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Art Basel shifts to September amid coronavirus concerns
Applicat-Prazan © Art Basel.

by Scott Reyburn

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Art Basel, the centerpiece of Europe’s summer art market calendar, has postponed its June edition in Switzerland until September as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Health concerns permitting, the 50th Art Basel will now take place Sept. 17 to 20, with preview days on Sept. 15 and 16. More than 280 galleries from 35 countries are slated to participate.

“We thank our galleries for the support and understanding of our highly complex decision to postpone the fair,” Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel, said in a statement Thursday. “We hope that the situation improves swiftly, and we will work closely with our exhibitors to deliver a successful fair in September.”

The event will now take place just two weeks before Frieze London, Europe’s other main destination contemporary art fair, and four weeks before FIAC in Paris.

“We all expected it,” said Richard Nagy, a London-based Art Basel exhibitor. “It’s hard to tell if it’s the right thing to do. There are going to be a lot of people hurting by then.”

The fair would provide a much-needed injection of revenue for Art Basel’s beleaguered Swiss-based parent company MCH, whose finances have been hurting in recent months. Exhibitor and attendance numbers have been declining at its flagship Baselworld watch fair, the company’s main income-earner, and in February MCH postponed the edition scheduled for April 30 because of the pandemic. (Bulgari and other watch brands are organizing a rival event.)

Art Basel Hong Kong, Asia’s biggest international art fair, was also canceled last month. The event, which takes place in March, transferred to a digital platform, with online viewing rooms. Exhibitors were typically charged only 25% of their booth fee for participating in the fair.

On Thursday, shares in MCH Group AG were priced at 13.40 francs ($13.91) on the SIX Swiss stock exchange, a decline of 55% of the stock’s price in December.

The pandemic has effectively shut down the bricks-and-mortar art trade. Frieze New York, Art Cologne and Masterpiece London fairs are among the raft of significant events to have been canceled or postponed. Hundreds of galleries have either temporarily closed or reverted to “by appointment only” arrangements. They are struggling to do business as best they can through digital platforms.

“It’s hard to sell anything online at the moment other than new works by blue-chip contemporary artists,” said Fergus McCaffrey, a New York-based gallerist who is a regular Art Basel exhibitor. He described his sales from Art Basel Hong Kong’s online rooms as “very modest.”

“But September is a pretty open moment; it could work, but people are going to be very cautious,” McCaffrey said.

Art dealers have become increasingly dependent on fairs, which in 2019 contributed about 45% of the value of their sales, according to the latest annual Art Basel & UBS Art Market Report. In 2010 they contributed 30% of equivalent sales, according to the report.

Dealers have also pointed out that the fair’s final days coincide with Rosh Hashana (Sept. 18 to 20), which is likely to be a complication for some visitors and exhibitors.

But others are just enthused by the prospect of Europe’s art market coming to life again. “The postponement is very sensible,” said Philip Hoffman, founder and chief executive of the Fine Art Group, a London-based consultancy.

“It’s an awful time for the art trade,” Hoffman added. “By then clients will want to spend money.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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