Art Basel Investor James Murdoch on Why He’s Drawn to the ‘Traveling Circus’ Model of Art Fairs, and His Plans for Evolving the Business of Culture
MCH Group's anchor shareholder (finally) breaks his silence ahead of the 2023 edition of Art Basel's flagship fair.
Within the rarefied business of art, it’s quite possible that no one in recent memory has accrued more influence while staying further away from the spotlight than James Murdoch.
Late in 2020, Murdoch’s private investment company, Lupa Systems, closed on a deal to become the new “anchor shareholder” of MCH Group, the Swiss parent company of Art Basel. The pact, which gave Lupa Systems the option to acquire up to a 49 percent stake in MCH Group, effectively made Murdoch and his team the firmest hands in steering the world’s best known, most prestigious art fair.
Yet the art world at large knew vanishingly little about Murdoch as a person, a professional, or least of all, an art patron at the time. (It’s not hard to imagine why Murdoch would prefer to keep a low profile; James is the fourth of six children of billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose infamy as a magnate of ultra-conservative press outlets is rivaled only by the drama of his personal life.)
Still, this blank space triggered tremendous speculation about even the most basic aspects of his interest in MCH Group or Art Basel. Lupa Systems did little to change this dynamic over the next two and a half years, as neither Murdoch himself nor any of his most trusted colleagues went on the record with the art press to discuss their vision for the companies.
But that all changed this May, when Murdoch agreed to sit down with Artnet News art business editor Tim Schneider for an extended interview just ahead of the 2023 edition of Art Basel. Below is an excerpt of their conversation about his longstanding interest in the brand, his thoughts about the business of culture, and what the latter might mean for Art Basel and MCH Group’s next moves.
Note: This excerpt has been edited for clarity. To hear the full audio version, tune into the episode on the Art Angle podcast.
So we’re recording this interview on May 18, 2023, which is about two and a half years since Lupa Systems closed on its investments in MCH Group. Over that time period, you’ve taken on an almost Wizard of Oz status in the art world as this all-powerful presence behind the curtain that no one has really heard from. So I’m just wondering, why come out from behind the curtain now?
If I’m remembering the story, the reveal of the wizard from behind the curtain is not a great moment for him. I hope it hasn’t been that secretive or in any way elusive. I try to be reasonably quiet and try to get on with the work that’s at hand. And since we invested in MCH Group, we’ve been working with the team there, and with the other investors, and trying to get on with that.
So there’s no real magic to any kind of reveal, nor is there anything sinister or secretive going on behind said curtain. It’s just getting on with the work of what we hope is building a really exciting business.
For the record, I didn’t mean to imply that there was anything sinister happening there. It’s just that if you leave a bunch of journalists alone, as you know, and don’t give them all that much information, they’re going to start speculating. Mystery is a powerful thing.
That’s very true.
MCH Group was not Lupa Systems’ first investment, but it does seem to be an important one based on what I’ve gathered from talking to you in preparation for this interview. Why MCH Group? Lupa Systems, I’m sure, could get in the room with practically anybody in the art world they wanted to. Was this always a particular property that you were interested in, or was there a larger set of options that you went through before deciding that this is where you wanted to focus?
To be honest, I had been focused on, or at least trying to learn about, MCH Group for some years before, and the reason is largely around some of the things that we were doing in our sports business.
It struck me that a lot of the most exciting sports businesses, whether that’s Formula One or IPL [India Premier League] cricket or what have you, they have in some ways the character of a traveling circus. Formula One is probably the best example, where it sets down in a city, there’s lots of different events that happen. There’s a race, there’s culture, people come from all over, and then they pick up and they go to the next town or city, much like a traveling circus.
That ability to convene a broader community—it’s not just the super fans, the tifosi for Ferrari coming and doing this. It’s actually more about this broader moment in a city where something happens with some center of gravity in it. It could be really great and fun for that city, it could be really lucrative for the city and for the owners of the rights, etc. Also, as more and more of our lives are synthetic or digital, the ability to create that [physical] center of gravity goes up because I think it probably becomes scarcer.
And it struck me that there are very, very few real convening centers of gravity in the culture space that have the scale and brand and immediate understanding of a brand as Art Basel. So I had been looking at MCH Group and the Art Basel business for a while, and obviously learned that the business was majority-owned by a group of cantons and so on. So I figured it would be pretty hard to get involved.
Then events intervened. I started to build a relationship with some of the key stakeholders. The openness around potentially having new investors in that business was something that emerged over time as I talked to them and built some trust. And then obviously COVID happened. So it became a real opportunity to not just be able to really help the business but also to become a real partner in the business going forward.
So for me, it actually felt like a pretty natural place to go. When I set up our holding company here, we always wanted to have one or two real focuses—things that were more substantial holdings with more involvement and support. MCH and Art Basel really seemed like a real logical place to start to develop that part of the business.
I want to key in for a second on the distinction that you and I are both drawing between MCH Group and Art Basel, because it struck me in doing research for this interview that, in the general press, this investment is almost never referred to as an investment in MCH Group. It is almost uniformly described as an investment in Art Basel.
That’s natural, because it’s the most prominent brand in the group to the international press. I think in Switzerland they talk about MCH Group, and they talk about some of the other assets there, but Art Basel is the most recognizable brand.
Should we read into that answer that you don’t necessarily think about Art Basel as being the one gem in this larger portfolio? That you’re really looking at everything that MCH Group has done and can do in a cohesive way?
I think it’s clear that Art Basel is the most prominent brand and the most prominent business in there. MCH has a broader portfolio of both live-marketing event businesses that are global in various other areas, and some more traditional messe [trade fair] businesses. I think Art Basel is clearly a model but also an opportunity to think about a brand within the group that is very, very focused on its cultural and artistic community, that is taking that brand and making it a global brand, be it Art Basel in Basel, in Miami Beach, in Hong Kong, or now in Paris with Paris+. These are really exciting attributes of that business, and I also think attributes that will be added to over time in terms of capabilities. So I think it’s clearly the most prominent business within that group, but there are other things to be done.
It sounds like you’re essentially talking about a dual understanding or dual interpretation of what MCH Group can be. On the one hand, you’re talking about it being enticing because it is a live events business in an increasingly digital world. But on the other hand, you’re also talking about it as being a global brand that has the potential to do all these other things besides just live events. Is that fair?
I wouldn’t worry too much about MCH and the things that might happen there versus Art Basel. Right now, the Art Basel piece of it is a core focus because it’s the biggest brand globally in the group. There are other businesses there, so I don’t want to shortchange things, but I think Art Basel is just an incredible example of how powerful culture can be in convening and, if I think about the impact of bringing a major fair like Art Basel to Miami or something like that, how powerful it can be in the broader community. I don’t just mean in the city but also in the cultural life of the city: the other events and other things that come out that can kind of be chaotic and raucous but are also part and parcel of that ‘traveling circus’ notion.
Now, in today’s age, you don’t go and say, “I’m just going to go have a live event and I’m going to go away.” The question is, how do you build connectivity to those brands? How do you build connectivity within that community? How do you serve that community better? You might have a center of gravity in a live event. But not everyone can go to the live event, or people want to have connectivity across the calendar.
One of the reasons why Paris was so interesting was that it really plugged an autumn hole for us. So now we have a major event in each of the seasons, if you will, and in different parts of the world, and I think that just helps build more connective tissue within that community and around the Art Basel brand, which we want to enhance further.
In my mind, that really seems to be a defining characteristic of Art Basel historically. I interviewed Marc Spiegler, the former global director of Art Basel, on this podcast a few months ago, and we had a long conversation about how one of the things that really struck him about Art Basel Miami Beach when he was still covering it as a journalist was that, like a lot of people, he didn’t really understand how much else was already happening in Miami from a cultural perspective. It took this signal event to start to pull together all these different threads.
It sounds to me like you’re talking about something that is essentially that same dynamic playing out on a larger scale now in these different markets over time.
I hope so, and I think encouraging that is important.
The Miami example is an interesting one. I think you put it very well: a signal event that helps you realize what else is going on, but it also can be a catalyst.
It’s not just about the fair itself, although obviously our focus is to make it as excellent a service for the community as we can. But it also becomes a catalyst for a broader engagement with the community from a creative perspective. Because of the authenticity of the brand, and because people understand to some extent what they’re going to get in each fair—each location obviously is a very different flavor, which is good—I think it’s something that hopefully gives the business the permission to start to grow the way it thinks about engagement with the city and with the community in general.
I think there’s other cultural events that aren’t art fairs that the Art Basel brand can also be thinking about over time. It’s early days. We’ve been invested for, as you said before, some two and a half years. A lot of that was just coming out of this COVID period, kind of rebuilding, supporting the team, trying to move through this.
So the next phase of it, I think, is going to be one more characterized by development and innovation. I’m very excited about it. As I said before, I think these events are very rare at this level of quality and with this level of authenticity. The folks who run Art Basel and MCH really understand how precious that is. Keeping that focus on quality is fundamental.
Late in 2021, Art Basel began providing industry expertise and promotional support in collaboration with regional art events in the Asia Pacific, namely Art Week Tokyo in November of 2021 and Singapore’s S.E.A. Focus fair in January of 2022. Also, in January 2022, MCH Group acquired a 15 percent stake in the parent company of the ART S.G. fair in Singapore, which debuted this year after a long gestation period.
Now, these are very different projects from one another, and they’re also very different from if MCH Group or Art Basel were to expand again in Asia by launching another new wholly owned art fair of their own in a new city. How do these kinds of alternative or more nuanced engagements with new markets fit into MCH Group’s future?
I don’t want to get too much into the weeds on how the company is thinking about those things, but those are partnerships that are all valuable and important to the group, and in some ways, it’s important to understand those local markets and to have local partners there as you start to think through the future. So it’s worthwhile having these things at different levels.
But I also think in the future there are ways to think about the Art Basel brand, not just about the signal events, meaning the big fairs. I’m not sure how many big fairs the market sustains. Paris we thought was just an incredible opportunity, particularly ahead of going back into the Grand Palais next year after its renovation. But I think there’s an appetite for culture and particularly for really exciting, new, and challenging storytelling, whether it’s fine art or film or what have you. I think there’s a real appetite for that everywhere.
So the combination of the curatorial excellence, the brand, the commercial knowhow, etc., that can all be developed—and much of it is there—can lead to other types of experiences that will emerge in different places as we move forward. If you look at the growth in the immersive environments today, where you have people touring shows around the world and selling tickets, from the Van Gogh immersive business to the Museum of Ice Cream, I think there’s a real appetite and a demand for things that are different and new, and you want to be in the business of working with creators that are developing new ideas for these communities as you go along. It’s the same reason why we partnered with, and invested in, the Tribeca Festival, which is an audience festival really focused on independent storytellers across film, television, multimedia, technology, immersive, games. That is a platform for creators to really showcase work that may not be available to people otherwise.
I’m glad you brought that up because I wanted to talk about Tribeca’s relationship to MCH Group in terms of how you’re thinking about these cultural properties and how this concept of storytelling plays out in each of them. You just mentioned how diverse the programming in the Tribeca Festival is. People listening to this may not realize that what they probably know still as the Tribeca Film Festival no longer actually has “film” in the name. It’s just the Tribeca Festival, and that seems to be a very deliberate move on the part of the company under Lupa Systems’ management or influence—however you want to put it—to signal that this is about something bigger, broader, more expansive than it used to be, and maybe there are more possibilities here to get interested in and to connect with an audience through.
Well, first of all, they’re separate businesses, and with Tribeca Enterprises, the company behind the Tribeca Festival, the founder, Jane Rosenthal, runs the business. She’s our partner. She and Bob [de Niro] founded it some 20-odd years ago after 9/11. Obviously the story is reasonably well known, but it was really her vision to expand that. And she started particularly with the immersive work and the other things there because I think—and I agree with this—she found that the canvas, if you will, is so broad in terms of what storytellers are doing.
Really interesting storytelling, whether it’s in video games or more traditional filmic storytelling, was something that really could be conceived of as one, again, kind of cultural platform where those creators feel like they can highlight their work, and then we can bring a large audience to that experience. Film is obviously still a central part of it, but we take a broader view of what that creative landscape looks like, and hopefully that leads to different kinds of collaborations between artists in the future.
It leads to different ways to be able to connect those artists with the community at large, and to connect other brands to that community as well. Our investment in Tribeca was actually right before COVID. Then we had a couple of years of doing outdoor [programming]. We did drive-in theaters the first year to try to get people to have something that was fun and good out there. That was hard. And then we went back to a live event. Most of it was outdoor in the beginning. Now it’s getting back into using theaters more and other things, as we did last year.
For me anyway, it comes from the same place, which is that these convening opportunities for people who are really passionate about the creative arts in whatever medium are, if not unique, then rare, and the opportunity for growth is in developing them over time and thinking about what the other possibilities are, whether that’s in new markets, or whether that’s in growing the kinds of services or other things that you can provide to that community.
Most of the events businesses have some tickets, they have some sponsorship, they do things like that. They pay some rent. At Art Basel, we pay rent and we charge rent, we provide other services to mount the event, we help connect people, et cetera. I think there’s a lot more we can do to provide, as I said before, this real connective tissue in these communities.
If I look at the customer of a cultural business like this, the customer is the community at large. We have to support the galleries that we work with. We have to support the artists. We have to support collectors and collecting institutions, and we have to be a key part of the community that it takes place in more broadly: the city, the people, the local government, et cetera, that you have to work with.
So I think the customer is complex in that way. And that also creates opportunities, I think, to create new businesses as you go along. Tribeca starts in a few weeks and it’s a really exciting program. Unfortunately it overlaps right with Art Basel, so I don’t get to go and enjoy these events directly as much as I’d like. It’s mostly a lot of meetings. But I’m really excited about the Tribeca brand, as I am about Art Basel. I think they’re brands that are, in a weird way, bigger than the businesses, and that’s a real opportunity for growth.
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