven’t you heard that Hong Kong is a cultural desert?”
Siyang-Le didn’t agree with him then — and she definitely doesn’t agree with him today. “Hong Kong is now a cultural hub,” she says. “In the past 10 years we’ve opened M+, a world-class museum. We have the Palace Museum and the whole West Kowloon Cultural District. We have Wong Chuk Hang, which I call the cutting-edge gallery district. And we have all the galleries in Central and Tai Kwun.”
Then, of course, there’s Art Basel, which every year hosts three of the world’s most prestigious — and best-attended — art fairs in Basel, Miami and, since 2012, Hong Kong. Siyang-Le moved to the city to work in gallery relations for the fair, then took on the role of head of development for Greater China. Last year, she was promoted further to the newly created position of director of the Hong Kong fair. Adeline Ooi, who previously managed the Hong Kong fair, remains Art Basel’s director of Asia and is now focused on leading the company’s other activities in the region, such as its partnership with Art Week Tokyo.
“For my first year as director, I think the most important thing is for me to welcome everyone back to Hong Kong and remind everyone how great Hong Kong is,” says Siyang-Le. The city had some of the strictest Covid-19 restrictions in the world, meaning that many of the international gallerists who take part in Art Basel Hong Kong, as well as the collectors who buy from them, haven’t been able to attend the fair in person since 2019. This year’s fair runs from March 21 to 25 and will feature 177 galleries from around Asia, Europe, North and South America, and Africa. The number of participating galleries is lower than pre-pandemic levels — 242 galleries took part in 2019 — but the fair remains the largest event of its kind in Asia. “We want to reinforce the position of Hong Kong as the cultural hub of Asia,” says Siyang-Le.
Recently there has been much doom-mongering in international media about whether Hong Kong can maintain its position as Asia’s art market capital after years of isolation during Covid-19, during which other cities in the region, notably Seoul, have risen to prominence. In 2022, the British art fair company Frieze opened its first fair in the South Korean capital, prompting the Financial Times to ask: “The big question now is whether Seoul will take Hong Kong’s crown as the gateway to the region.” Similarly, The Wall Street Journal published an article about Seoul with the opening line: “Move over, Hong Kong. There’s a new global art hub emerging in Asia.”
Singapore is also gaining ground. In 2022, Sotheby’s held its first modern and contemporary art auction in Singapore for more than 15 years, selling 47 lots — mostly works of Southeast Asian art — that generated sales of about US$18 million (roughly HK$140 million). In signs that the other auction houses are also taking an interest in the Lion City, Artnews reported last December that Christie’s was advertising for an associate specialist to be based in Singapore and, this January, Phillips hosted an exhibition there of works by Brett Crawford. Also this January, the new art fair Art SG launched, bringing some of the world’s most powerful galleries, including Gagosian, David Zwirner and Pace, to the city-state for the first time.
But while journalists are keen to frame Frieze Seoul and Art SG as competitors to Art Basel Hong Kong, Siyang-Le sees them as complementary. “To be honest, I think these different art fairs are a great thing for Asia,” says Siyang-Le, who is perpetually smiley and cheerful. “In Europe and North America, it’s normal to have more than one international art fair.” Having a variety of fairs in Asia gives international gallerists, curators and collectors the chance to learn more about different places around the continent, which have their own distinct cultures, artistic histories and collecting habits. It also gives collectors and the art-loving public in these cities the chance to meet and learn from the most influential people in art, who will often converge on a city for a major fair. “That’s how an ecosystem develops,” says Siyang-Le. “And one of the main missions of Art Basel, what it has been doing for the past 50 plus years, is encouraging a more comprehensive ecosystem locally and internationally.”
There is other evidence that observers announcing the decline of Hong Kong’s importance to the art market may be rushing to conclusions. The three leading international auction houses are all currently expanding in the city: later this year, Sotheby’s is moving into a 24,000 sq ft space in Chater House; next year, Christie’s is opening its new Asia Pacific headquarters in The Henderson, a skyscraper designed by Zaha Hadid Architects; and Phillips has recently moved into new Asia headquarters in the West Kowloon Cultural District.
In 2022, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s had record-breaking years: Sotheby’s recorded US$8 billion in sales (HK$63 billion), more than any other year in the company’s history, with Hong Kong-based sales accounting for US$1.1 billion (HK$8.5 billion) of that. Christie’s made a total of US$8.4 billion (HK$66 billion), an all-time record for any auction house, with Hong Kong sales totalling US$835 million (HK$6.4 billion). According to Hong Kong government figures, the total trade of art and antiques in the city more than quintupled between 2012 and 2021, growing from HK$13.3 billion to HK$66.6 billion. International auction houses and galleries continue to be drawn to the city partly because of its favourable tax laws: Hong Kong has no tax on art imports, and no wealth, gift, estate, or capital gains tax.
Although Art Basel is fundamentally a commercial event, every year it sets aside space for some local non-profit institutions, such as Para Site and Asia Art Archive, to host small exhibitions and share their activities with the public. This year, as part of a new youth engagement programme, Siyang-Le is also giving spaces to art institutions housed at local universities, specifically the University Museum and Art Gallery at the University of Hong Kong, the Academy of Visual Arts at Hong Kong Baptist University, and the Art Museum at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “We’re also inviting some students to shadow our team as they work, so they can see into the heart of organising art events,” says Siyang-Le.
Siyang-Le first developed an interest in art fairs when as a postgraduate student she interned at Pinta, an art fair in London that was focused on Latin American art. Soon after that, she moved to the United Arab Emirates and worked on projects with Art Dubai, the leading art fair in the Middle East. Siyang-Le has also worked as a curator, writer and a manager of private collections but, she says, “the art fair dynamic always draws me back in. Fundamentally, at an art fair we are putting together a platform for people to exchange ideas. Bringing people together and building relationships in this intense period of just one week – that excitement is what keeps me going. It really inspires me.”
At this year’s event, Siyang-Le is most excited by the return of its programmes that could not be hosted during the pandemic, including Conversations, the fair’s series of panel discussions and talks; Film, a sector dedicated to video art; Kabinett, for which galleries host a solo exhibition inside their booth; and Encounters, a showcase of large-scale installations. “My highlight of the Encounters sector is Trevor Yeung’s Mr Cuddles Under the Eave,” says Siyang-Le.
Mr Cuddles Under the Eave will feature living trees suspended dramatically from the ceiling. Some of the trees will hang upright, while others will tilt sideways, awkwardly frozen in mid-air. Yeung says this image of living things caught in an uncomfortable and unnatural limbo is a metaphor for human society. Many people feel trapped in jobs or relationships, unable to grow as they would like, and during the Covid-19 pandemic billions of people were forced to put their lives on hold.
This image of constraint is sure to be a striking contrast to the fair itself, which normally attracts tens of thousands of visitors and will no doubt be abuzz with art lovers, both local and international, reuniting after three years apart. “It will be amazing to see old and new friends coming to Art Basel, coming back to the region,” says Siyang-Le. “I just want to be a good host for everyone.”
Art Basel Hong Kong runs from March 21 to 25, 2023. Click here for more information.