Economic impact of coronavirus paints a bleak picture for art world

People walking past shuttered galleries in Hong Kong last Wednesday.
People walking past shuttered galleries in Hong Kong last Wednesday.PHOTO: NYTIMES

HONG KONG • A single Chinese billionaire, an investor and former taxi driver named Liu Yiqian, has spent at least US$200 million (S$278 million) on art in recent years, including US$170 million for the painting of a nude woman by Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani in 2015.

Orchestras from around the world plan tours of China years in advance, seeing them as a way to sell tickets, raise their profile and cultivate China's growing wealthy class as donors.

But now, as China struggles to get the coronavirus epidemic under control, the country is essentially closed for business to the global arts economy, exposing the sector to deep financial uncertainty.

Symphony tours have been suspended in China because of quarantines and fears of contagion.

A major art fair in Hong Kong was called off and important spring art auctions half a world away in New York have been postponed because well-heeled Chinese buyers may find it difficult to travel to them.

"It's just not realistic to plan to offer things that are objects we know people want to see in person during a time when they can't get here," said Mr Lark Mason, founder of iGavel, one of six auction houses that have postponed many of their sales.

The virus has infected more than 74,000 people and killed more than 2,000 in China. As tens of millions of people are sealed off in cities there, new questions are emerging about how the virus is transmitted.

Even art dealers who expect business to suffer because of closed borders and mandatory quarantines say they understand that stopping the contagion comes first.

Still, there will be a financial impact.

China was the third-biggest art market in the world in 2018, according to last year's Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, accounting for 19 per cent of the US$67 billion spent on art that year.

The United States, at 44 per cent, and Britain, at 21 per cent, occupied the top two spots.

Two weeks ago, Art Basel Hong Kong, an annual art fair scheduled for next month, was cancelled, depriving dealers and artists of a major opportunity to show works to customers based in China and beyond.

The fair attracts droves of visitors who descend on the region for art shows, cocktail gatherings and yacht parties in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Hanoi and Tokyo before, during and after the fair. Some of these have been postponed or cancelled as well.

Galleries that had planned to exhibit at Art Basel Hong Kong were offered a refund of 75 per cent of their booth fees, which run to US$125,000 for the largest spaces.

Besides forfeited fees and lost sales, galleries are bleeding money in other ways.

Mr Cliff Vernon, director of the contemporary division of Gander & White, which ships fine art, said there were two shipping containers at sea that had been on their way to Art Basel carrying pieces from five dealers.

Now, the galleries will have to pay to ship it back, at a cost of about US$15,000 for the return trip.

With China's emergence as the fastest-growing market for classical music in recent years, the ripple effects of the virus crisis were quickly felt across that field as well.

Several American ensembles, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra, based in Washington, cancelled planned tours of China. The Juilliard School, which is preparing to open a branch in Tianjin this autumn, announced it was suspending all in-person admissions-related activities in Asia until at least next month.

The ambitious month-long Hong Kong Arts Festival, which would have assembled leading orchestras, opera companies, soloists and dance companies from all over the world, was cancelled.

Even institutions that are far less dependent on Chinese patrons, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Broadway theatres in New York City, say they are watching the situation carefully.

Chinese tour groups have been suspended and if the virus spreads widely, other travellers may decide to stay home. In Paris, the Louvre Museum said it had not yet seen a drop in visits, but according to the museum's most recent figures, 800,000 of its 10 million visitors in 2018 came from China.

Art galleries are not completely reliant on foot traffic and fairs. Thanks to the Internet and her mobile phone, Ms Emerald Mou, a partner at the Hong Kong gallery Mine Project, said half the current show at her gallery has sold through e-mail, WhatsApp or WeChat.

Mr Mathieu Borysevicz, director of the Bank gallery in Shanghai, said he had just sold a painting on WeChat to a collector who was at home, bored, in Beijing.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2020, with the headline 'Economic impact of coronavirus paints a bleak picture for art world'. Print Edition | Subscribe