Art Basel Devised a $1.6 Million ‘Solidarity Fund’ to Quell Exhibitors’ Anxieties. Here’s How Many of Them Took Advantage of It

The one-off fund was set up just two weeks before the fair to help mitigate the financial risk for galleries.

Art Basel 2021. © Art Basel

The art industry is often perceived as cutthroat. But as it turns out, dealers may be more collegial than you think.

The conclusion is evident from the results of Art Basel’s pioneering solidarity fund. The Swiss fair established the one-off support scheme just two weeks before it opened in September to reassure anxious dealers at a time when many feared attending could be a very expensive miscalculation. 

The 1.5 million Swiss franc ($1.6 million) fund would have given a 10 percent rebate to galleries if every single one of the 272 participants applied. For every exhibitor that chose to forego their refund, their share was put back into the pot.

Here’s what happened. Out of 272 galleries, 175 Art Basel participants—nearly two-thirds of participants—decided to opt out of receiving any money. This resulted the remaining third getting a 35 percent reduction of their square-meter booth rates.

As my colleague Tim Schneider quipped when the initiative was first announced, it represented “the most compelling social experiment” the art industry has ever seen. Art Basel did not require dealers to prove financial need in order to take advantage of the fund (they did not want to ask galleries to open their books, which would have been not only invasive but a logistical nightmare). 

So would dealers actually leave red-tape-free money on the table to help out colleagues who might need it more?

Caroline Mesquita at Union Pacific. © Art Basel

Caroline Mesquita at Union Pacific. © Art Basel

For many, it turns out the answer was yes.

“The percentage of the galleries that took the funds indicate both that it was necessary, and that it wasn’t abused,“ Art Basel’s global director Marc Spiegler told Artnet News. “It shows that galleries are enormously collegial.”

This support scheme was devised in late summer amid confusion over travel restrictions to Switzerland and as fears over the Delta variant were reaching a fever pitch. In the run-up to opening, gossip started to churn about big dealers pulling out. Spiegler came up with the idea in conversation with gallerists and the MCH board signed off on it, accepting the short-term expense in order to ensure the longer-term success of the fair.

The fund came on top of a blanket 10 percent booth discount introduced earlier in the spring. Art Basel also offered to cover rebooking and hotel costs incurred should gallery staff catch the virus (thanks in part to the fair’s strict yet smooth hygiene rules, no one needed to take them up on it).

“People were enormously insecure for reasons that had nothing to do with us and nothing to do with them,” Spiegler said. “If we had not had done this, the galleries coming into the fair would not have had the kind of confident selling mindset necessary to succeed in the way that they did.”

Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel. Photograph courtesy of Art Basel.

The results of who applied and who did not remain anonymous.

While the fair has yet not done a sector breakdown, Spiegler said that from an initial scan of the results, applicants are evenly spread across the fair’s five sectors, from “Galleries,” the most expensive section, to the emerging art-focused “Statements.”

There were early signs that dealers would take the solidarity mandate seriously. During the VIP preview, every dealer Artnet News spoke to said they would calculate their costs after the fair before making the call.

“I think the solidarity fund is a great idea, and I hope it will be beneficial and useful to galleries that need it,” said Berlin-based dealer Javier Peres. “Fortunately, we did not need to use it as we had a very successful and productive edition of the fair, but we totally support it.”

Los Angeles dealer Susanne Vielmetter also decided not to apply. “Even though the fair was on the slow side for us (most of the American collectors canceled their trips and did not come), we ended up doing enough business that it was worthwhile,” she said.

The fair circulated a letter, reviewed by Artnet News, to dealers who did not participate in the fund thanking them for their collegiality. Some of those included smaller dealers like High Art in Paris.

Art Basel in Basel 2021. ©Art Basel.

If and when big galleries opted in, Spiegler said that once they found out that the size of their refund would be substantially larger than a 10 percent discount, several decided to return half of the 35 percent refund—worth as much as €45,000 to €50,000—to the pot for redistribution.

“In a couple cases, where they may have been a very expensive Unlimited project, for example, there were big galleries that felt like they needed it, and that is totally fine as well,” he noted.

Even though the refund was smaller for dealers who took out smaller booths, it was of major benefit. One gallery in the Statements section that asked to remain anonymous said the refund would help them get to the next big fair on the circuit, Art Basel Miami Beach, which opens in two weeks.

“This was the first major art fair to take place after the pandemic,” Spiegler said of Art Basel. “To expect it to be business as usual would be delusional.” Even solid business is not what some galleries are used to. “If a gallery sells $15 million in art, they do well, but if they may be used to making $50 million at Basel every year, that is a whole other thing,” Spiegler noted.

With Basel in the bag and some international travel restrictions relaxed, he has high hopes for Miami. “We now know for sure,” he said, “that international art fairs still work.”

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