Are Art Galleries And Auction Houses Turning The Tables On Art Fairs?

This article was originally published on Hong Kong art media CoBo Social on 16 February 2021.

There have been a slew of announcements of late, with art fairs such as Art Basel, Switzerland, and TEFAF Maastricht, Netherlands, slated for the first half of 2021, being shunted to the second half of the year. Some observers are skeptical if the postponed fairs will even take place then. With no end in sight to travel restrictions and overall wariness to travel in light of globally uneven distribution of vaccines, new mutated virus strains and increase of lockdowns, their concerns are warranted.

Amidst the overwhelming uncertainty, Art Basel Hong Kong organisers have launched a new way to ensure its physical fair takes place on schedule from 21 to 23 May—“ghost booths” offering exhibitors the opportunity to participate in the fair even if travel restrictions make their physical attendance impossible.

A letter to exhibitors detailed that dealers can “choose between a booth measuring either 15 by 20 square metres or 20 by 25 square metres that will be staffed by assistants appointed by Art Basel.” However, “exhibitors must ensure that a gallery sales representative remains on-call at all times throughout the opening hours of the show.”

While this announcement makes sense given how unpopular virtual fair editions have been throughout 2020 (even so, Art Basel is still rolling out three OVR editions this year), it also comes across as a move of desperation in the face of shifting power dynamics in the art world.

Art fairs evolved most visibly into products of global franchise controlled by corporate entities in the past few decades. However, this iteration of art fairs is quickly losing its relevance in the art world for a myriad of reasons explored by numerous think pieces even before COVID-19 became known to the world.

Yet, power does not just disappear, it always shifts somewhere else. One possibility is that galleries are taking back ownership of art fairs, or at least organising similar collaborative platforms for programming, exhibiting and sales.

For example, Galleries Curate: RHE, is a new collaborative exhibition project connecting 21 galleries from various cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, Cape Town, Kolkata, Los Angeles and Beirut. A thematically linked thread of solo and group exhibitions, performances and public interventions are taking place in the galleries from January to May, helmed by

French curator and co-director of gallery-initiated art fair Paris Internationale, Clément Delépine.

The most intriguing aspect of this collaboration is that it began with a group of major gallerists who sit on Art Basel committees. During the early pandemic days, informal WhatsApp exchanges took place between international gallerists from Art Basel committees for Hong Kong, Miami Beach and Basel. Over time, the group of 12 expanded to 21 galleries, with French art dealer Chantal Crousel “suggesting that this solidarity might be expressed by doing a joint exhibition contributing to one theme.”

Even beyond recognised art world centers, art galleries are taking the opportunity to push against the traditional art fair model. The Ramallah Art Fair, a brand-new platform in Palestine, running from December 2020 until March 2021, is organised by Zawyeh Gallery, the only international gallery showcasing modern and contemporary Palestinian art. Furthermore, the fair does not feature other galleries, only involving 26 artists who were invited directly to take part and each provided with a space to exhibit small works of art which the gallerist “worked to place with international collectors”.

Then there is South South, founded by Liza Essers, the owner of South Africa’s Goodman Gallery, “a new online forum that will showcase gallery programs and profiles of artists from the Global South, while hosting year-round events seeking to explore alternative art centers within a broader geopolitical context, addressing topics such as decolonisation, restitution, and issues arising from the racial justice movement.”

The platform launches with South South Veza, which starts with an open-to-all live auction running till 23 February 2021, followed by an online viewing room  featuring 50 galleries from 24 February to 7 March.

While questions of social equity, fiscal sustainability, public engagement and the overall success of these new platforms still remain in question, it is undeniable that the above mentioned efforts represent a hunger to find new and different ways to engage with each other in the creation, development and selling of art.

Yet another possibility worth considering, in the event of megalith art fairs losing their relevance, is the power dynamic shifting towards auction houses.

According to Edward Dolman, Chief Executive Officer, Phillips, “With many art fairs having been put on pause, we’ve seen galleries, curators, and artists working much more closely with auction houses and I do see that as a longer-lasting trend.”

While this might seem like a response motivated by self-interest, it is worth taking into consideration. The latest Hiscox Online Art Trade Report showed that in the first eight months of 2020, online-only art sales at major auction houses Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips more than tripled, totalling US$597 million, compared to only US$168 million for the whole of 2019.

2020 also saw the biggest art news headlines grabbed by bizarre and noteworthy auction sales, and this trend does not look likely to abate this year. In January, there was the US$92.2 million sale of Young Man Holding a Roundel (circa 1444/5–1510) by the Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli at the Sotheby’s Old Masters sale in New York. This is reportedly the second-most-expensive Old Master artwork sold at a Sotheby’s auction.

Also, auction livestreams have become the closest thing to popular entertainment the art world has had in a while, pandemic era or not. The auction houses are also attempting to capitalise on this interest, albeit in rather crass ways. The Old Masters sale at Sotheby’s in January was filled with product placement with auctioneer Oliver Barker pointing out that specialists were “decked out in Bulgari earrings, necklaces, and brooches”.

While some art galleries might be attempting to consolidate more power by taking on business typically associated with auction houses such as managing estate collections or secondary market sales, at least one art fair has been adopting a different approach, working closely with an auction house since last year.

In place of its cancelled Marrakech edition, London’s 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair came through with a pop-up in Paris, in spite of travel restrictions and a curfew. The fair’s 19 exhibitors showcased their works on the first floor of Christie’s on Avenue Matignon. Reportedly, Christie’s is said to be “not taking any commission from sales; 1-54 is covering the cost of logistics including the partitions, handling, and security”.

This partnership between the art fair and auction house started last year when its physical fair at Somerset House in October had to be scaled back due to COVID-19 safety precautions. Instead, it opted to feature a selection of artworks at Christie’s Duke Street Gallery and online.

It looks set to be an interesting year ahead, as mega art fairs struggle to maintain their footing in a globally volatile socioeconomic climate, while art galleries, auction houses, and art fairs with an appetite for new and different, challenge existing notions and possibly even turn the tables on unyielding art world entities.

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