Is 'affordable art' really all that affordable?

By Sarah Chakales, CNNUpdated 25th March 2014
Featuring everything from hand-painted heels to a live (and semi-naked) woman, Hong Kong's latest art fair wrapped Sunday with sales topping HK$39 million ($5 million) -- up 50% on last year's inaugural event.
A record 29,000 visitors came to check out the three-day exhibition -- the most in the fair's 15-year global history.
But the art on sale here is not intended to break the bank.
Affordable Art Hong Kong, a spinoff of the original event launched in London in 1999, attracts art enthusiasts from all walks -- and wallets -- of life, with original works on sale from unknowns and well-knowns at the more than 120 galleries represented from around the world.
Amid the watercolors, oil on canvas and prints, eye-catching installations included bronze skulls and a live exhibit of a nearly nude woman being painted to blend into wallpaper.
Organizers say it's up to the artists and galleries to set a price for each artwork, as long as it does not exceed HK$100,000 (roughly $13,000).
Visitors could also satisfy their creative urges by trying their hand at Chinese painting and collage.
A section on Hong Kong's young artists appealed to local tastes, while an "Under HK$10,000 Wall" catered to the art collector on a tighter budget.
Painted high heel shoes by France artist JM Robert at the Affordable Art Hong Kong fair. The pair front right sold for HK$4,500 ($580).
Sarah Chakales/CNN
"This is an area where people can come and find works that are about HK$1,000 to HK$10,000 (US$130-$1,300)," said Camilla Hewitson, fair director.
"If there's something that really inspires, then you can find the gallery and have a discussion about that particular artwork."
'The purpose is to democratize art'
So is affordable art really that affordable?
For many Hong Kong residents, the answer is no.
The median monthly income for people living here is HK$14,100 ($1,800), according to the latest report from Hong Kong's Census and Statistics Department.
On that salary, buying the most expensive piece at the fair would cost seven month's wages, excluding daily living expenses like food, transportation and rent.
But of course, it's all relative.
Compared to Zeng Fanzhi's "The Last Supper," which auctioned at Sotheby's 40th Anniversary Sale in Hong Kong last October for a record HK$180.4 million ($23.3 million), everything under HK$100,000 seems like a steal.
Organizers of Affordable Art Fair say price is just a small part of their mission.
"The purpose is to democratize art -- to open it up to a much wider audience who wouldn't normally have the opportunity to see fantastic works on display," says Paul Matthews, director of development and global partnerships for the fair.
"People are very intimidated by the idea of going to galleries and each city we go to we help to break down those perceived barriers and get people understanding that there's art out there that they can afford -- and that art can be for everyone," he adds.
Based on the fair's success in Asia so far, organizers say they are now looking to expand into South Korea, Japan and Taiwan in coming years.
If you missed the show in Hong Kong, you can always hit the Affordable Art Fair at one of its upcoming global tour stops. It's heading to Maastricht, Netherlands next -- followed by New York, Toronto and Singapore. Click here for the full worldwide schedule.
Hong Kong art galleries
In Hong Kong this weekend for the Sevens and want to mix a bit of culture in with your rugby? Here are a few galleries to get you started:
Avenue des Arts: Unit 06, 12/F Hollywood Centre, 233 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan; +852 2744 6699
EC Gallery: G/F, 72a Hollywood Road, Central; +852 2803 7960
Galerie Koo: 7/F, Vogue Building, 67 Wyndham Street, Central; +852 2525 0331
Karin Weber Gallery: G/F, 20 Aberdeen Street, Central; +852 2544 5004
Odd One Out: G/F 34 Sau Wa Fong, Wan Chai; +852 2529 3955
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