The Back Room: Spooky Season Shakeups

This week: execs fleeing fairs like haunted houses, who’s burning Hirst drawings?, a Picasso that won’t rest in peace, and much more.

A visitor to the 2021 edition of the Armory Show takes in work by Lita Albuquerque. Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images. Illustration by Artnet News.

Every Friday, Artnet News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy. 


This week in the Back Room: execs fleeing fairs like haunted houses, who’s burning Hirst drawings?, a Picasso that won’t rest in peace, and much more—all in a 6-minute read (1,650 words).


Top of the Market

Last Expo Exec Standing

Frieze Art Fair 2019, London, UK. Photo: Linda Nylind, courtesy of Frieze.

Frieze London in 2019. Photo: Linda Nylind, courtesy of Frieze.

This Halloween, premier art-fair organizers are facing the same existential threat as the beleaguered humans in some of cinema’s most chilling zombie movies: they are losing more and more of their best brains to the predatory forces in a post-pandemic world.

As Katya Kazakina wrote this week, “Several prominent executives at major trade shows including Art BaselFrieze, and the Armory Show have decamped this year, adding to growing concerns about the future of the business model.”

Headlining the list of the (professionally) departed are…

  • Noah Horowitz, who ended his six-year tenure as Art Basel’s director of the Americas to become Sotheby’s gallery whisperer last month.
  • Rebecca Ann Siegel, who ejected out of the director’s chair of Frieze Americas in August, after just one year.
  • Loring Randolph, who in 2020 traded the directorship of Frieze New York for the directorship of Texas’s Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Collection.
  • Eliza Osborne, who announced she was moving on from her three years as deputy director of the Armory Show just days after the fair’s Javits Center debut closed last month.

In one sense, the fairs have been victims of their own success. After years of expansion in the sector (a recent pre-COVID count found over 300 annual art fairs around the world), what looked from the outside like the glamorous, globe-trotting life of an expo exec had proven by 2020 to be a grueling, ever-intensifying, year-round gauntlet that took an especially brutal toll on parents of young children.

Then COVID hit. The sudden need for social-distancing and international travel restrictions delayed or canceled scores of live events between early 2020 and mid-2021. The sudden drought in booth-rental income and ticket sales massacred fair revenues.

Online viewing rooms did little to offset the damage to the fairs’ bottom lines. In most cases, organizers offered digital real estate to exhibitors free of charge as a band-aid for losing out on the event-based sales many dealers had come to rely on.

Meanwhile, most dealers discovered they could survive (and even thrive) without fairs thanks to their drastically reduced costs and other shutdown-era adaptations, such as their own OVRs and new collaborative initiatives.

Now discounts and give-backs to exhibitors are running rampant among fair organizers as they seek to keep newly resilient dealers in the fold amid lingering uncertainty about collectors’ appetite for, and access to, international expos.


Notable financial concessions made in 2021 include…

  • Art Basel: a blanket 10 percent reduction on booth costs given in the spring to exhibitors committed to its delayed flagship fair—and a $1.6 million “one-time solidarity fund” exhibitors could opt into for a limited time after the close of the Swiss event in September. (No information has surfaced yet about the number of galleries who capitalized on the latter.)
  • Frieze New York: a de facto decrease in booth costs for all exhibitors based on the smaller stand sizes available at its replacement venue, the Shed.
  • Art Cologne: a 34 percent refund to all exhibitors after the fair received cash from a German government pandemic-aid program.

Concessions like these are unlikely to continue, especially now that business interests outside of the arts hold significant power over major fairs. The Armory Show is owned outright by real-estate conglomerate Vornado; entertainment giant Endeavor controls 70 percent of Frieze; and James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems recently acquired 49 percent of Art Basel’s parent company, MCH Group.

Industry goodwill almost undoubtedly matters less to these players than balance-sheet health. So reversing the brain drain from the fair ranks may be feasible. It’s just that it will depend as much on the agendas of the money men as on those of art professionals.


The Bottom Line

Small and large fairs alike are moving toward a programmatic Goldilocks Zone, only from opposite directions. Successful boutique events are increasingly searching for ways to spread out their fixed costs (like salaries) and expand their influence beyond what Katya called a “once-a-year mega production,” while the sector’s giants are signaling their intent to leverage digital innovations and collaborative models as their smaller competitors and constituents did to weather the shutdown.

Where each event ends up is still anyone’s guess. But if new ideas are going to be the fairs’ salvation, the pressure to hire a fresh crop of great minds is even more urgent than ever.


[Read More]


Paint Drippings

Damien Hirst with works from "The Currency." Courtesy of the artist.

Damien Hirst with works from “The Currency.” Courtesy of the artist.

For the latest Wet Paint, the intrepid Annie Armstrong ventured across New York to find out which way actual buyers of works from Damien Hirst’s NFT project, “The Currency,” are leaning when it comes to the series’s “only one can survive” choice: keep the crypto token and destroy the physical drawing, or the opposite?

Her reporting crescendoed with a (frankly, genius) alternate strategy proposed by one of the most infamous figures in the last decade of the Gotham art scene. (You’ll have to click through for the reveal.)

Wet Paint kept on dripping with gossip about the fresh split between ascendant young artist Pamela Council and her former New York dealer, Denny Dimin, including “one spy reporting a screaming match between the artist and a gallerist at the space, with visitors present.”

Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…


Art Fairs

  • As part of a rumored “grassroots effort… to establish a New York Art Week” in early May, Independent will return to its pre-2021 venue at Spring Studios next year with new dates (May 5–8) that overlap with the 2022 editions of TEFAF New York and Art on Paper.  (The Canvas)
  • Top sales announced by dealers at last week’s FIAC included $2.8 million for a 1967 Robert Rauschenberg at Thaddaeus Ropac and $1.55 million for a George Condo painting at Hauser and Wirth—but after a busy season of European expos, most of the action landed in the sub-$1 million price bracket. (Artnet News Pro)
  • Attendance at Art Taipei was up 65 percent from last year’s (pandemic-unscathed) fair thanks in part to an influx of new local buyers. (Press release)

Auction Houses

  • Phillips will anchor its 20th century and contemporary evening sale in New York (November 17) with Francis Bacon’s never-before-auctioned Pope With Owls (1958), estimated in the range of $35 million to $45 million. (Press release)
  • Christie’s has appointed veteran arts P.R. executive Deidrea Miller as its head of comms in the Americas. (Artnet News)
  • Christie’s will feature works by Camille Pissarro, Marc Chagall, and Zao Wou-ki in its debut presentation in the China International Import Expo in Shanghai this November. (Press release)



  • David Kordansky (Los Angeles) now represents Shara Hughes in partnership with Galerie Eva Presenhuber (Zürich and New York) and Pilar Corrias (London). Hughes’s longtime dealer Rachel Uffner confirmed to Artnet News that her gallery no longer reps Hughes but “still [has] a lot of ongoing projects with her,” and that Hughes “does not currently work exclusively with anyone in New York.” (Baer Faxt)
  • Louise Lawler decided her European dealer, Sprüth Magers, will rep her worldwide in her post-Metro Pictures era. (Press Release)

  • Between late January and early February 2022, six women gallerists will collaboratively stage solo shows of recent works by Rochelle FeinsteinCandice Madey and Bridget Donahue (both in NYC), Hannah Hoffman (L.A.), Nina Johnson (Miami), Campoli Presti (Paris), and Francesca Pia (Zürich). The works will all be based on the historic project “You Again” and priced from $35,000 to $100,000 each. (FT)



  • The Studio Museum in Harlem has secured $210 million for its new David Adjaye-designed building. It will now extend its capital campaign to $250 million, well above its original (and now-surpassed) $175 million goal. (The Art Newspaper)
  • Los Angeles collector Chester Chang and his son Cameron—both scions of Korean politician Chi Whan Chang—have donated 100 works of Asian art (including 95 works by Korean artists) to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Unframed)
  • Simon Castets will exit his role as director of the Swiss Institute in New York after eight years to become its executive chair. An all-star, trans-institutional committee will conduct the search for the next director. (ARTnews)


NFTs and More

  • NFT investment firm Meta4 Capital (it’s a pun!) snapped up 8817 Ape by Bored Ape Yacht Club for $3.4 million during the inaugural sale on Sotheby’s Metaverse platform. The result is a new auction record for a single Bored Ape.

[Read More]


Data Dip

Devouring the Young

© 2021 Artnet Price Database and Artnet Analytics.

© 2021 Artnet Price Database and Artnet Analytics.

As someone who sports the same year-round complexion as sexy European vampires throughout horror-movie history, I feel strangely vindicated by the auction market’s rampant thirst for fresh blood. And there is no better visualization of how extreme things have gotten than the chart above.

Ultra-contemporary art—our term for work made by artists born after 1974—is now hands-down the fastest-growing segment of the fine-art auction market. From January through September 2021, the houses hammered down $462.5 million worth of lots from this category. That’s 75 percent more than they sold during all of 2020! No other genre even approaches that power surge.

Is this the result of some kind of satanic bargain, or just market forces working their own kind of black magic? Click through for Julia Halperin’s tip-to-tail explainer.

[Read More]


“[L]ocal galleries need to wake up, learn to compete with the real deal, and survive the market change.”


HeeJin ParkKukje Gallery veteran and director of Gladstone Gallery’s recently announced Seoul location, on how the influx of international dealers to Korea should elevate the game of homegrown galleries. (The Art Newspaper)


Artwork of the Week

Pablo Picasso’sTête d’homme barbu

Pablo Picasso, Tête d'homme barbu (front) (1956). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Pablo Picasso, Tête d’homme barbu (front) (1956). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.


Date:                    1956
Seller:                  MGM Resorts Fine Art Collection

Estimate:              $50,000 to $70,000
Sale Price:           $239,400
Sold at:                Sotheby’s “Masterworks from the MGM Resorts Fine Art Collection”


We all know seductive works by hellfire-hot living artists can be rapidly and repeatedly resold at auction during market booms like the one we’re experiencing in the ultra-contemporary genre this year. But sometimes the most flipped works still come from the hands of long-dead talent.

Take Picasso’s Tête d’homme barbu (1956). The jaunty double-sided ceramic scared up a premium-inclusive $239,400 at Sotheby’s Sin City-set sale of works owned by MGM Resorts last Saturday. That the piece brought nearly 3.5 times its high estimate becomes even more impressive once you know this was the sixth time it has been sold—and the tenth time it has been offered—at auction since 1980. (The work was bought-in at four different sales between April 1990 and December 1996, according to the Artnet Price Database.)

On average, then, Tête d’homme barbu has reappeared under the hammer once every 4.1 years. Hilariously (or eerily), that is exactly the same rate at which legendary horror-movie villain Freddy Krueger has been resurrected by Hollywood for sequels and reboots of A Nightmare on Elm Street; Freddy has unleashed his scissor-fingered mayhem across nine films between 1984 and 2021—an average of once ever 4.1 years.

I’m pretty confident that’s just a Halloween coincidence. But either way, I know for sure which grinning, fire-baked face I’d rather see in my dreams tonight!


Additional reporting and writing by Naomi Rea. 


Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.

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