art fairs

As Health and Administrative Hurdles Mount, Some Participants Worry That This Year’s Art Basel Could Become a Very Costly Flop

The postponed edition of Art Basel’s flagship Swiss fair will finally take place in person this month. Normally at this time, just a few weeks out from the fair, organizers would be putting the final touches on the opening party. But in this pandemic year, they are instead scrambling to get their heads around mounting administrative hurdles to bring the long-awaited IRL fair across the finish line. 

The fair is capping floor capacity at 12,000 this year, about 20 percent fewer people than in previous years. But as the Delta variant spreads and new health requirements are put in place, the worry these days may be less about restricting visitors than about if they will even show up.

Most people planning to travel to Art Basel this year are already aware of a number of bureaucratic obstacles in place, from completing the Swiss entry form to securing proof of vaccination (or negative Covid tests). Now, visitors to the fair will also have to provide an E.U. COVID-19 certificate, or, for non-E.U. residents, the equivalent Swiss Covid certificate (which requires coordinating with Swiss authorities ahead of arrival). 

Meanwhile, news yesterday that Swiss authorities will only recognize the Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson and Johnson vaccines—and not AstraZeneca—for entry to large-scale events such as Art Basel, caused consternation in the U.K. art world. While those who received the AstraZeneca vaccine in the E.U. will be covered by their E.U. certificate, those who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine in the U.K. will have to repeat a rapid lateral flow test, which will be available at the fair for CHF37 ($40), every 48 hours, or else pay for a (more expensive) PCR test to gain access for 72 hours. 

Art Basel, in Switzerland. Courtesy Art Basel.

To reduce strain on dealers, the fair has promised to foot the bill for PCR tests for non-E.U. exhibitors who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine. And, if they test negative, they will not have to repeat the test.

Some participants, including the U.K.- and South Africa-based Goodman Gallery and London-based Kate MacGarry, told Midnight Publishing Group News that they were satisfied with the fair’s response to the AstraZeneca conundrum, and said that this development would not impact their commitment to attend the fair. 

For others, the vaccine complication is proving to be one inconvenience too many. “I’m afraid the final straw seems to be not recognizing the AstraZeneca vaccine, which means I couldn’t go anyway,” London-based art advisor Wendy Goldsmith told Midnight Publishing Group News. “This is the vaccine that the majority of Brits have had, so it feels like advisors and clients may just have to wait it out for Frieze. The logistics for galleries must be overwhelming.”  

While Goldsmith had booked flights to travel to Switzerland several weeks ago, they were recently cancelled by the airline and she has been having trouble rebooking. She also heard rumors that Swiss hotels and restaurants have been turning U.K. guests away in recent weeks because they were unable to recognize the QR code of the U.K.’s vaccination app (though this should be resolved for those who can acquire a Swiss Covid certificate.)  

“While the entire art world wants this postponed Basel to succeed, sadly, it may be proving too early, with a perfect storm of problems appearing on the horizon,” Goldsmith said.

“[T]o be frank up front, the current conditions are not what we had hoped for when we rescheduled the fair to September,” wrote Art Basel director Marc Spiegler and head of business and management in Europe Andreas Bicker in a letter to exhibitors yesterday.

They went on to outline some new concessions for participants. Galleries can now withdraw participation and roll over their full booth fees to 2022 in the event that Switzerland introduces new restrictions barring gallerists and staff entry into the country, or entry subject to quarantine. And if any exhibitors feel uncomfortable attending the fair themselves, Art Basel “will mobilize the resources” from its satellite booths to provide personnel.

Organizers also offered the option of staging “ghost booths,” as they did at the most recent version of Art Basel Hong Kong. “Should you wish to convert your booth entirely to a satellite booth, please contact us,” they wrote, adding that they would collaborate on arrangements while reducing the booth fee by 15 percent.

A scaled down version of Frieze New York was held at The Shed in May. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

A scaled-down version of Frieze New York was held at The Shed in May. Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images.

While the added health precautions are designed to keep Art Basel from becoming a superspreader event, they inevitably increase the odds that galleries and fairgoers could get tied up in unexpected delays. The more tests that are required, the greater the chance that someone will test positive and be forced into a 10-day quarantine, which will mean prolonging their stay in Switzerland at great expense, not to mention the risk posed to the health of their staff.

We have a responsibility toward our staff and yet we can’t guarantee they will be O.K., especially at a large indoor event in Europe where there isn’t good mask compliance,” one U.S. gallerist said. (Art Basel has said it will mandate masks throughout the grounds, both indoors and outdoors).

Kate MacGarry said that one way her gallery is trying to minimize risk is through participating in a shared booth with London gallery the Approach as a way to support each other and reduce the numbers of staff on the floor.

Even those who are not affected by the latest changes related to the recognized vaccines have been deterred from attending the fair. Art journalist and author Georgina Adam told Midnight Publishing Group News that while she had initially intended to go to Basel, she has been put off by the travel complications.

“I am double vaccinated with Pfizer, but even so it does seem a lot of administration to enter the fair, plus of course the U.K. has quite stringent requirements for the return, which includes a pricey PCR test,” she said. 

Meanwhile, dealers and visitors from the U.S. have been grappling with a hurdle all their own: Switzerland has just been placed on the State Department’s “do not travel” advisory due to rising cases. 

The landscape seems to be shifting daily, maybe even hourly,” U.S. art advisor Megan Fox Kelly told Midnight Publishing Group News. Kelly decided a few weeks ago to give Basel a miss this year because none of her clients were able to commit, citing concerns about the virus or schedule conflicts. She added that she has received numerous emails from other advisors this week looking for people to take over their hotel reservations in Basel.

“I feel for the fair organizers, and even more so for the dealers, who have had to commit a lot of time and resources to make their presentations—and now the audience they anticipated coming may be considerably diminished,” she said.

Some dealers voiced concern that museums would not be willing to take the risk of sending curators or patron groups. My sense is that U.S. exhibitors are hedging their bets by planning for a reduced presence in terms of inventory and staffing,” a representative for one blue-chip gallery in the U.S. told Midnight Publishing Group News. Others stressed the importance of showing works concurrently in the fair’s online viewing room with the hope that knowing buyers are competing at the live event will add a missing dose of urgency to the online sales.

For many U.S. dealers, the return of the Armory Show in New York is their immediate focus. “As we prepare for Armory next week I’m in a bit of a lather that the [Swiss] fair organizers have not cancelled, same with the rest of the fairs through 2021,” one U.S. gallerist said. “It seems to me that the deal goes like this: the galleries pay a lot of money to bring their artwork and staff to these fairs and the organizers’ job is to guarantee a quality and robust audience. I am worried that they are not going to be able to fulfill their side of the bargain.”

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Art-World Professionals Are Ambivalent About Returning to the Market’s Traveling Circus This Fall

Just a few short months ago, the full-throated return of the IRL art event felt imminent. Now, as the Armory Show in New York prepares to open in less than two weeks, rising coronavirus rates and the rapid spread of the Delta variant have once again thrown a serious curveball at the prospect of live events. 

In late July, ARTnews revealed that 55 exhibitors of the Armory Show’s previously announced 212-gallery lineup—around 25 percent—would participate only virtually, deferring in-person attendance to the 2022 edition. Not surprisingly, most of them are from Europe, where international travel remains difficult due to constantly changing restrictions.

Conversations with collectors, dealers, and art advisors suggest that any kind of universal “welcome back” moment will prove elusive. Instead, the return to the circuit is likely to be governed by individual circumstances. Some Armory skeptics cited the fair’s proximity to Jewish high holidays and the looming start of the school year as reasons for caution.

“I am really hesitant about the Armory or any kind of big super-spreader event,” art advisor Lisa Schiff told Midnight Publishing Group News, noting that she has a young unvaccinated son at home. At the same time, she acknowledged, “It will be a hard one to not go to because people are going to be pulled to go to it.”

The sentiment was split down the middle in a mini-survey that the Association of Professional Art Advisors (APAA) conducted among 40 of its members. Half of those surveyed do not plan to travel for art fairs at all this year. Half of U.S.-based advisors, meanwhile, plan to attend Independent and the Armory Show. 

International travel remains a challenge. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the E.U. is set to advise its members to reintroduce travel restrictions for U.S. visitors, leaving unclear the prospects for those who had planned to attend Art Basel.

Corporate curators from Canada, Europe, and the U.S. are not traveling internationally at all, according to the APAA poll, and none of the European art advisors surveyed plan to attend American fairs this year. Only three U.S. respondents expect to attend Art Basel; five will attend Frieze London; and three intend to visit FIAC in Paris. Nine U.S. respondents said they were likely to attend Art Basel Miami Beach. 

The Armory Show, Pier 94. Photo: Teddy Wolff, courtesy of The Armory Show.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

Not surprisingly, most of the in-person art fairs that have taken place so far this year have had a heavily regional flavor, including Frieze New York, the recent concentration of art events in Aspen, and Upstate Art Weekend in New York’s Hudson Valley.

For some, this makes Armory Week—which, despite last-minute changes, will host a considerable number of international galleries—all the more exciting.

“In my conversations with our exhibitors and collectors, I’ve been heartened by their enthusiasm for the return of fairs,” Armory Show director Nicole Berry told Midnight Publishing Group News. “We understand that for many of our exhibitors and collectors, the Armory Show marks a return to large-scale events after a long hiatus, and they’ve expressed comfort in the rigorous health and safety protocols we have put into place.”

In its new home, the Javits Center, the fair will present work by Modern and contemporary exhibitors under one roof for the first time in over a decade. Architects Frederick Fisher and Partners “have thoughtfully designed an open floor plan keeping social distancing and safety in mind while also creating amazing sight lines,” Berry said. At the center of the fair is an open gathering space where visitors can take in large-scale installations (while keeping a safe distance from one another).

The 2020 Armory Show in New York. Photo by Teddy Wolff. Image courtesy The Armory Show.

The 2020 Armory Show in New York. Photo by Teddy Wolff. Image courtesy The Armory Show.

New York-based art advisor Wendy Cromwell has three clients lined up to attend the Armory Week fairs, all of whom are eager to see art in person after so much time spent viewing it online. (Cromwell also plans to visit Art Basel in September, Frieze London in October, and FIAC later that month; for the latter, she will have an American client in tow.)

“Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I’m just trying to do good work, as always, and support the galleries,” the advisor said. “I think it means a lot when you show up in person.” Every one of her clients who attended Frieze New York, she noted, bought something at the fair. 

The same spirit motivated art advisor Liz Parks to float the idea to clients in early spring of attending Zona Maco in Mexico City. “I was recently vaccinated, and itching to get out of my home prison to look at art in my second favorite city, and thought they might be, too,” she said. “In the end, three different U.S. clients came with me. It was a joyful time, filled with endless art eye candy after having been in a visual desert for so long.”

With the arrival of Delta, however, the outlook has changed considerably, “casting just enough doubt in the mix to make one question one’s every move,” Parks said. That’s why she’s decided to sit out Art Basel this year. 

Visitors enter the expositions building during the VIP opening day at Art Basel. Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images.

Visitors enter the expositions building during the VIP opening day at Art Basel. Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images.

Hurdles to Travel

For many, the complex go-or-don’t-go calculus includes the fact that younger children remain unvaccinated and the school year is just about to begin. COVID-related travel hurdles also present an issue.

Earlier this week, for example, organizers of Liste, a satellite of Art Basel, sent an email alerting travelers that only Swiss or E.U. COVID-19 certificates would guarantee entry. Vaccinated visitors from outside the E.U. must submit a collection of documents to a government agency more than a week in advance to secure a certificate. (Adding another layer of complexity, not every vaccine manufacturer has been approved by the Swiss government.) 

“Aside from COVID itself, the difficulties that can arise from trying to get test results within 24 hours to board an international flight can be in itself a mini-mess, as I have found from my own family’s attempts and very last minute surprises,” appraiser Elin Lake Ewald noted. 

Many of the experts we spoke to seemed most optimistic and relaxed about Art Basel Miami Beach—likely because it is the furthest away on the calendar. Los Angeles based dealer Susanne Vielmetter reported that her gallery had just shipped its crate to Switzerland for Art Basel when collectors began to tell her they were cancelling their trips. Art Basel Miami Beach, she said, is giving galleries more time to make a final commitment, knowing that people are apprehensive.

For some, 16 months of lockdown has offered a welcome glimpse of what life might be like with less frantic art-fair travel—for good. Jonathan Schwartz, an industry veteran and CEO of art shipper Atelier 4, said he feels that these events have been headed for a reckoning ever since Miami Art Week hit 23 fairs around 2007. 

Amid the pandemic, he said, “We did such a good job of pivoting away from art fairs because there were none, that we actually don’t need to go back to them…. What if we did in fact staff up and then it gets shut down because union workers, art handlers and a few early arriving dealers test positive, and then we all have to go home?” 

“I know we will eventually get out of this mess,” he added, “but what’s the rush, art fairs?”

Schiff agrees. “I’m really going to do my darndest to fight [going to so many fairs]—and then you can make fun of me when I’m right back in the same circuit,” the art advisor said. “There are lots of ways to work more creatively and the gallery system has showed us that. With all the galleries mounting OVRs, I’m going to be there virtually—but I don’t have to go anymore.”

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How Lockdown Has Accelerated the Blurred Lines Between Galleries and Auction Houses

In February last year, a group of art-dealing titans went public with an unusual proposition—they would team up and sell the storied collection of the late philanthropist Donald Marron. The move was a shock to the art-world system because it saw three galleries, Gagosian, Pace, and Acquavella, snaffling up a $450 million estate that historically would have been the territory of auction houses.

The Marron deal was a strong sign that the traditional lines separating galleries and auction houses had become increasingly blurry. This slow-brewing convergence only accelerated after the pandemic struck and both sectors were initially confined to the web.

Now, as auction houses pursue pop-up spaces and invest in private sales while galleries launch new secondary market ventures, the market’s Venn diagram threatens more than ever to become a circle.

Welcome to the era of the blobified art market. 

Sotheby's new space in Palm Beach. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s new space in Palm Beach. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

What Is at Stake?

The business model of auction houses has historically hinged on splashy and expensive public sales of work by dead artists and from collectors’ estates. Meanwhile, traditional dealers would more quietly sell work on both the primary and secondary markets.

But these divisions have been eroding for years. Sotheby’s began experimenting with the private-sales model as far back as the early ’90s. Meanwhile, Christie’s acquired a primary market gallery, Haunch of Venison, in 2007, which dissolved six years later to become its private-sales arm.

Amid a dip in confidence in public sales during the pandemic, auction houses reported record highs in private transactions. The Big Three houses—Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips—all saw the category grow around 50 percent in 2020.

Auction houses have also taken on a greater interest in exhibition-making, buying up or renting out more space to mount exhibitions, conduct private sales, and organize selling shows. Last year, Sotheby’s opened pop-up gallery spaces in Palm Beach and East Hampton, and the house is now moving its Paris headquarters into the former premises of the legendary Bernheim Jeune gallery.

David Nash, cofounder of Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery who previously led Sotheby’s contemporary and Impressionist and Modern art divisions, regrets his role in encouraging the house to take up private sales, as he now sees the development as an existential threat to galleries.

“I don’t know how dealers can respond to it,” he tells Midnight Publishing Group News. “Certainly the auction galleries have taken away huge amounts of business… and the number of dealers who were really involved in the resale market have shrunk.”

Art advisor Sibylle Rochat thinks auction houses’ posture threatens to cut into galleries’ business with living artists as well. “Galleries are losing control of the secondary markets of their artists and unfortunately this is where they could make the money to grow, meaning there is a glass ceiling for galleries working with living artists,” Rochat says.

Glimcher. Photo © Axel Depuex.

From left to right: Arne Glimcher, Bill Acquavella, Larry Gagosian, and Marc Glimcher. Photo © Axel Depuex.

Galleries Muscle In

Yet blobification is not a story of one sector engulfing another—both sides are encroaching on the other’s turf. In the process of handling the Marron estate, the three mega-galleries launched a new business called AGP to handle future sales of major collections.

The move has received nods of approval from other respected dealers—including Emmanuel Perrotin and Johann König, who are among a cohort testing out secondary market endeavors of their own. While their projects are distinct, they share a common desire to dip into auction-house portfolios—and to do business with margins higher than the typical primary market 50-50 split between artist and dealer. 

Perrotin, who recently opened Perrotin Second Marché with two business partners, says that his gallery’s presence in a five-story building down the road from Christie’s and Sotheby’s on Avenue Matignon is “sending a powerful message that our presence is wished for and founded on expertise.”

Galleries’ push into the secondary market is in part a response to the fact that artworks are cycling through collections much faster than they used to, he says: “Works now can appear twice within five years without affecting its value—to the contrary. Collectors have come to realize that it could be in their interest to work with [artists’] galleries on both the buying side and the selling side.”

Back in 2011, when White Cube became one of the first galleries to venture into secondary-market dealings with a dedicated gallery (run by the now-disgraced dealer Inigo Philbrick), the prospect was taboo enough that White Cube gave it a different name, Modern Collections.

Last month, White Cube launched a new venture under its own brand, Salon, to offer month-long presentations of individual secondary market works. The initiative began with a work by Carmen Herrera, who is not represented by the gallery.

The aim, according to Mathieu Paris, White Cube’s director of private sales, is to distinguish themselves by foregrounding scholarship and expertise. “Auction houses are playing the clock and the quantity of sales whilst galleries are proposing more elaborate curatorial visions,” he says.

A scene inside KÖNIG GALERIE in the virtual world of Decentraland. Courtesy of KÖNIG GALERIE.

A scene inside König Galerie’s virtual show on Decentraland, which was accompanied by the gallery’s first-ever auction. Courtesy of KÖNIG GALERIE.

Other dealers are less interested in making any distinction at all. “If you are client-centric, there is no separation between [auction and gallery] models,” Johann König told Midnight Publishing Group News. He has been trying out both an in-house art fair and, more recently, an auction with digital works attached to artist-minted non-fungible tokens (NFTs).  

Indeed, the vogue for NFTs has likely accelerated blobification even further. Crypto-artists, König notes, seem to place less value on galleries’ vetting clients and placing work, forcing dealers who are eager to get in on the action to adopt a new approach. “They find it the most normal thing in the world to auction off their work,” he says. “How crazy is that?”

The new Perrotin gallery in a five-storey townhouse at 8 Avenue Matignon in Paris.

The new Perrotin gallery in a five-story townhouse at 8 Avenue Matignon in Paris. L’ATELIER SENZU

What Is the Future of Blobification?

The convergence between auctions and galleries is already having an impact on transparency. While online art fairs and viewing rooms have encouraged galleries to share prices publicly, the increased volume of and new formats for online auction sales have resulted in increasingly obscure public results. 

Some question whether auction houses might end up undermining their own business model by delving into private sales and other strategies borrowed from galleries. Several experts commented that even live auctions, with the omnipresence of in-house and third-party guarantees, have become little more than private sales conducted theatrically in public. “I’m not quite sure whether they are swallowing their own tail,” dealer David Nash says.

Some houses have been reluctant to embrace guarantees for this very reason. “In principle, you put something in an auction and it either sells or it doesn’t—so if one starts using mechanisms like guarantees, it would contradict what one is trying to do in an auction,” says Diandra Donecker, a director and partner at Grisebach auction house in Berlin.

Denzil Forrester in conversation with Victor Wang, LIVE, Frieze Week 2020
Photo by Deniz Guzel. Courtesy of Deniz Guzel/Frieze

One aspect of the gallery business that auction houses have not subsumed is the representation of artists and estates, which is generally a longer-term commitment than these businesses—which have seen significant turnover in recent years—are suited for.

Sotheby’s quietly shuttered its artists’ estates division in 2018 after less than two years, and its plan to co-represent the estate of Vito Acconci with never got off the ground. But David Schrader, the house’s global head of private sales, noted that some artists may become increasingly open to selling directly through auction houses and bypassing the gallery system entirely. “I think ultimately that’s sort of where we’re going with NFTs, that’s essentially a direct-to-market strategy,” he says.

Schrader predicts that the era of blobification has only just begun, and that the market’s future lies in multi-faceted art businesses rather than strictly defined auction houses or galleries. The stress of the pandemic encouraged sectors to collaborate, with some galleries even offering inventory (gasp!) on auction-house websites“I do think that there is a softening of old boundaries-slash-adversarial type thinking,” he says.

According to Schrader, Sotheby’s data shows there is only a five percent overlap between private-sales clients and those who are active in auctions, but those who cross over from auctions to private sales don’t reduce their activity in the former category. “There’s an historical myth of cannibalization of one versus, the other,” Schrader says. “And in fact, I think they’re quite synergistic.”

Nora Turato, "let’s never be like that”, organized by LambdaLambdaLambda, LA MAISON DE RENDEZ-VOUS, Brussels, 2020. photo credit: Isabelle Arthuis.

Nora Turato, “let’s never be like that”, organized by LambdaLambdaLambda, LA MAISON DE RENDEZ-VOUS, Brussels, 2020. Photo: Isabelle Arthuis.

The result may be art businesses that not only look more and more alike, but also converge on the same moments and locations. Asked whether he could imagine an auction at Art Basel in the future, Schrader didn’t rule it out: “I think if you asked that question two years ago, the answer would have been, zero chance. And I think if you ask the question today, it might be 25 percent.” He points out that for years Sotheby’s mounted exhibitions in the same building and during the same week as Art Basel in Hong Kong. 

Despite the possibilities, not everyone is likely to emerge from this blobified art market a winner. In an industry of vertically integrated conglomerates, what happens to the mom-and-pop shops?

“Galleries can learn from auction house strategies,” says Jo Stella-Sawicka, the London director of Goodman Gallery, which teamed up with several other dealers on an experimental auction to help uplift artists and galleries in the Global South, “but not everyone has the medium or the means to do that.”

Jeffrey Rosen, who cofounded the Brussels gallery-share Maison de Rendezvous in Brussels, is skeptical that centralization is good for culture. “What we put on the walls must be dictated by the belief that it has cultural significance in the immediate present while betting on it in the long-term,” he says, and “not determined by what will generate the most money as quickly as possible.”

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