Art Basel prepares to return and descends from its ivory tower

Art Basel offered galleries, such as König Galerie, owned by Johann König (seen bowling alley on Messeplatz in 2017) a 10% discount on stand prices to reflect difficult trading conditions and higher shipping costs .
Courtesy of Art Basel

Marc Spiegler, the world director of Art Basel, has just listened to an episode of the Ezra Klein podcast, on the extended mind. “It’s about how humans are trained to think not in a linear and static way, but in a mobile and physical way. It is about learning to take into account what we call intuition or gut feelings, and to read bodily signals as signals when interacting with others. The way your mind works differently when you walk than when you sit.

There, in the interview’s preamble, Spiegler sums up why the return of actual art fairs, where we carefully roam / interact / avoid people, is so needed by an intuitive industry weary of Online Viewing Rooms (OVRs). – a “linear, static” if there is one.

Spiegler is preparing the return of Art Basel to Messeplatz (September 24-26, preview days 21-23). When we spoke at the beginning of August, his team was still developing the floor plan, “normally done two and a half months before the show”, as galleries are reluctant to confirm the plans. The company had to “lay off about 10% of our staff,” Spiegler said, although she was “happy that some of our losses were covered by insurance” and had government support in Basel, at Hong Kong and the United States. The team has been busy, however, hosting ten OVRs since March 2020 and launching a podcast, Intersections, in July, hosted by Spiegler – for a podcast addict who listens at 1.2x speeds to browse more, it seems its natural territory.

Marc Spiegler, Managing Director of Art Basel
Courtesy of Art Basel

“Uncertainty is the predominant theme of our lives, for anyone running any type of physical business … and obviously for us the complexity is that many galleries decide whether or not to ship works to Basel. “, explains Spiegler. “So we had a first [application] June 1 deadline, which we pushed back by three weeks. During these weeks, Switzerland relaxed its travel restrictions and attendance on VIP days may remain the same, but public days will be reduced by 20% (all visitors will have to “be fully vaccinated, provide a recent Covid test- 19 negative or have evidence of sufficient antibodies due to recent recovery from Covid-19, ”according to an Art Basel press release.)

Over the past month, there has been growing uncertainty around the fair. Art Basel was keen to reassure the galleries, despite the tightening of restrictions on international travel and complicated Covid policies in Switzerland. The fair has now introduced one-off initiatives that Art Basel director Marc Spiegler recounts The arts journal are “extraordinary measures for extraordinary times”. First, Art Basel has pledged to foot the bill for all the 40 hotels needed and second, it will establish a “solidarity fund” of 1.5 million Swiss francs ($ 1.6 million) which will be distributed between all the galleries disappointed with their sales at the fair. more on that later.

Despite last-minute nerves, the event is still awaiting 272 exhibitors, some of whom will share a booth with another gallery (there are six joint booths, including The Approach with Kate MacGarry, Bergamin & Gomide with Galeria Luisa Strina, and David Nolan Gallery with Sperone Westwater), or take satellite cabins. Others will participate in the new section, called Wunderkammer, small exhibits in another’s booth. For example, the booth of the Galerie Jocelyn Wolff will host the presentation of Take Ninagawa. There are 24 first-time attendees in all, including Ben Brown Fine Arts, Bridget Donahue, Company Gallery, Garth Greenan Gallery, Kasmin, Venus Over Manhattan, Emalin, LambdaLambdaLambda and Edouard Malingue Gallery.

The Unlimited section returns – with 62 large-scale works organized by Giovanni Carmine, the director of the Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen – just like Parcours, with 20 in situ projects across the city, organized by Samuel Leuenberger, the founder of the non- profit Salts in Birsfelden, Switzerland. The artists Monster Chetwynd and Cecilia Bengolea take over the commission of the Messeplatz, creating two “performative interventions”.

A change of tone

Anyone who has read Art Basel’s communications to its galleries during the pandemic will have noticed a marked change in tone. In the past, the institution spoke in an almost clinical voice from its ivory tower. But it seemed ill-suited for a pandemic. “There was a time when what we expected of ourselves, and frankly what galleries expected of us, had to be authoritative and very clear in our communication,” says Spiegler. “I remember in March 2020 writing a letter to our exhibitors and delivering it to my team saying, ‘before you look at this you should know that the tone is very different from what we did in the past “.” He believes that “a certain humility, empathy and transparency are essential in communication [now]… Tell people what we know and what we don’t know.

But can Art Basel maintain its position while admitting that it too does not have all the answers? Spiegler is adamant: “You cannot be humble and arrogant, but you can be bossy and humble. The only way to stay a market leader is to stay close to your galleries.

The company gave all exhibitors (except Satellite and Wunderkammer attendees) a 10% discount to reflect the tough business environment and higher transportation costs. He is also promising a full refund from the gallery if he has to cancel the Basel Fair due to the pandemic – the same commitment was made for the Hong Kong Fair and applies to Miami Beach in December. This, Spiegler admits, is “an incredibly risky position to take, but it is the only reasonable one for us. I don’t see anyone buying insurance for pandemics this year. Quite frankly, we felt that if we didn’t offer that insurance then a lot of galleries wouldn’t take the risk with us. He continues: “There is a saying that you can dance in the rain or wait for the storm to stop. Some fairs have been canceled, but we have chosen to take the risk, because it is important for our galleries.

After growing concerns about international travel to Switzerland last month, a number of powerful US-based galleries wrote an open letter to Art Basel suggesting the fair be canceled. Art Basel responded with its own letter saying it remains committed to moving forward but will offer concessions to exhibitors, including postponing stand fees until 2022 if they cannot enter. the country and the supply of personnel to run virtual booths.

Spiegler acknowledges the stressful situation and says Art Basel can “understand why some galleries are suggesting we should cancel the fair”. He adds, “To be frank at the outset, the current conditions are not what we expected when we postponed the fair until September. At the same time, many other galleries and collectors have reached out to stress the importance of putting on the show under the circumstances.

James Murdoch’s company, Lupa Systems, bought at the end of 2020 a majority stake in MCH Group, the parent company of Art Basel. his knowledge and contacts to help us do that.

For now, Spiegler has an eye on Art Basel in Miami Beach in December, which he will oversee “in the short term” before another Americas director finds himself running the event after Noah Horowitz leaves quickly. , who resigned from his post. in July and joined Sotheby’s this month, for the opening of Art Basel.

And as for the possibility of another fair, Spiegler thinks the market is saturated: “I don’t think the world needs another art fair right now. Although, “we are always open to possibilities”.

Art Basel, Basel Fair, September 24-26

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