Economic crisis bites at Basel art fairs

This article appears on Swissinfo

As you get off the train in Basel this weekend, you immediately realize that you have stepped into a different world. You see swarms of elegant people, wearing high fashion, and speaking a lot of English, all of them in a hurry to get on the tram that takes them in the direction of the fairs. The busyness, and the excitement are palpable. But the main question still is how will the economic situation affect business? Are people still buying?

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At the large fair, Art Basel, I walked around to first see the level of activity. Red dots were seen in many booths even before opening night, and gallery dealers were engaged in agitated conversations presumably with high value clients, since less high-profile tasks such as speaking to reporters, were delegated to their other staff. Of course here, at Art Basel, the discussions are sometimes over multi-million dollar works. At WhiteCube, for example, Jay Jopling was so engaged with a client that when asked about the name of the artist of an unmarked work in the middle of the booth, he snapped, “I’m busy…Dinos and Jake Chapman.”

At Annemarie Verna Galerie, who celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and 28 years of uninterrupted annual participation in Art Basel since the fair’s founding in 1971, the mood was positive. The large booth was impressive – with major works by Robert Mangold, and some by Richard Tuttle, among others. “Our main goal is to make a beautiful exhibition, with strong works by important artists, regardless of price. We didn’t make any adjustments. We wouldn’t do that,” said Gianfranco Verna, the gallery’s co-director. “We have been present at Art Basel since the beginning and have seen all sorts of ups and downs in the market. So, now, we came prepared to not expect much, and we are pleased so far. Staying out of the fair was not even an option for us.”

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Jean Fremon of Galerie Lelong in Zurich, which has been in operation for sixty years, and a constant participant in Art Basel from the beginning, echoed that same philosophy.

However, Mr. Fremon admits that he understood that lowering his expectations also meant bringing work whose prices are adjusted for the market. “Our mission has always been to exhibit the work of contemporary artists, and of course sixty years ago, it was a different group who were considered contemporary. We’re always changing our programme to reflect important contemporary artists, although we have kept some important estates, which don’t need as much promotion as the younger artists. Miro and Tapies speak for themselves. Therefore our price range this year is from 15,000 to about 250,000 euros.” The opening day of Art Basel was a success for Lelong.

From Art Basel to Scope, the scene and the prices changed. The fair that prides itself on being the most cutting-edge and international of fairs, had 90 galleries from only 20 countries participate. After weeks of problems with city permits and unsympathetic neighbors, Scope was finally able to pull it together, and it looked good. But the mood was more measured. Many gallerists were making discounts on work priced under 10,000 euros, and some were saying that people came to Scope from Basel and expected the same discount of 20-30%, which for a piece that’s 500,000 is not so problematic, but for 15,000 it becomes an issue.

At Kashya Hildebrand Gallery, a contemporary-art gallery that shows the work of mainly artists from the East (Russia, India, Pakistan, China, etc), a sale occurred as I was talking to the staff. When I asked if they have had to adjust their operations in light of the economic downturn, they said, “We are reconsidering our participation in some international fairs, and cutting down our advertising budget substantially.”

At Volta, I spoke to Artrepco director, Andrea Hinteregger, who’s showing the work of 2 artists at this fair, Eiko Grimberg and Arthur Zalewski. She said that although people are much more cautious now, and consider longer before buying, if they like the work, the price is not very significant. The work she sells is priced between 1000 and 25,000 euros.

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The idea of “cautious buyers” was repeated a few times at Volta, a rather new fair, co-founded by Kavi Gupta, Friedrich Loock, and Uli Voges. The new space at the Markthalle looked wonderful, and the variety of work and galleries was refreshing – a truly international experience. Although gallerists were enthusiastic about the venue and the event, many adopted a wait and see approach, and some even went so far as to say that if they didn’t make up their costs entirely, the positive side would still remain that they made interesting connections that would further the careers of their artists. Artists in mid-price ranges, like the ones here at Volta and Scope, they said, were the most hit by the economic situation.

People going to Liste in search of low prices were probably surprised. Although billed as the “Young Art Fair In Basel,” many galleries represented artists with years of international exhibiting experience, whose work could be found also at Scope, Volta and even Art Basel. But the space for the fair was unique, and also its most attractive quality. Hosted in an old brewing factory named Warteck, which is currently a multi-purpose event space, with lots of interesting nicks and crannies, turns and dead-ends, the fair used all the spaces very efficiently to exhibit and install art and projects.

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Sales here were uneven. A small 6”x9” painting in one gallery asked as much as 20,000 euros, and when asked if they were making discounts to interested buyers, the answer was, “No, we find it entirely unprofessional to discount the work. It is what it is worth, and devaluing it due to the economic situation does not work for anyone.” At the time of my visit, the gallery had not sold it, nor other pieces they had come with.

If maybe the economic crisis is not absolutely clear from the fairs at Basel, what is interesting is that many galleries chose not to partake in any of them. Zurich based gallerist Ute Barth, from Art Forum Ute Barth, with a roster of important modern artists like Francis Bott, Pierre Alechinsky, Alexander Calder, and many others, but also contemporary artists, chose to stay out this year. “[This year] we had to examine the situation, and my conclusion was not to go to the big fairs. The expenses are enormous and sales [to cover costs] can’t be expected. We are waiting [to see] how the world economic situation will be next year. [For the moment] we stay here in and focus on our main business: connecting art and buyers, doing good shows in the gallery and assisting our clients.”

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