We spot Adeline Ooi (39) from across the room at Taj Mahal Palace’s Sea Lounge. Dressed in a black top and colourful trousers, the director Asia of Art Basel (a much-awaited art fair, to be held from March 24 to 26) looks elegant and composed. She doesn’t show any sign of tiredness, considering she has been travelling extensively. In fact, the very next day, she heads to New Delhi. “I have been in Hong Kong only for one week in this month,” she says.
It’s also been exactly a year since she took charge last December. “There has been a huge learning curve. I slept a lot less and travelled a lot more. It is rewarding to be paid to travel and see art and different art scenes,” says Ooi.
Ooi was in Mumbai to meet gallery owners and visit spaces like Tarq, Jhaveri Contemporary, Chatterjee & Lal and Chemould Prescott Road. The latter is especially significant to Ooi as its director Shireen Gandhy (see box), is a selection committee member at Art Basel’s Hong Kong show. “I have always loved my gallery visits; it is nice to see galleries and collectors in context of the city,” she shares.
In pursuit of art
Born in Malaysia, Ooi grew up on a palm oil estate. She studied fine arts at Central Saint Martins in London. “While growing up, I didn’t even know what an art fair director was. Over time, I fell in love with the art world and wanted to be a part of it,” she says, adding, “Though I was a bad artist, I was good at reading and writing. At that point, there weren’t art management courses, so the only way was to go to art school.”
In the course of her decade-long career, she joined Valentine Willie Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur (a now-defunct gallery) in 2000. By 2006, she was its curator and programme director. She also co-founded RogueArt, an agency that focuses on managing exhibitions and publications. All of that has been put on the back-burner since she took over the reins at Art Basel.
Dummy’s guide to Art Basel
Compared to its predecessors — Art Basel (in Basel, Switzerland), which started in 1970; and Art Basel in Miami beach, which started in 2002 — the Hong Kong show began only in 2013. “We are a younger show. And the idea of art for a general audience in Hong Kong is relatively new. It’s important to build on that identity, which we hope to do over time,” she says.
Each of the three exhibitions has a distinct geographical focus: while the Hong Kong show features 50 per cent participating galleries with exhibition spaces in Asia and Asia Pacific (including Australia and New Zealand), the show in Basel features more of European galleries, and Miami beach features more of north and south American artists.
Primarily started for gallerists, Art Basel nevertheless attracts hordes of art lovers. For instance, last year’s Hong Kong show saw nearly 60,000 visitors; including celebrities like Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow. While a day ticket costs HK$250 (`2,134 approx), the conversation sessions are free. In 2016, 239 galleries will be participating in the event; the galleries participating in the Galleries sector (see box) are selected based on their year-long programmes while the galleries in the Insights and Discoveries sector submit proposals to the Selection Committees.
The 2016 edition will feature five Indian galleries — Chemould Prescott Road (Mumbai), Nature Morte (Delhi) and Vadehra Art Gallery (Delhi) in the Galleries sector (see box), Exhibit 320 (Delhi) in the Insights sector and Experimenter (Kolkata) in the Discoveries sector. “The number of Indian galleries at Art Basel’s Hong Kong show remains more or less the same. But it is exciting for us to come across newer galleries. For instance, art spaces like Experimenter are introducing younger artists to the scene,” she says, referring to Dhaka-based artist Ayesha Sultana and Kolkata-based artist Rathin Barman.
Ooi is upbeat about Asian art and its place globally: “If you compare Asian art with European art, there is a marked growth. We are all nations in development. Our economies are growing, along with a population that is interested in art, which is exciting.”
“Art Basel’s Hong Kong show provides an opportunity to showcase artists, and for museums, to view collections first-hand,” says Shireen Gandhy, director, Chemould Prescott Road. She is referring to M+, an upcoming museum for visual culture in Hong Kong, in which Chemould Prescott Road has photographs by Vivan Sundaram and an oil painting by Atul Dodiya. “Top galleries from around the world bring their important artists. It attunes audiences to viewing art and creates an atmosphere that nurtures the collector,” she adds.
As a committee member, Gandhy feels that the Indian representation has been uneven: “One year, we had 11 galleries, and the next year, we had five. This has much to do with our own economy,” she observes.
Art Basel sections
Galleries sector : Features 187 modern and contemporary art galleries.
Insights: Includes curatorial projects by 28 galleries.
Discoveries: Presents solo and two-person exhibitions of emerging artists presented by 24 galleries.
Encounters: Presents large-scale sculptural installations and performances.
Conversations and salon: Conversations, the morning talks, features speakers across the art world. The afternoon Salon series features shorter presentations.
Film: The Film sector will expand next year to screen feature-length and documentary films.