It is an observable fact that financial sustainability is a major concern for art fairs this year due to numerous cancellations and postponements that wiped the international art fair calendar clean in the face of a global pandemic. Even mega conglomerate, MCH Group, the parent company of Art Basel, is not exempt from financial woes.
On 3 August, MCH Group shareholders approved a cash infusion of about US$80 million from James Murdoch, the younger son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, to help the company with its widely reported financial struggles, giving him a controlling stake in the company. The younger Murdoch also resigned from News Corp’s board of directors a few days before the MCH Group shareholders’ decision, citing “disagreements over editorial content.”
The senior Murdoch is widely known as the Founder of News Corp, a largely profit focused conservative media machinery. His son’s departure from News Corp probably allayed concerns amongst MCH Group shareholders and external stakeholders about being associated with such a controversial personality and company, even if it is through his liberal offspring.
The harsh and ugly truth is the art world works extremely hard at disguising its obsession with wealth, power and privilege beneath a seemingly progressive veneer. There is a consistent refusal, buttressed by spurts of action taken in the face of specific social media movements and protests, to face the fact that people like the Murdochs already run the art world, from Asia to America. They can be found leading art fairs, museums, art media, auction houses and more. The cognitive dissonance that would be brought on, lest the art world faces its true nature, is too much, even now when confronted by the daily existential threat of COVID-19.
One of the reasons for this denial is the intense level of uncertainty and volatility that has become entrenched in our current reality, even on a day-to-day basis—a consequence of living through a global pandemic. The following sequence of events in France exemplifies this exact unpredictability.
In early August, the French ministry of culture announced that its ban on cultural events of crowds exceeding 5000 people would be lifted by the end of the month, or even earlier. This was reported as a favorable sign for art fairs such as FIAC and Art Paris, slated for September and October respectively at the expansive Grand Palais in Paris. Fair organisers however remained reticent, with Art Paris limiting its capacity, and FIAC still considering whether to go ahead. It soon became clear that the fair organisers were justified in their caution. That very same week, the government extended the ban until 30 October after new COVID-19 infections almost doubled in France during recent weeks.
In fact, the pandemic situation in Europe is showing signs of worsening with a rise in COVID-19 cases in Switzerland, specifically Geneva. This led to Liste Art Fair in Basel, known for showcasing emerging art, reversing its earlier decision to proceed this September on its own. The fair usually happens in conjunction with Art Basel which announced its cancellation in June. Instead, there will be an upcoming digital platform Liste Showtime presenting 72 galleries.
In the case of art fairs in US, reportedly the only affluent nation to have suffered a severe, sustained outbreak for more than four months, the decision to cancel does seem to be more clear cut. Yet, in early July, even with an increase of coronavirus cases throughout the state of Florida, Art Basel Miami Beach organisers sent out an email to exhibitors and relevant stakeholders stating the fair will proceed in December as scheduled and, “it is still challenging to predict what the global situation will be like in December.” Fair organisers also extended the original deadline for exhibitor withdrawal from 1 August to 1 October, promising full refunds on all previously paid fees if the event is cancelled.
Then there is Dallas Art Fair in Texas, one of the top art fairs in the country, which was originally set to run in April, then postponed to October, and finally cancelled in the first week of August. Fair organisers are currently facing flak from art galleries about not being reimbursed for their booth fees. Instead, galleries are being offered credits towards future fairs. Kelly Cornell, the fair director, explained that Dallas Art Fair is an independently owned business and because it was timed so close to the pandemic’s outbreak in the US, their vendors had already been paid and the fair is operating at a significant loss.
With art fairs facing such financial difficulties, it would seem necessary to monetize the digital art fair. Following the cancellation of Frieze London and Frieze Masters in July, Frieze art fair organisers announced they would be charging exhibitors for the October online viewing room with a tiered pricing from slightly less than US$2000 to US$7600. Frieze’s previous May online edition, which replaced its New York edition, was free.
However, this move puts pressure on art galleries to try and sell effectively on digital platforms that have not yet proven itself to be sales friendly. Let’s not forget the overwhelming proliferation of online viewing rooms and digital programmes this year.
It does seem that the uncertainty of living with COVID-19 and economic upheaval this year, the very same factors that have been emboldening people to shatter conventional thinking and behavior, has caused the global art fair industrial complex to shackle itself even more to the ways of its past. Yet, this inertia powered by an apathetic focus on staying afloat financially could very well be the block holding back the art fair from reinventing itself completely as a platform of experimentation and sustainability, becoming something far more future ready than it is now.