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Art fairs have survived cancellations, travel restrictions and budget cuts. They now face a new challenge: the brain drain


The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Artnet News Pro that lifts the veil on what really happening in the art market.

The art fairs have survived months of closings, cancellations, drastically reduced results and belt tightening. Now comes the next hurdle: the brain drain.

Several prominent executives from major trade shows, including Art Basel, Frieze and Armory Show, have decamped this year, adding to growing concerns about the future of the business model.

“No one believes it’s sustainable,” said Alain Servais, Brussels-based collector and industry observer. “If you are a manager or an executive with a little ambition, you understand that this is not the place to stay.

Noah Horowitz, who had been director of Art Basel in the Americas since 2015 and was seen as the next to lead the business, joined Sotheby’s last month to expand its services for galleries and private dealers. Eliza Osborne, deputy director of the Armory Show in New York City, resigned days after the fair concluded its first edition since the pandemic in September. Rebecca Ann Siegel, director of Frieze Americas, resigned in August after a year in the role. His predecessor, Loring Randolph, went on to become director of the Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger collection in Texas.

From left to right: Loring Randolph, Rebecca Ann Siegel, Noah Horowitz and Eliza Osborne.

The pandemic hit art fairs particularly hard as live events were canceled and international travel came to a screeching halt. Without booth rental income, income plummeted. Online viewing rooms, a key innovation in the Covid era, were mostly offered for free, especially at the start, and didn’t add much to the bottom line (much to the chagrin of salon business owners).

At the same time, galleries, which had come to depend on art fairs for much of their sales, realized that they could survive without them. (This was especially noteworthy given that art fair sales accounted for around 48% of dealer income in 2019, according to the Art Basel UBS Art Market report.) Sure, income was down, but so was spending. In the end, only a few galleries were forced to close and many found new ways to prosper and grow.

Instead, it’s the art fair industry that faces a toll.

The problems were already there, an industry insider told me, “The pandemic just put a mirror in everyone’s face. “

When Covid-19 hit, most major cities had an art fair, some more than one. A recent pre-pandemic count estimated these events to number 300, one for almost every day of the year.

“People were exhausted by the number of fairs, the treadmill that the art world has become,” said Paul Morris, co-founder of The Armory Show, who left in 2012. “Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate things, find a balance. Or maybe we’ll go back just because there was so much money and success involved.

The Armory Show 2021, an international art fair, opens to visitors at the Javits K. Jacob Convention Center in Manhattan in New York City, United States on September 10, 2021. Photo by Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

The Armory Show 2021 at the Javits K. Jacob Convention Center in Manhattan on September 10, 2021. Photo by Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

Collectors are not the only ones to wonder about the durability of the model. “Foreigners who watch people who work for fairs see a glamorous lifestyle,” said a former market official. “But it’s exhausting. They are all over the world all the time. It’s even harder for mothers. And it doesn’t stop. There is a huge burnout.

Change may already be underway as the power dynamics between exhibitors and trade show organizers have changed. A few years ago, galleries were clamoring to enter fairs, Servais said on the phone from the FIAC in Paris, his fourth professional event in a month.

Now they’re calling for cuts and the fairs are doing all they can to make sure the galleries don’t pull out.

Art Basel cut prices at its renowned Swiss fair in the spring by 10%, then, under increasing pressure from exhibitors, raised a $ 1.1 million “solidarity fund” to help further cut costs at the eleventh hour. (Organizers have yet to reveal how many galleries have chosen to take advantage of the relief.) At this year’s Frieze New York, merchants ended up paying less for the stalls than they did. had done in previous years because the stalls at his new location, the Shed, were smaller. Meanwhile, Art Cologne, which returns next month, will reimburse 34% of its exhibitors with funding from the German government.

These are temporary solutions, of course. In the long term, said Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel, “it is important that we continue to take advantage of two things that emerged during the pandemic: one being the new digital tools and innovations that we and our galleries have. developed; and the other a strong sense of collegiality.

Art Basel 2021. © Art Basel

Art Basel 2021. © Art Basel

Most of the major fairs, including Art Basel and the Armory Show, were founded by art dealers. But as the industry grew, trade shows multiplied and expanded, attracting funders as key sponsors as well as full owners. The Armory Show is now owned by a real estate conglomerate, Vornado. Entertainment company Endeavor acquired a 70% stake in Frieze in 2019. Art Basel owner MCH Group attracted a new investor over the summer, James Murdoch.

“If you are now owned by a multinational, you have a lot of other schedules to fill that are purely financial,” said Elizabeth Dee, co-founder of the Independent art fair in New York. “These are businesses and there is a lot of pressure to make money.”

One of the challenges is to expand beyond an annual mega production (like a wedding) to spread the fixed costs (like wages).

Dee, for her part, is looking into digital content for original programming, including editorials, podcasts and panel discussions, during the off season. “There is such an opportunity for the next generation to come and say, I want to go beyond the fairs,” she said. “You have to make connections between dynamic and powerful online storytelling and dynamic and powerful exhibits at the fair. The big fairs of the future must believe that these two things [are] equal.”

Pop-up events in wealthy enclaves can be another strategy. “Like Frieze in the Hamptons,” Servais said. “People will come. “

Where it started was the proto-Armory Show known as the Gramercy International Art Fair in the mid-90s, here with an installation by Rachel Harrison. Courtesy of Kenny Schachter.

Some of the best ideas, events and shows are born out of adversity, Morris said. In 1994, when the art world was in a deep recession, he joined three other dealers to start an art fair at the Gramercy Park Hotel, charging galleries $ 50 for a room.

The event would later become known as the Armory Show, spanning a host of satellite events and fairs known as Armory Week.

“The art world is really open to new ideas,” he said. “Now art fairs have the opportunity to examine how they work and find a balance between in-person and online presence. Basel schedules the whole city with events and people love to see it all. But if you can’t do it, that doesn’t mean you can’t buy.

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