Art Basel returns with galleries and collectors eager to connect

Newsletter: FT Weekend

“The era of the exclusively IRL art fair is over,” says Iwan Wirth, co-founder of the Hauser & Wirth global gallery. But cancel events in person at your own risk. Against all odds, Art Basel opens this week in Switzerland with 272 expected galleries – including Wirth’s – and collectors ready to come from all over the world.

Conditions are not ideal for the postponed 51st edition of the world’s most prestigious art fair. The Covid-19 pandemic has by no means gone away, with travel warnings for Switzerland from the United States, difficult or nearly banned trips outside Asia, and strict testing requirements to enter theaters from Art Basel. Before the pandemic, art professionals and buyers complained about “fairtigue” – the exhaustion of too many fairs, at too fast a rate. But now it seems exhibitors and festival-goers prefer the energy – and the high costs – of real events to none at all, regardless of the logistics.

‘Medusa’ (1936) by Lucio Fontana © Courtesy of Ben Brown Fine Arts. Photo: Tom Carter

A white object in the shape of a rugby ball

‘Concetto Spaziale’ (1964) by Lucio Fontana © Courtesy of Ben Brown Fine Arts

London-based Ben Brown, new to Art Basel’s main venue this year, says: “Maybe the juggernaut

brands can exist without [physical] fairs, but people like me need it. So good fairs will survive. Brown has previously exhibited at The Armory Show in New York and signed up for Frieze London, Frieze Masters, the West Bund Art & Design Show in Shanghai, and Art Basel Miami Beach, all before the end of the year.

For the Swiss Fair, his gallery brings 1936-66 ceramics by the Italian modernist Lucio Fontana (100,000-4 M €). These include four pieces that were featured in the Guggenheim Bilbao retrospective in 2019, but even those items are more difficult to sell digitally than a new work by a sought-after artist, according to Brown.

A photo of a woman under various fruits

‘Best Halves Bitter Ends’ (2020) by Urs Fischer © Urs Fischer. Photo from the Urs Fischer workshop. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

New artists benefit from improved sales rates at an actual fair, suggests Marc Spiegler, Global Director of Art Basel: “Even if galleries were successful in cutting costs [by not attending art fairs], they experienced a larger drop in sales. Without fairs, you cannot fund your artists as you would under normal conditions. This is why the galleries need to come back.

Berlin dealer and collector Robert Morat, at Photo Basel this week, says it’s all about the “serendipity” of such events. “Online you find the things you are looking for; in person, you find things you didn’t know you were looking for.

Art Basel won’t have the crowded aisles of previous years but, at the time of writing, collectors were still planning to come from afar, check in and watch each other. “Art Basel is an essential part of our ecosystem in the art world and I think it is important to support it in such an unusual and difficult year,” says collector Catherine Petitgas. She will come from New York and host a dinner for the Tate International Council, which she chairs. “It’s always a pleasure to attend,” she said.

Painting of a female figure composed of purple whorls

“I am Gestein” (2019-2021) by Glenn Brown © Glenn Brown. Photo by Glenn Brown studio. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Simon Castets, director of the nonprofit Swiss Institute for Contemporary Art in New York City, is traveling to Basel in part because of the impact of the pandemic. “Our relationships with Swiss foundations and individuals are essential to our very existence. . . We need to be there to engage our supporters, who have supported us even though they haven’t been able to make it to the United States for 18 months, ”he said.

Valerie Carberry, associated with the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago, said she was “pleasantly surprised” by the number of American collectors planning to come to the fair, plus one client finding a way to come from Hong Kong. “There is no real substitute for seeing art and people physically. I have felt invigorated every time I saw a client in the gallery since the lockdown, ”she says. His gallery brings together a mix of artists, including the lavish “Arriving in Africa” by Helen Frankenthaler (1970) and a 2019 wood and fire hose work by Theaster Gates.

A painting with vertical blue and yellow halves between which a white appears to have been torn

“Arriving in Africa” ​​(1970) by Helen Frankenthaler © Courtesy of the Richard Gray Gallery

The prediction is that the fair will have a more local feel this time around, but it’s in an area with rich pickings. “The very success of Art Basel is due to the powerful Swiss, French and German collectors,” notes Stefan Ratibor, director of the Gagosian Gallery. “In addition, the show now has its digital presence, which protects us from an international audience. His gallery sets fire to the powder with works like “Im Gestein” by Glenn Brown (2019-21), “ubB 6” by Albert Oehlen (2020) and “Better Halves Bitter Ends” by Urs Fischer by 3.65 meters tall (2020) (all three jobs range from $ 900,000 to $ 3 million).

There is also the feeling that it is time to shake off the old ways. Fairs that have gone well this season already include The Armory Show and Independent in New York, both in new venues, and Eye of the Collector in London, a brand new fair that has dotted a range of works in a historic building rather than restrictive stands. .

A brown board appears to have white teeth

‘Shark Bait’ (2016) by Jack Whitten © Jack Whitten Estate. Courtesy of Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Timothy Doyon

At the same time, Hauser & Wirth has strengthened its digital offering, including a more interactive visualization tool on its own website, a daily Art Basel Diaries vlog and a live chat function so that its sales managers can talk to anyone. , anywhere, during the show. His works for Art Basel include Zeng Fanzhi’s “Untitled (Yellow)” (2021, $ 1.8 million), Jack Whitten’s late sculpture “Shark Bait” ​​(2016, $ 3 million) and “Schweinderln (Piggies) »By Maria Lassnig (2007, € 550,000). said Wirth. “We have created a new generation” phygital ” [physical-digital] experience using invisible, intuitive and human technology, including interactive photo-real 3D.

The expectations of gallery owners and collectors are that while it will not be business as usual in Basel this week, there will be business. “I would be surprised and disappointed if I didn’t sell artwork or meet interesting people,” says Brown. As Gagosian’s Ratibor puts it, “It won’t be the same as in 2019, but it won’t go to the supermarket either. We all want Art Basel to work, so we have to keep going. “

September 24-26,

About Margaret L. Portillo

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