With Art Basel Hong Kong and Eurovision in the Same Weekend, the Global Arts Scene Signals a Return

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With two major cultural events held last weekend, the international arts scene signaled it has no intention of letting yet another year get canceled by Covid.  

Art Basel Hong Kong, which took place from May 19-23, marked the return of one of the world's most venerated art fairs. The show came on the heels of Frieze New York, held earlier this month, which was New York's first major in-person art fair since the pandemic began. 

Europe's wildly popular Eurovision Song Contest also returned after a one-year hiatus. Held between May 18-22, the competition was watched by nearly 200 million viewers, including a live audience of 3,500 people, according to the show's organizers.

After more than a year of large-scale gatherings being canceled around the globe, both events represent a meaningful step forward in the quest for post-pandemic normalcy, while highlighting the different methods being employed by Asia and Europe to reach that goal.

Art Basel Hong Kong goes 'hybrid'

With its first show in more than a year, Art Basel returned to the world stage after having canceled its three annual shows last year — Hong Kong in March, its flagship fair in Basel, Switzerland in June, and Miami Beach, Florida in December.

All three events are back this year with the first, Art Basel Hong Kong, debuting a "hybrid" format that let attendees appear virtually or in person.

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Art Basel Hong Kong 2021, which was moved from March to May, debuted a "hybrid" fair format.

Private collectors from more than 30 countries and territories attended "virtual walk-throughs" of the fair, which was held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. More than 100 galleries participated, with many joining via satellite booths that allowed gallerists to interact with attendees without traveling to Hong Kong.  

"After we designed our booth plan for the fair, the gallery shipped all of the artwork to Hong Kong to be installed by the team at Art Basel, just as we have done in past years," said Valerie Carberry, a partner at Gray, Chicago/New York. "Since we were not able to travel to Hong Kong to be present at the fair ourselves, Art Basel appointed us a booth assistant who tended to the booth in our stead."  

Courtesy of Gray, Chicago/New York
The "satellite booth" for art gallery Gray, Chicago/New York at Art Basel Hong Kong.

The gallery scheduled video meetings before the fair to prepare the assistant, who Carberry said was "incredibly professional … we felt well-represented."

Attendees could also view collections through online viewing rooms, which Art Basel launched last year. Online rooms from Hong Kong's 2020 canceled show featured work from more than 230 galleries and attracted some 250,000 visitors, according to Art Basel.

"We all wanted to be there in person, of course, but being able to relay information to clients in real time, who are standing in your booth, was as close as we have had to an in-person art fair experience since the onset of the pandemic," said Carberry.

Face masks emerged as new canvases at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021.
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Face masks emerged as new canvases at Art Basel Hong Kong 2021.

"While we didn't travel, we all felt a bit 'jet-lagged' afterwards, but it was well worth it to express to our Hong Kong clients how much we value their business and support of our program."

Eurovision Song Contest returns

The cancellation of last year's Eurovision Song Contest, or Eurovision for short, is perhaps what led to this year's competition garnering its largest audience since 2016.

The singing competition, which began in 1956, pits musical acts from mostly European countries against one another, with 26 making it to the grand final. The country which produces the winning act hosts the next competition.

This year, the Italian rock group Maneskin took home the top prize, ensuring the contest will be hosted in Italy in 2022.  

The Italian rock group, Maneskin, won Eurovision 2021, which relied on social distancing and testing to keep attendees healthy before the show.
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The Italian rock group, Maneskin, won Eurovision 2021, which relied on social distancing and testing to keep attendees healthy before the show.

The show was largely an in-person event, with most contestants appearing live from Rotterdam, Netherlands. Australia's Montaigne performed via a taped recording due to her inability to travel to Europe, a first in the show's 65-year history.    

Attendees wore masks and followed social distancing mandates, and contestants underwent regular Covid testing and isolated in their hotel rooms, unless they were exercising, according to Eurovision.

The show also restricted the number of live audience members in attendance. Still, the 3,500 people who watched in person were enough to make Eurovision 2021 one of Europe's biggest live entertainment events since the pandemic began.

The annual competition, which captivates Europe but is largely unfamiliar to American audiences, is scheduled to launch in the United States next year on NBC. Billed as the "American Song Contest," performers from 50 states, five U.S. territories and Washington, D.C., will compete for the title of best original song, according to Eurovision's website.

What's ahead

Except for Art Dubai, which began in late March 2021, most major international art shows that were originally scheduled to occur before May were canceled. These include Frieze Los Angeles and the Netherlands' Tefaf Maastricht, both of which were postponed before being canceled.

Art Basel's fairs in Basel and Miami Beach are back on the books, though the Switzerland show has been moved from June to September to safely let "the broadest possible international audience to attend," according to the fair's website.

Another top international art fair, Frieze London, is scheduled to return in October.  

Those fairs are expected to have strong in-person attendance. Still, Art Basel's digital components are here to stay, according to Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel.

"We developed a whole toolbox of techniques and tactics for people to access a gallery's program digitally," he told the New York Times. "The pandemic has equipped us to do a better job serving the collectors who can't attend."

The next Eurovision competition is scheduled for May 2022. Though details haven't been confirmed, online speculation about dates and locations has started.  

Hong Kong, too, is pressing forward with high-profile plans that are adapted to fit the city's conservative approach to Covid containment. In keeping with its moniker as "the art capital of Asia," the city will host a number of art festivals and shows, including the contemporary art exhibition "Ink City" and the French May Arts Fest with some 80 events spread across the city through June.

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A new visual arts museum is scheduled to open this year in Hong Kong's new "T"-shaped M+ building.

The Hong Kong Ballet is set to perform "Romeo + Juliet" next month, after the show was canceled last summer.

Hong Kong's new M+ building will house one of the largest museums of contemporary visual culture in the world. The "T-shaped" museum has 65,000 square meters (700,000 square feet) of space, which includes 33 galleries, three cinemas, a research center, restaurants, tea and coffee bar, members' lounge and roof garden overlooking Victoria Harbour. 

The museum is scheduled to open later this year.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.

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