The Art Market Is Hoping a Crush of Post-Lockdown Art Fairs Will Come to the Rescue This Fall. But Many Collectors Say They Won’t Go

What happens to a handshake business when no handshakes are allowed?

Part of "Art Basil 2018," the fountain outside of the Messeplatz. Image courtesy of Massimo Agostinelli.

This September, according to current plans, the postponed edition of Art Basel will come to the picturesque Swiss city on the Rhine, a few months late but very much welcome after a long period of global lockdown. The night before the VIP preview, collectors and gallery honchos will check into the Grand Hotel Trois Rois and belly up to the bar for €40 martinis. Ducking outside to gaze at the river, cigars in hand, the art-world cognoscenti will notice the air is just a tad chillier than it is in June, when the fair is normally held. And the next morning, billionaires will swarm the Messeplatz at 11 a.m. sharp, ready to jostle for art in person after months of staring at it on a screen.

To which you might be saying: Fat chance. A close-quarters bar at a grand hotel of Old Europe is tough to conjure from the cramped apartment where you may be reading this. And yet Art Basel and other fall fairs—including Expo Chicago, the Dallas Art Fair, Frieze London, and Paris’s FIAC—are still technically scheduled to proceed, with the fairs in Dallas and Basel pushed from their originals slots in April and June.

But even the once-bullish fair runners admit that the situation is up in the air. In an unusually candid letter to exhibitors sent Tuesday, Art Basel directors Marc Spiegler, Adeline Ooi, and Noah Horowitz openly floated the idea of cancelling not just Art Basel in September, but also Art Basel Miami Beach in December.

The Grand Hotel Trois Rois, referred to colloquially as the Three Kings. Photo courtesy: Leading Hotels of the World.

“When will there be significant confidence among collectors, museum professionals, and other members of the art world when it comes to traveling and congregating?” the letter asked.

In an attempt to answer such a question, at least with regard to the fair schedule in September and October, I spoke with a dozen advisors, collectors, dealers, and insiders, and something of a consensus emerged. It’s bleak.

Many were certain that the fall fairs would have to be postponed further or cancelled outright—and if they aren’t, they are likely to be far emptier than usual. “It’s completely unlikely that anyone will accept the risk, before a vaccine or cure, to put 500 people until one roof,” said Alain Servais, the collector and investment banker who once upon a time attended more than a dozen fairs and biennales each year. Looking ahead, he has booked travel to attend exactly zero.

Frieze Art Fair 2019, London, UK. Photo by Linda Nylind.

Hypothetically Speaking

Long-term, the back-slapping ways of the art market will have to change dramatically. It’s a handshake-deal business in a post-handshake world. Whenever fairs reopen, they’ll be contactless and fear-filled, a much more sterile, sober jaunt than the chummy camaraderie of years past.

“We will have to give up the three kisses we are used to in Switzerland,” said Eleanor Cayre, the Manhattan-based art advisor. “I can picture the galleries sponsoring hand sanitizers and masks instead of the usual tote bags. Maybe latex gloves with your favorite gallery’s logo printed on it?”

Cayre has her usual Basel digs booked at the Dorint, and will “happily” go if the fair is held. She’s already had the virus (although questions remain about how much protection antibodies can provide) and what’s more, she said, she’s been moving pretty significant works lately.

“If the quality of the work being offered is high, like it usually is in Basel, then I think galleries have potential to do well,” she said. “The treasure hunters are out in force right now.”

Likewise, the dealer and advisor Paul McCabe, based in Milan but quarantined in St. Moritz, said he would make the trek to Basel if the fair’s still on, though, admittedly he has less of a trip to make than most. “It’s hard to keep me out of the ring,” he said. “I must find good works for the clients, even with a face mask and sunglasses.”

FIAC at the Grand Palais. Photo by Marc Domage.

FIAC at the Grand Palais. Photo by Marc Domage.

But many others said that, for a variety of reasons, they would not attend the upcoming fairs even if leadership decides to move forward.

Cash-poor galleries don’t have the financial muscle to plan for overseas travel. Reps at established shops (who wish to remain nameless) have run the numbers and think it doesn’t make sense to trek around the world if clients—many of who are elderly, and at risk—largely won’t show up.

Some buyers say international art fairs feel increasingly discordant with a moment when they want to focus on buying locally. “Putting aside all the unknowns that make international travel a safety and logistical issue, I think people are going to feel a sense of responsibility to their local economies and communities,” said the advisor Alex Glauber. “In an environment like this, transacting with a local business is a literal and figurative vote for them to stay open. The thirst for culture and community has a local solution that doesn’t require an international flight to an art fair.”

For others, the optics alone would be tantamount to self-sabotage. Flying to a fancy art fair? In this economy?

“Candidly, I’d be embarrassed to admit to partaking,” collector Scott Lorinsky said. “Consider how entirely ridiculous it would sound returning to your office afterward!”

Stavros Niarchos and Vito Schnabel attend Party at WALL at the W SOUTH BEACH on December 3, 2009 in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by BILLY FARRELL/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Elegy to Schmoozing

The art world has long been a deeply social milieu, one where wealthy patrons are drawn in by the promise of proximity to artistic minds—and, perhaps more than anything, exclusive VIP access to glamorous international art fairs and parties. And if a social-distance-ified fair cuts out the vigorous networking and shoulder-rubbing, some say it’s not worth going. You can’t drink champagne with a face mask on.

“A social distance art fair defeats the purpose of an art fair,” said Daniel Oglander, an art advisor based in New York who regularly attends fairs in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and across Europe. “They are social events, and I for one am not looking forward to more half-assed elbow taps and heel clicks.”

Even the more agoraphobic collectors are getting misty-eyed over the lack of triple-booked evenings spent popping canapés during fair weeks. In 2011, the collector, dealer, and writer Adam Lindemann penned a viral article for the New York Observer proposing a boycott of Art Basel Miami Beach due to the infiltration of hangers-on who never even make it to the fair. “Let them sell us nothing this year, and we’ll watch with glee as the whole circus dries up and shrinks right down to the size of a pup tent,” read one of the tamer lines of the column.

Now, even the author of “Occupy Art Basel Miami Beach, Now!” is pining for the halcyon days of Magic City madness.

“I was making fun of the way the social aspect of the art fair had taken over the art fair, but in retrospect, we’ll take ’em however we can get ’em,” Lindemann said recently. “Over half of the art world’s appeal is the social appeal. You take the social aspect out of the art fair, were going back 30 years.” (Online fairs were not considered a viable solution. “How much art can you look at online?” Lindemann asked. “There’s a saturation point.”)

Navy Pier on Lake Michigan in Chicago, the home of Expo Chicago. Courtesy Chose Chicago.

Navy Pier on Lake Michigan in Chicago, the home of Expo Chicago. Courtesy Chose Chicago.

What stings for Lindemann the most is that, after years of trying—and decades of attending as a collector—he scored his gallery Venus Over Manhattan a coveted spot at Art Basel. He planned to make his debut on the art market’s grandest stage with a glorious display of large works on paper by Peter Saul, who was set to travel to Switzerland to boot.

After years of waiting, he might have to wait one more.

“When you get onto the waiting list it’s like the hazing at a fraternity or getting into a club,” Lindemann said. “So for us to not go to Basel is a terrible disappointment.”

Lifting the Bans

All these reasons to avoid fairs will be moot if the fairs themselves are cancelled. And there’s a good chance that, logistically, fairs can’t exist for quite some time. The World Health Organization has classified conferences as mass gatherings, putting them in the same category as the Olympics, which was pushed to 2021—but now might be pushed back until 2022, or canceled outright. In the US, states will determine individually when to permit gatherings of more than 50 people, which have been categorized by the Trump Administration as part of phase three of the reopening process. But there’s no indication that, say, Illinois will have lifted the restriction in time for Expo Chicago to open in September.

And in Europe, French president Emanuel Macron has proposed extending the ban on foreign travel into the Schengen Area through September, which would make it impossible for any American or Asian collector or dealer to come to Basel for the fair. Extend the ban another month, and the same goes for Frieze London and FIAC. If Trump extends his ban on travel from Europe, collectors and dealers over there can’t get to Dallas or Chicago.

Even when the borders are open up, fear of flying is likely to be so pervasive that perhaps only an, um, particular tax bracket could even come. “Those who came on a private plane, they feel comfortable,” said Lindemann. “It’s their aircraft and their crew.”

Photo: Dallas Art Fair.

Photo: Dallas Art Fair.

The one moment of real optimism in Basel’s recent letter came when the fair’s leaders mentioned that Switzerland is getting ready to open up some retail stores, and soon, galleries would be able to let in limited numbers of visitors. In Berlin, galleries are taking appointments for pairs of people to book 30-minute viewing slots. These signs of life, with more than four months until the fair in Basel, are encouraging data points for those who want to believe that these fairs will still happen.

But as many pointed out, there’s a difference between social distancing in an empty gallery and a convention center where everyone’s breathing the same air. Servais said he’s excited to start going to galleries as early as May, but cannot bring himself to consider attending something like Art Basel.

“We all want to go back to a normal life, but we’re all aware of the risks—this is a real shit sickness,” he said. “It’s hitting whoever. We all want to go, but we have to say to ourselves: ‘Why am I gonna take a risk?’”

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.