Q&A with Adeline Ooi - Art Collector

Adeline Ooi, director, Art Basel in Asia. Courtesy: Art Basel

Global editor Jason Chung Tang Yen sits down with Adeline Ooi, director of Art Basel Asia, to talk about the reality of art fairs.

Let’s start from the big ideas, you mentioned something about the reality of art fairs and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. What is the reality of art fairs? What’s your view on that and what did you mean by the reality?
The reality of an art fair is when you are behind the scenes, it’s 360 days, trying to realise five days. I mean, on paper, it looks easy, 239 galleries, 60,000 people, you know, film program. But the reality is that, there are a lot of negotiations that happen, and you just have to think about what is the message that you are trying to send across. The fact is, yes, we know we are a trade fair, we are not a non-profit, and we are not a museum, but we also come with a certain amount of responsibility knowing that we are Art Basel. We only want to work with the best, and by that I don’t mean the most powerful, the most influential, but the ones that are really, truly dedicated to having a relationship with the artist and presenting the best program that they can.

That was one of the messages we were trying to send through, because it’s so important in this business that we do, the art industry business is perhaps the most ambiguous businesses among others, right? Because in the eyes of others, the prices are set arbitrarily, things are being done very arbitrarily because there’s no such thing as a manual for the business. Paintings sized five by four must be set at a certain price! We are not selling property. In a very arbitrary world, it’s very important to have clarity, and it’s very important to be transparent. At the end of the day, you don’t want people to suffer, right? You don’t want artists to go unpaid, and you don’t want collectors to be cheated of their money and all the rest of it. It’s crucial to have such principles. As a reality of a fair, you will also realise that we have to cater to members of the public. This cannot just be seen as a very exclusive event only for the super rich, the fact that art can accessible, therefore things like the film program is devised, because it’s a public program and it’s free.

We hope that people who go will walk away feeling moved or inspired by something. I truly believe if you are not inspired, you cannot be creative in any way, it doesn't mean you have to go and pick up a brush, but just to be excited about life. It’s also what you do as a fair, the reality is that you have to know who your clients are, so to speak. You need to know whom you are speaking to. Very different messages are sent to galleries and collectors, to members of the public. These layers are pivotal because it’s not just about the people who attend the fair; it’s also what they walk away with. Was it a good experience? Was it something you want to come back to?


This brings us perfectly into the next question, because you studied fine art, how would describe this has helped your career as the director of Art Basel in Asia to see the artworld from an artist’s perspective?
I think having knowledge in art is key in terms of making this possible. I mean, I think I wouldn’t have been hired if I didn’t know Asian art. It’s definitely necessary. The most insider of insider is also the industry, as an art fair we are not a gallery; we are basically insiders catering to the insiders so you need to have that expertise definitely.

Previously you mentioned directing a fair is a full time job throughout the year for one week, the idea of an art fair is temporal. How do you suppose the brand of Art Basel Hong Kong can be relevant in the local artworld throughout the year?

Well, we have three shows. First, we know we are a five day event, for us. If you’re talking about concentric circles within the Hong Kong scene, then for us, we also support for example, the Gallery Association Week, and we do a lot of different things through the year, not to call attention to ourselves, but to the integrity of it, the fact that we stayed in Hong Kong and we mean it. It is not like a spaceship that showed up for five days then flew away. We’re here to stay, we have an office, half of the team live in Hong Kong, actually almost everybody in the office live in Hong Kong more or less except me, out of a suitcase. The thing is, I don’t just want to say it and not mean it. When I mean it, and I really do mean it, in that sense we do support and we want to be very much a part of the Hong Kong art scene.

Therefore if you look at our program, we work with so many different institutions, there’s Para Site, 1A Space, Spring Workshop or Hong Kong Art Centre, the reason why there’s a whole big parallel programme is that we want to foster these relationships. It’s not all about what you can see, a lot it is also intangible, it’s about that network, not forgetting this is a three fair show, between March, June and December, you know where we are. I don’t believe that just because the show ends in March, Hong Kong has disappeared, because when you’re in Basel you are still talking about Hong Kong, when in Miami you’re still talking about Hong Kong because it’s so close. The same thing also happens everywhere, when you’re in Hong Kong, you also talk about Basel. It’s a living organism that just keeps circling.


What is your strategy in positioning Art Basel Hong Kong in relation to Asia and to the rest of the world? Obviously you want the different brands to stand out, but at the same time you want a cultural diffusion to make sure that it’s very global. How do you balance that?
The Hong Kong show is very clear for us, the focus is Asia, and it is in Asia. It’s a two-way thing; it doesn't mean that we don’t care about the rest of the world. I stand firm in terms of what we said last year; it’s to show what the best in Asia have to offer, not just in terms of the galleries and talents, also in terms of our collectors. One thing is that we are constantly underestimated, people assume that we’re less informed, of course, as much as a typical Asian collector may not know very much about the great Midwest American galleries or artists as you guys know about Nanyang [style].

The sort of filling in the gap is important, people always assume that we don’t know enough but the truth is, there’s Internet, people travel, and Asian collectors are fast learners. This year we are excited that galleries are bringing out all the materials, it’s not just the same blue-chip names or predictable names you would expect from Asian artists but also more historical material and stronger content. I think the one thing the Hong Kong show needs to build on now is the content, to slowly draw out the histories of the different scenes. It’s great to see historical works because it gives you a sense of lineage. It’s not like extraction from this part of the world is contrived or derived from the West, extraction come from a different place, and stems from a place where you can see how the moderns have influenced the contemporaries and how the moderns influence the emerging artists. There is a history and it’s a story people don’t know because it’s communicated in a different language.

Maybe the art historian/curator in me but we can’t just show things without context. I’m struck by this because during my years working as VIP relations manager and having worked with collectors from other parts of the world, they look at everything and they go: “I don’t understand. I don’t get it. I say it’s contrived and you bite my head off! So tell me what it is!” I say: “Look, you just have to understand that there’s history form all these parts of the world, we may be young nations but some of these are very old civilizations.”

All of this culture comes from somewhere; it’s not just copying what’s been done by the West. Yes, there were artists who went to Paris in the 1910s, 1920s then came home, so there’s a Parisian style to it, but the interpretation is different, and over time the images that they paint, it’s different compared to what they used to paint. Someone actually told me that they don’t have the tools to read the art from your part of the world [Taiwan], and it’s part of the culture, I realised it’s true because I know everything about my part of the world, while others don’t; and we say: “Oh, great artist!” and they say: “Huh? Why? Why is he great?” The notion of Asian art in the Western world is very new and still very exotic, for us, it’s not, it’s something we’ve grown up with. Then again, the exchange among Asians, we don’t know much – it was only recently I realised there’s a big relationship between Taiwan and the Nanyang painters. There’s always a lot to learn, of course it’s a privilege for people to travel and see, for me, what I can do with the fair, is try to bring the material to the fair so when people come they get to see it.


What makes Hong Kong ideal for a world-class art fair?
It’s an efficient city, it’s a great cosmopolitan city, tax-free, shipping wise, it’s a great port with super efficient shippers. It’s a very dynamic city that makes people want to visit.

Do European visitors come to Hong Kong? Has the number increased?
People actually enjoy it, the first visit to Hong Kong. It’s a great city, one thing very special about Hong Kong is the art community, I’ve never met a group of collectors who are so passionate and dedicated to Hong Kong. Sure, you see the same faces everywhere you go, but having seen the same faces everywhere you go also shows that there’s a commitment and passion that people will show up, I’m very touched by that.

Who’s really calling the shots at the fairs? Is it artists or collectors or is there a grey area? Why or why not?
At the end of the day it’s about the art. So in a way, if there are no artists, there is no art, and if there is no art, there is no gallery, if there is no gallery, there is no art fair. Calling the shots is not something I agree with but it is to serve art. It is to serve the artworld; ultimately it is about the artists if you go down through the chain of progression. As an art fair, our first and immediate clients are the galleries, but you know where the galleries get the material from, it’s the artists. For us, again, that’s why we work with galleries that represent the artists, because we want to protect this relationship. You would also want to protect the artist’s production, if people only buy from auctions, then artists have nowhere to live. How will artists live if galleries can’t sell? That’s the whole point. If anything, the fair is to sell the art, and to also highlight the art. It’s a powerful platform; we’ve seen careers been made.

Artists build momentum from being shown at the fairs that allowed curators to get to know them, then get invited to other exhibitions. Look at someone like Samson Young, the BMW Art Journey is something that I truly believe in and I’m so proud of it, and to see Samson a year later, the transformation is incredible. This furthers the idea that residencies and artists going out there to travel is important to their own creative element. Of course sometimes some works get seen in a fair and then get chosen to be shown in a biennial; wonderful! That’s great, that’s the whole point of the platform, so people can see it. It’s one of those convenient situations where you meet people from all around the world and you have great conversations, it’s a great platform. Everyone in Asia is busy; curators come to the fair and use it as a research ground. If you just happen to be at the right place at the right time, it can make or break a career and change things for people.


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