LONDON — The international art trade’s hopes of returning to some kind of in-person normality were set back Thursday when Art Basel announced that its flagship fair in Switzerland, scheduled for June, would be postponed until September.
Because of the “ongoing impact of the pandemic and travel restrictions worldwide,” the fair has now been rescheduled for Sept. 23-26, Art Basel said in a statement.
“While the first phase of Covid-19 vaccination programs started in many parts of the world last month, 2021 is a year in which planning remains complex,” said Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s global director. “By moving our Basel fair to September, we hope to offer our galleries greater possibility for successfully preparing their year. Following 10 months of vaccination programs in many countries, we anticipate broad international participation.”
In 2019, sales from the world’s art fairs were estimated at $16.6 billion, generating more than 40 percent of dealers’ turnover, according to the 2020 Art Basel & UBS Art Market Report. But large in-person art fairs have been on hold since March, after the early closure of the Tefaf Maastricht fair in the Netherlands, where an exhibitor tested positive for the coronavirus.
With about 290 exhibitors and 90,000 visitors, Art Basel in Switzerland is the traditional centerpiece of the international art trade calendar. Last year’s June edition was also postponed to September, but was later canceled because of the pandemic and converted to a virtual format of online viewing rooms.
“Until people feel safe at home and traveling, I don’t see art fairs happening,” said Dominique Lévy, co-founder of the international dealership Lévy Gorvy, a regular exhibitor at Art Basel’s fairs in Hong Kong, Basel and Miami. “The continuing cycle of announcements and postponements is negative messaging,” she added.
Lévy said she remained skeptical that Art Basel’s Swiss edition would take place in September. “It isn’t an ideal time,” she said. “Students will hopefully be going back to school and there are Jewish holidays. People will be thinking about more important matters than art fairs. And will countries have completed their vaccination programs by then?”
“Art fairs generated 40 percent of our sales, so all our businesses are down,” added Lévy, who last year opened new galleries in Paris and Palm Beach. “It’s a difficult thing, but they are just art fairs. We just have to adapt and do things differently.”
Despite Thursday’s announcement, Art Basel Hong Kong remains scheduled as an in-person fair in May. London’s Masterpiece fair, also run by Art Basel’s Swiss-based owners MCH Group, is slated as a live event for June.
“In 2020 we relied on our old contacts to get us through; we’re emptied out and need to replenish,” said Guy Jennings, managing director of the London-based advisers, the Fine Art Group. “Gathering people together at art fairs created so many discussions and opportunities. We need that oxygen.”
Jennings pointed out that the absence of art fairs was allowing the major auction houses, with their international marketing machines, to gain an edge over gallerists. In 2020, Sotheby’s sold more than $5 billion of art and collectibles, 16 percent less than in 2019. But private sales, traditionally the sector of the trade dominated by dealers, were up 50 percent at the auction house.
“The absence of art fairs and the buzz they generate has allowed the bigger auction houses and galleries to use their muscle,” Jennings said. “It’s become difficult for smaller dealers.”