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Art world sets plans for 2021 fairs (in pencil)
The Tefaf Maastricht fair in the Netherlands in March 2020. Exhibitors and collectors are looking cautiously forward in the coming year, knowing that their schedules will be at the mercy of the coronavirus. Via TEFAF via The New York Times.

by Scott Reyburn

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Thousands of well-heeled frequent flyers browsing around yet another exhibition center, in yet another country, eager to discover the art world’s next big thing …

That was the fun of art fairs, the destination events that defined and fueled a global boom in recent years. In 2019, sales from the world’s art fairs reached an estimated $16.6 billion, with dealers relying on fairs to generate more than 40% of that year’s revenue, according to last year’s Art Basel & UBS Art Market Report.

But the coronavirus pandemic stopped the art fair merry-go-round. Back in March, the Tefaf Maastricht fair in the Netherlands closed four days early when an exhibitor tested positive for the virus. After Tefaf’s closure, at least 25 participants and visitors reported having COVID-19 symptoms. Mass-attendance art fairs have been on hold ever since, replaced — with limited success — by less lucrative online equivalents.

Now, as countries roll out vaccination programs, even with the virus continuing to mutate and infection levels rising, the art world is banking on the return of in-person events. In November, live fairs made a comeback for local collectors in China, where infection rates had subsided.

But most of the art world’s major international events scheduled for the early months of 2021 have already been postponed or converted into more pandemic-aware formats.

The ARCO Madrid fair has shifted from February to July, as has Frieze Los Angeles, which this year will leave Paramount Studios and be dispersed across several smaller venues in the city. Tefaf Maastricht has moved from its traditional March slot to May, as has Art Basel Hong Kong. Frieze New York says it will maintain its usual May timing, but it has cut its exhibitor list by two-thirds and will move from Randall’s Island to the Shed, the new cultural center in the Hudson Yards area of Manhattan.

“New York is one of the few cities where you can hold a fair for 60 international galleries without having to rely on a huge international attendance. There are so many collectors in the city,” said Victoria Siddall, the Frieze board director. “It’s a much smaller fair, but it felt right for the first half of the year.”

Alain Servais, a Brussels-based collector who before the pandemic would typically attend around 15 major art fairs per year, said the crisis provided an opportunity for smaller regional events.

Servais said that he planned to be in the Netherlands in early February for Art Rotterdam, a showcase mainly for Northern European galleries representing emerging artists that as of Tuesday was still scheduled to be an in-person event. But Arabella Coebergh, a spokeswoman for Art Rotterdam, said that an expected announcement by the Dutch government next week regarding pandemic restrictions could lead to the postponement of the fair until July.

Still, Servais said, “There is room for local fairs if they have a good focus — I’m not so worried about them.” But he added: “The big international fairs are most exposed this year. People will travel less, and these fairs count on international attendance for their success.”

This shake-up of the international fair scene comes at a time when, in a contracting art market, many gallerists were already questioning the cost of exhibiting at such events.

“In 2017, we were doing 12 art fairs,” said Marianne Boesky, a New York-based gallerist. “I felt I had to do these events. They’d gotten so expensive. When I looked at our revenues compared to overheads at art fairs, we barely broke even, and that didn’t count the man-hours.”

In 2021, Boesky’s program will be cut down to about six fairs in Europe, the United States and Asia, she said. “But I’m not sure,” she added. “Every two weeks we seem to change our plans.”

Arguably, the bellwether test for the mass-attendance art fair model will come in June at Art Basel in Switzerland. In recent years, the event has become a must-attend fixture for most international collectors. The in-person fair, which usually features about 290 exhibitors drawing about 90,000 visitors, was canceled last year and converted to an online format.

“If th​ings go quickly in the right direction with new vaccination programs and we start to see a lifting of travel restrictions, we’d love to have Art Basel Hong Kong in May and Art Basel in Basel come June mark the beginning of a huge comeback for the art world and the art market,” said Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s global director. “Now, that’s our hope, but it’s not our only scenario.”

If Art Basel does take place, with or without the glitzy parties and dinners that go with it, will a critical mass of collectors, curators and advisers be prepared, or allowed, to fly across the world to be there?

At this stage, many fairgoers remain cautious.

“As much as I would love to attend Art Basel in June, I will not like to attend a fair until such an event is no longer the highest-risk activity for COVID-19,” said Heather Flow, an art adviser based in New York. “I will not suggest a client attend a fair until the risk level is lower. Very few people enjoy buying art online, but no one wants COVID-19.”

Nikolaus Barta, a collector based in Vienna who fell seriously ill with COVID-19 after visiting last year’s Tefaf Maastricht, said he was thinking about visiting Art Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, in March, but no other in-person fairs.

“If you get on an Emirates flight, you have to have been tested,” he said. “I have had a bad feeling about fairs after Maastricht. In Europe they are too big and too crowded. I’ve had COVID, but the virus is mutating. You never know.”

Boesky, the New York gallerist, said she did not expect the art fair scene to fully return until September at the earliest. That would be just in time for the rescheduled Armory show and the following month’s Frieze fairs in London and FIAC in Paris.

Even that seems premature to Josh Baer, an art market commentator and adviser based in New York. His influential Baer Faxt online newsletter predicted last week that 2021’s “first real art fair in person” would be Art Basel Miami Beach in December.

Like many in the art world, Baer regards online viewing rooms as a poor substitute for the real thing. “Collectors are already bored of online everything,” he said.

Patience, of course, is a virtue. And it appears that art fair organizers and exhibitors are in for a virtuous 2021.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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