Art Basel Cancels Its Experimental $15,000-a-Ticket Abu Dhabi Conference Just Two Months After It Was Announced

The Swiss art fair blames a short lead time, not the hefty ticket price.

The Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi. Photo by: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
The Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi. Photo by: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

The Swiss fair Art Basel has abruptly called off its planned arts conference in the Gulf next year. Just two months ago, the company made the surprise announcement that it was organizing stand-alone conferences with a glitzy debut in Abu Dhabi in February. 

The company did not go into details about exactly why, after at least two years of work, the event has been axed. “Art Basel Inside in Abu Dhabi in February was always an ambitious project on quite a short timeline,” a spokesperson for the fair tells Artnet News. The fair insists that that the $15,000 ticket price was not an issue, adding that there has been “a lot of excitement” in the event.

The three-day conference, which was an experimental one-off event, was being organized by the Swiss curator and art historian Marc-Olivier Wahler. It was meant to bring together influential entrepreneurs, cultural leaders, and artists to discuss pressing issues facing the world today, including sustainability and the environment. In a brief statement online, Art Basel thanked Wahler, who is the director of Geneva’s Museum of Art and History, and unnamed artists involved in the project. 

In the statement, Art Basel said the decision to axe the event was made jointly with its parent company, MCH Group, and its Gulf partner, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism. The government agency oversees the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the planned Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and organizes its own annual cultural summit. 

Tickets for Art Basel Inside were priced at $15,000, excluding flights. The fair aimed to draw around 300 people to the event. (Abu Dhabi’s 2020 Culture Summit aims to attract around 480 movers and shakers to Saadiyat Island next April.)

The Art Basel spokesperson says that its conference was not shelved for budgetary reasons, or possible low attendance. “From the feedback and the level of interest we received we don’t believe the price point was an issue,” the representative said, adding that the company had sold “a substantial number” of tickets within a short timeframe.

“The concept of Art Basel Inside and the building of communities in the art world is something we strongly continue to believe in and that we have been developing over the years,” the statement says.

MCH Group has largely retreated from its investment in regional art fairs, announcing last year that it was selling off its stake in several events in order to “stabilize” the company. The Swiss company’s flagship trade fair for watches, Baselworld, suffered a major blow when Swatch pulled out of the 2019 edition.  

In its statement, Art Basel doubled down on its commitment to its other relatively new non-fair enterprise, the Art Basel Cities initiative. The Swiss art fair offers its expertise to cities seeking a bespoke cultural event that will boost its international profile and local art scene. Buenos Aires is the first, and so far the only, city to take up the offer. 

It is unclear whether Art Basel will try again to organize a cultural conference elsewhere. “We remain committed to innovation and will keep exploring new initiatives in the future,” the company’s statement says. The fair also noted that through its partnership with Kickstarter, Art Basel has supported more than 70 non-profit visual arts organizations worldwide.


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