This post originally appeared in The Art Newspaper.
The fate of 2020’s art fairs hang in the balance. As lockdowns in many countries continue in an effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic, dealers are increasingly questioning whether, after months of no business, they will be able to afford to participate in the glut of rescheduled fairs due to happen this autumn. Even if quarantines are lifted and galleries manage to pay booth fees upfront, how many will want to board planes to rub shoulders in a crowded convention centre come September when Art Basel in Basel is due to emerge as the first major fair since the outbreak hit?
“Being in London, I could just about cope with doing Frieze but Basel feels like a stretch in September with so much other activity,” says one anonymous London dealer who has applied for both fairs, which are currently scheduled at less than three weeks apart.
Even on home turf, the cost of doing fairs is a sizeable hurdle for dealers facing a make-or-break few months. In a bid to gauge opinion, Frieze sent a letter to exhibitors last week, in which its directors say they are “re-thinking our processes and timelines, which includes revisiting our terms and dates of when galleries commit to the fair”.
For cash-strapped dealers, Frieze is also understood to be reviewing its payment terms—its directors say they are aware of the fair’s “responsibility to support galleries during these difficult times”. The exhibitor list is expected to be finalised in late June.
The Swiss fair has given exhibitors until May 1 to reconfirm their participation to assess whether the new timing is feasible. “It is likely that the new timings will not work for everyone who was originally selected, or that some galleries will ask for more time to consider,” said a spokeswoman for the fair. Appetite for fairs could pick up towards the end of the year: the reapplication rate for Art Basel in Miami Beach in December is 90 percent, which will reassure some.
Elsa Ravazzolo Botner, a partner and director at the Brazilian gallery A Gentil Carioca, says she “hopes the situation will be better for everyone in December”, but fears Art Basel in Basel could be unfeasible for her gallery. “Europe might be better by then, but this doesn’t mean Brazil will be out of the crisis. We don’t know if we will be able to fly, let alone ship works of art”.
The question on many dealers’ lips is whether collectors will want to travel. As one gallery owner put it: “a lot of established collectors are in the older age bracket. It’s all very well us doing the fairs, but if the collectors don’t come, wouldn’t it be better for everyone to cut our losses this year?” Another London dealer, who preferred to remain anonymous, says his gallery plans on doing Frieze, “but not if it feels that people won’t attend”.
Speaking on CNN Money, Swiss dealer Dominique Lévy says she doesn’t foresee anyone wanting to visit an art fair before a vaccine for COVID-19 is found. “It’s time for the art world to be realistic…right now our health and our social responsibility and duty is much more important. I don’t see any art fair [happening] before next year,” she says.
Turin-based collector, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo also thinks it’s very doubtful fairs will take place this autumn. If confirmed, she says she would consider travelling to European destinations, such as Art Basel, Frieze London, and FIAC in Paris. However, with fairs likely to be affected “for months to come”, the collector suggests they “might become less international, at least for a while”.
Art Fairs Fight for Survival
Smaller fairs, meanwhile, are worried about survival. Michael Benson, co-founder of Photo London, which has been postponed from May to the autumn, says much of his time is currently spent “working out how to save the business”. He adds: “There is zero income coming in because no dealers are going to send us any money for booth fees.”
Cancelling contracts with venues has proved tricky for some fairs. But, Benson says Somerset House, where Photo London usually takes place, has been “brilliant” in its support, “they want us to come back next year so they are taking the long view”.
Although the UK government has pledged bailout packages for businesses worth £330 billion ($409.9 billion), aid to event businesses, such as art fairs, remains. According to the banking lobby group UK Finance, only one in five firms that have applied have so far received emergency funding.
Several fairs say they are lobbying the government, some of them through the British Art Market Federation (BAMF). Benson says he is in touch with the Mayor of London’s office, “it would be useful to know if the government is planning to support big events like art fairs and how that money could be accessed.”
Compounding the situation, fairs are facing difficulties when it comes to insurance pay-outs over the coronavirus lockdown. “We don’t have coronavirus cover but we do have event interruption cover. We are having complicated conversation with our insurance brokers, which is ongoing,” Benson says. “When you get down to this level, it’s a question of interpretation.”
Nazy Vassegh, the founder of Eye of the Collector, a new art fair that was due to launch in London in May has been postponed until September, says the “limbo situation” for small, self-funded businesses such as hers is “incredibly challenging”. She adds: “As I currently understand it, there are no insurance provisions for Covid-19. We have moved to September in the hope that we can go ahead, however, we are still waiting to see if our insurance can be transferred to these later dates.” As with other fairs, Vassegh is launching an online viewing room in May.
Trouble at the Top
Although smaller businesses may appear more vulnerable, those at the top are not immune. The Swiss-based MCH Group has been hit with the cancellation or postponement of a number of its fairs including, Masterpiece London and Baselworld watch and jewellery fair.
In early March, MCH predicted sales losses of up to CHF170m ($177 million) for 2020, but said in a statement that rescheduling does not “endanger the stability of the company”.
MCH is now considering axing Baselworld after its main exhibitors—Rolex, Patek Philippe, Chanel and LVMH—walked out last week to set up a rival fair in Geneva. Exhibitors were unhappy over the refund terms offered after the fair was postponed to January 2021. MCH’s policy has been to retain around 15 to 25 percent of dealer fees. Frieze, meanwhile, offered a full refund after cancelling its New York edition.
The Swiss events firm has now been reorganised into four divisions that separate its art-related industries, Swiss events, venues, and live marketing solutions. Its U.S. marketing division laid off 150 employees earlier this month, a move that does not affect the Art Basel fairs. Following the Baselworld fiasco, and in the midst of restructuring, one of MCH’s leading investors, Erhard Lee, called for the Swiss firm’s breakup, according to Bloomberg.
There have also been 250 layoffs at Endeavor, the Hollywood sport and entertainment conglomerate that bought a 70 percent stake in Frieze in 2016. Nonetheless, support from the top appears, for now, to be solid. Endeavor currently retains its investment in the fair, while Frieze’s main sponsor, Deutsche Bank, says it “remains committed” to the show.