Can The Global Art Fair-Industrial Complex Survive COVID-19?

This analysis was originally published on CoBo Social on 25 May 2020.

There was a point a few months ago when art fairs and cultural stakeholders were pretty much convinced the COVID-19 global pandemic would be a short-term problem, and that during the second half of this year the art world would be back to business. In fact, they expected it would be busier than usual with all the postponed events and exhibitions taking place at that time.

Fast forward to end of April, when Art Basel’s organisers sent a letter to participating galleries, which extended the deadline from May to June for exhibitors to confirm their participation in the postponed Basel edition. According to industry insiders, galleries were allegedly refusing to commit to the fair, set for September 2020, unless they had some sense of safety in doing so.

The same official statement also raised the possibility that both Art Basel and Art Basel Miami, scheduled for December, may be cancelled.

In the letter, Art Basel’s organisers wrote: “At the moment, there are simply too many open questions. When, and under what regulatory conditions, will fairs such as ours be able to take place? When will borders reopen? At what point will flights, now vastly diminished, be adequately restored? Alongside these logistical matters come fundamental health and safety concerns—from new infection rates to the availability of widespread antibody testing, let alone vaccines. Finally, when will there be significant confidence among collectors, museum professionals, and other members of the art world when it comes to traveling and congregating?”

Has there ever been such a blatantly uncertain official missive sent by a megalith corporation like Art Basel? It seems quite unlikely; but this is definitely the tone of the times in which we live, as we continue to face the socio-economic toll of COVID-19.

In fact, MCH Group, Art Basel’s owner, is barely treading water these days. In the first week of May, the company cancelled the 2021 edition of the world’s oldest and largest trade fair, Baselworld, after their main exhibitors—Rolex, Patek Philippe, Chanel, and LVMH—demanded refunds following the initial postponement from April 2020 to late January 2021, and left to start their own, alternative fair slated for April 2021 in Geneva.

However, Art Basel fair organisers are not the only ones dealing with such pressing issues and upheavals. There have been over 200 layoffs at Endeavor, the Hollywood sport and entertainment conglomerate with a 70 per cent stake in Frieze, although the fair itself remains unscathed for now. Early this month, Brazil’s major art fair SP-Arte, which suspended its April edition this year, was reportedly facing its own share of unhappy exhibitors due to a lack of refunds and negotiation. The fair later responded, announcing full refunds and an online showcase.

Closer to home, Indonesia’s largest art fair, Art Jakarta, informed exhibitors and stakeholders that this year’s August edition will be cancelled due to public safety and slow economic growth. Instead, the fair will resume from 27 to 29 August 2021, at the Jakarta Convention Center.

Just last week, the already twice-postponed inaugural art fair in Singapore, Art SG, announced that its first edition will be pushed from October 2020 to November 2021. In the official press release, fair organisers, helmed by Magnus Renfrew who also runs Taipei Dangdai, cited the current uncertainty due to the pandemic and public health and safety concerns as reasons for the change in dates.

It is clear that, from Singapore to Brazil to Switzerland, art fairs are facing unfathomable pressure from all sides: deciding whether to cancel or postpone, negotiating insurance payouts, refunding exhibitors, managing public safety, cancelling contracts with venues, and so much more.

Even after lockdowns cease, there are legitimate concerns that global travel will not return to what it used to be for several years, thereby adversely affecting international art fairs. Also, visiting an art fair will be a whole new experience, most likely involving “staggered time slots for the public, restricted online ticket sales, widened aisles, an ample supply of masks, and single-direction visitor flow,” according to Daniel Hug, Director of Art Cologne, a German regional fair.

The truth is the global art fair-industrial complex has been under a lot of strain even before this pandemic, especially during the past decade. A public health crisis like COVID-19, which brings existential notions such as death and safety to the forefront, lays bare the cracks and vulnerabilities in our current social systems, institutions, and organisations. The art fair-industrial complex is no exception.

Yet, art fairs need not buckle entirely under the pressure. The key to sustainability is in thinking long-term about the implications of COVID-19 in the art world and accepting that shifting realities is the only reality, while formulating new ideas and roles that art fairs can take on in the months and years ahead. This experimental approach is already starting to take root, and not in an entirely superficial way.

One such organisation currently stepping up is New York-based, non-profit New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA), which has launched a virtual art fair with an alternative profit sharing model. Running from 20 March to 21 June, the aptly titled FAIR will directly support over 200 international galleries that have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. 20 percent of each galleries’ sales will be totalled and divided equally among exhibitors, with another 20 percent going to exhibiting artists. Galleries will pay 10 percent of their sales to NADA and keep the remaining 50 percent for themselves.

There is also Untitled, Art, a satellite art fair held during Art Basel Miami Beach Week, with another edition in San Francisco, launching a virtual reality art fair set to take place this summer—the first of its kind. Built with video game software, it will allow online visitors to walk through the space, just like at a real fair, using their PCs or tablets. While Untitled’s physical editions in December this year and January 2021 are so far unaffected by the pandemic, its organisers remain focused on pushing out this platform.

Founder and owner Jeff Lawson told artnet, “Our reasoning is that fairs are very important for the industry, but there’s a lot of them and they’re expensive for galleries. The intent was to create another model that looks at how we can do this differently, and eliminate a lot of risk for the galleries.”

These burgeoning efforts are long overdue. For a long time, the idea of the art world rethinking art fairs, in any or every aspect, seemed unlikely. Unfortunately, it took a global pandemic to finally force us to do so. Nonetheless, it would be worthwhile to take heed, rather than hope for a future that resembles the past.

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