From Basel to Beeple: how will the art world fare after the pandemic? | Arts and Culture News

The hubbub that descends every summer in an elegant exhibition hall in Basel, where collectors are snatching up art and looking for new talent, is likely to be replaced this year by lines of socially distant Swiss waiting to be released. COVID-19 vaccines.

The Herzog & de Meuron building typically hosts one of the world’s largest art fairs in June, but last year’s event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic and this year has been moved to September . The adjoining convention center has been transformed into a vaccination center.

The art world is reeling from the impact of lockdowns, travel bans and social distancing, and fairs like Art Basel have suffered more than most. The buying and selling of art must adapt to limit the damage.

Global art sales fell 22% in 2020 to $ 50.1 billion, according to the global art market report released on Tuesday by UBS and Art Basel, the biggest drop in the market since the financial crisis from 2007-2008.

But the situation was uneven, the purchases of the ultra-rich, especially in Asia, having held up.

Unlike the financial crisis of 2007-2009, when many of the world’s rich lost money, the super-rich got richer during the pandemic as financial recovery and market volatility helped increase their fortunes. .

The large auction houses, run by Sotheby’s and Christie’s, were already accustomed to telephone auctions and online sales, and could therefore pivot relatively easily to attract cash-rich clients.

Both reported an overall decline, but saw record online activity and resilience among Asian shoppers, while pre-pandemic trends of interest in black, female and living artists were bolstered.

This year, they hope to build on that, capitalizing on an influx of young collectors who have found the online world more accessible than old-school auction houses, and while more traditional buyers aspire to return to the market. real world.

People wait in the registration area at the Impfzentrum Basel Stadt vaccination center at the Messe Basel trade fair convention center in Basel, Switzerland [File: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters]

“There is a huge pent-up demand for experiments and even spending, once there is a little more stability and predictability,” Sotheby’s Managing Director Charles Stewart told the news agency. Reuters.

“We have the potential for just the biggest boom over a period of time, assuming we get to a place where people are comfortable leaving their homes.”


For Christie’s, 2021 saw spectacular confirmation of the potential for wealth creation from the virtual world by hosting a record-breaking $ 70 million digital art sale this month.

In a 14-day online auction, auctions for American artist Beeple’s work started at $ 100 and accelerated dramatically, with 22 million visitors to the auction. listening to the last minutes of the call for tenders.

Christie’s plans to continue the success with further sales of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) or artwork that only exists in digital form.

More and more people seem to be ready to buy works of art online without seeing the reality first.

“What we’ve observed is the simple behavioral truth that collectors are more willing than ever to buy from an image,” said Rachel Lehmann, co-founder of Lehmann Maupin, who owns galleries in the whole world.

Visitors take a photo in front of the installation ‘Plastic Tree’ by Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou at the Art Unlimited exhibition at the Art Basel fair in Basel, Switzerland in 2015 [File: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters]

But she added that the digital space presents a challenge for artists and artwork that doesn’t translate well into an image online.

The winner takes it all

For German artist ANTOINETTE, the lockdown was not so bad: the cancellation of public events allowed her an extended stay in the East German castle of Merseburg, where she worked.

Using only pencils, she creates intricate designs on five-meter-high panels that are part of a multi-year project on European cultural identity called “Europe’s ALTAR”.

Socially distant residents can view her work through windows, and ANTOINETTE said they have become her network.

“I ended up feeling like part of the community,” the artist told Reuters news agency.

But if she is artistically fulfilled, financially her situation is perilous, because commissions such as portraits have dried up during the pandemic.

Smaller galleries are also struggling, experts say, as the pandemic has accelerated the concentration of the art world into fewer hands – very wealthy buyers and high-profile, established sellers.

“Compared to the last recession, when everyone’s wealth went down, in this billionaire the wealth really went up,” said art economist Clare McAndrew, author of the Market Report. art.

“These things are good for art sales … But it goes back to our old problem of really heavy infrastructure and the winner kinda takes it all.”

A poster promotes the exhibition “ Building Castles in the Sky ” by artist Banksy in a building of the Messe Basel fair on Messeplatz square in Basel, Switzerland [File: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters]

The UBS and Art Basel report found that fairs accounted for 43% of art dealer sales in 2019, but only 22% in 2020, of which just under half were generated by digital events.

“The digital world focuses its purchases on what is fashionable [on social media] and through large galleries which employ more than 100 people, ”said James Mayor, who has run the Mayor Gallery in London since taking over from his father in 1973.

Although he has always frequented Art Basel, he has avoided its digital offerings, which he says do not replace the real-life event. Some others agree.

“So far, digital formats have not replaced this as we benefit from face-to-face interaction and the atmosphere of a physical fair,” said Stefan von Bartha, director of the Basel gallery von Bartha, at Reuters News.

It’s not just the galleries that are suffering.

In a normal year, the 100,000 or so visitors to Art Basel in the city help increase hotel room occupancy to near capacity during the first four days of the show, or from around 35 to 60% compared to average levels for the week, the Basel Tourist Office mentioned.


Galleries and advisers interviewed by Reuters News anticipated a resumption in demand for art fairs and tourism after the pandemic.

Art Basel is planning a fair in Hong Kong at the end of May. Other major fairs, including TEFAF and Frieze, said they plan to have live fairs in some format later this year, complemented by digital participation.

A group of people stand in front of the halls of the Messe Basel exhibition center designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron on Messeplatz square in Basel, Switzerland [File: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters]

But even before the COVID-19 crisis, some said there were too many fairs, and galleries and collectors say they will be more selective, sticking to the more local attention they’ve experienced. over the past year.

In Hong Kong, galleries are reporting strong business as China quickly recovered from the pandemic and the appetite for contemporary Chinese art grew.

“People have become very accustomed to the extravagance of the big fairs and the big biennials celebrated in so many big cities,” said Leo Xu, senior manager of David Zwirner Hong Kong. “Honestly, I don’t miss it.”

The gallery, one of Zwirner’s six international locations, was successful in increasing sales in 2020, Xu said, primarily by educating wealthy and tech-savvy Chinese.

Also in Hong Kong, the Villepin Gallery, run by former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and his son Arthur, opened in March at the height of the lockdown pandemic and said it was ” very well done ”.

In New York, gallery owners said there were bright spots, including a much-needed reassessment that could mean the demise of peripheral art fairs, while Art Basel will almost certainly bounce back.

Sean Kelly, who runs a contemporary art gallery in New York City, said the loss of revenue from the art fair was offset by cost savings from opting out.

“We have to start thinking about the cost of art fairs and I’m not talking about the financial cost. I mean the physical and environmental cost, ”he said.

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