PFor just over a year, art dealers, gallerists and collectors unable to travel the art fair circuit have taken over the online exhibition spaces that Art Basel, Frieze and other fairs have made available. For those who have not migrated – even temporarily – to the full digital format, the hybrid model of business between the web environment and the face-to-face environment seemed like a good way out, one that might solidify and remain even after the quarantine. This is the opinion of Iwan Wirth, one of the founders of the mega gallery Hauser & Wirth.

Against the biggest disadvantage being the lack of face-to-face experience, some positive points mentioned by the gallery owners in the OVRs can be listed (Online Viewing Rooms). “At fairs, the price of the booth, travel, accommodation, transport of works and insurance, everything is a very high budget. And even the gallery's virtual exhibitions were cheaper to do. What happened, at the end of the year, is that we managed to keep the billing, but the expenses dropped”, says Alexandre Roesler, from Nara Roesler gallery, in reporter published in the edition #53 de arte!brasileiros. The price transparency in OVRs, on the other hand, is the great attraction for collectors.

French collector François Blanc laments the issue of sociability, which in his opinion helps to distance successful fairs from those that fail. However, Blanc explains that this is the opportunity for galleries to regain control of their market: “Interact with collectors, understand their expectations, identify artists and promote them”. “Mega fairs are no longer in a position to impose their business plan in the period of scarce money and limited transport we are facing. The market has an opportunity to get back to the level of what is really needed in terms of artistic creation,” he tells Forbes.

In an opinion editorial for the portal Artnet, Jonathan Schwartz agrees with Blanc's speech and points out: “I run Atelier 4, a complex fine art logistics business that, suddenly, in March of last year, became basically a storage company”. Gradually, Atelier 4 revived its departments and found work with galleries and auction houses that had switched to online platforms. “We started working in direct collaboration with our customers – who were looking at the walls in their homes and wanting something new to hang; high net worth individuals are staying at home and buying art". In line with Schwartz’s speech, Roesler explains that “this new way of life created another relationship with the space of the house itself, an intense coexistence that made many people start to think about changing things". He even states that some of his clients decided to live for periods in their second homes (outside the city) and began to acquire works for these locations.

“At the end of the year, it looked like we could manage this disaster without a single art fair – and we did”, says Schwartz, finally, and poses an important question regarding fairs: “We've come this far without fairs. Why risk our health now when there is light at the end of the tunnel? The longer we stay in our corners, the faster we get to the finish line.”

Schedule changes at international fairs

The danger of international travel and the – still present – ​​threat of the virus are not disregarded by fair organizations, however. One of the possible phenomena resulting from this is its fragmentation into smaller and local events, instead of having everyone crowd together in a convention center. Frieze New York, for example, has reduced its exhibitor list by two-thirds for the 2021 edition, with the fair taking place at The Shed arts space in Hudson Yards in May. “New York is one of the few cities where you can hold a fair for 60 international galleries without having to rely on a large international turnout,” Victoria Siddall, the director of Frieze, told the New York Times. “It's a much smaller fair, but it felt right for the first half of the year”. Art Basel Hong Kong adhered to the alternative of planning with a local focus and kept its in-person event for the end of May, from the 21st to the 23rd.

Art fairs in 2021: The Shed art space, where Frieze New York will take place in 2021. Photo: Ajay Suresh.
The Shed arts space, where Frieze New York will take place in 2021. Photo: Ajay Suresh.

Art Basel in Switzerland – considered the most important fair on the modern and contemporary circuit – again postponed its 51st edition, from June to September (23rd to 26th). “The decision was made on the assumption that people at risk and healthcare workers will be vaccinated in early summer, so the lockdown and travel restrictions should be eased, with a little bit of protection,” said Marc Spiegler, director of the Art Basel fairs. Liste, the country fair for emerging art, has been moved to join the city's main event.

For now, Tefaf Maastricht does not plan an online alternative and follows the Art Basel movement by moving its 34th edition to September 11-19, having already previously changed its usual itinerary from March to the end of May. According to President Hidde van Seggelen, September seems to be more reliable for the fair-going community. Joining the month of September is also Photo London, which will now be shown at Somerset House from the 9th.

How did social media behave in this scenario?

According to a survey of 1.758 respondents worldwide, conducted by online marketplace firm Artsy, social media overtook art fairs in a ranking of top sales channels for galleries in 2020. While in 2019, 16% of galleries surveyed said their main source of sales was art fairs (after direct contact with clients and personal visits to galleries), by 2020 this had dropped to just 5%. Looking at last year, customer reach still ranks first (28%), followed by sales through the gallery’s own website (from 10% to 17%, from 2019 to 2020). Dustyn Kim, CRO of Artsy, notes that a large proportion of these galleries did not have a significant online presence and that in this period there was a direct correlation between making sales and making prices available to the public.

fair calendar

Art Paris Art Fair: April 8th to 11th.

Chicago Expo: April 8th to 11th.

Art Beijing Art Fair: April 30th to May 3th.

Freeze New York: May 7th to 9th.

Art Basel Hong Kong: May 21th to 23th.

SP Art: June 16th to 20th.

Masterpiece Art Fair: June 24th to 29th.

ARC Madrid: July 7th to 11th.

SP Art Photo: 25st to 29th of August.

ArtRio: September 8rd to 12th.

The Armory Show: September 9rd to 12th.

PhotoLondon: September 9rd to 12th.

Tefaf Maastricht: September 11rd to 19th.

Art Fair List: September 20rd to 21th.

Art Basel: September 23rd to 26th.

Freeze London: October 13nd to 17th.

Freeze Masters: October 13nd to 17th.

Art Taipei: October 22nd to 25th.

Paris Picture: November 11th to 14th.

ArtMiami: November 30th to December 5th.

Art Basel Miami: December 2nd to 5th.


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