How Will Art Basel Pull Off a Full-Scale Fair in September? Here’s How Organizers Are Getting Creative to Get It Done

The physical edition of Art Basel boasts some novel new options for exhibitors.

Crowds at Art Basel 2019. © Art Basel.

The next edition of Art Basel, scheduled for September in Switzerland, may mark some kind of return to normalcy for the global art-fair circuit. “There’s every reason to think we’ll have a strong show in September,” global director Marc Spiegler recently told Artnet News. 

How is the fair preparing for a full-fledged edition in Europe while border restrictions remain in place in some countries and collectors are still tentative about international travel? By applying the lessons learned during the scaled-down Art Basel Hong Kong in May and offering exhibitors options, options, options.

In addition to a blanket 10 percent discount per square meter across all sectors, organizers are giving participants the option to stage a joint booth with other galleries; to organize a “satellite” booth (or, as we prefer to call them, ghost booths) in which an Art Basel staff member can man the stand in lieu of on-site gallery staff; and even to stage a “wunderkammer,” a small exhibition capped at 20 square meters nestled within another gallery’s stand.

After holding a virtual edition of the fair—the world’s most elite contemporary-art trade event—last year, the 2021 edition will be held from September 20–26 instead of its typical June slot.  

Early this month, after the Swiss government announced medical and capacity regulations for large-scale conventions, Art Basel sent a letter to exhibitors outlining its plans; galleries had until June 21 to confirm their participation.

Art Basel Miami Beach 2019. © Art Basel.

Though the fair is still about two weeks out from releasing a finalized exhibitor list, Spiegler said he couldn’t have expected a better situation at this stage. 

“It’s not going to look that different than it did in 2019 in terms of the composition of the show,” Spiegler said. He was surprised that the overwhelming majority of galleries have opted to attend with a full-size booth, and fewer than expected took them up on the joint booth option. 

After a successful (but smaller scale) outing in Hong Kong in March, which featured 100 galleries (down from around 240), Art Basel has streamlined its public-health safety measures. To enter the exhibition hall, visitors and participants must be either fully vaccinated, supply a recent negative COVID-19 test, or have proof of sufficient antibodies.

Under current Swiss regulations, people must also wear masks indoors and capacity will be capped at 12,000 people, roughly 20 percent fewer than normal. As a result, Art Basel is adding an extra VIP day and will sell fewer tickets on the public days.

“Basel is as important a global venue for art as there is for contemporary galleries, so it was an easy business decision,” said Kasmin Gallery director Nick Olney. “As soon as we knew that the borders were open and that we could ensure the safety of our team, it was a go.”

Asked if exhibitors had expressed concern about the proximity of this year’s Art Basel in Switzerland to Art Basel Miami Beach in December, Spiegler said that applications for Miami are already in. “Let’s keep in mind that under normal conditions, the fall schedule would have a fair in Chicago, a fair in Paris, a fair in Turin,” he said. “Doing fairs two and a half months apart is not a particularly strange thing for a gallery.”

Olney said Kasmin plans to participate in Miami as well: “It certainly requires a lot of planning, but the strength of the market over the last 12 months has shown that art audiences are as engaged as ever.” The success of Frieze New York, held at The Shed in Hudson Yards in May, also proved that even capacity-restricted IRL fairs are good for business.

“Despite all the ways that we’ve ramped up digital presentations and different ways of communicating with our audiences, there’s nothing like being face to face with a person you’re in dialogue with, and nothing like standing in front of a great work of art.” Olney said.

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