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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 4 March 2021

Art Basel 2021 postponed: Delayed Swiss fair to instead offer 'online viewing rooms'

The hallmark art event has been pushed back from June to September, after the 2020 event was cancelled entirely

Visitors look at the artwork of Barbara Kruger at Art Basel in June 2018. The 2021 fair will be postponed until September, organisers have confirmed. Getty Images  
Visitors look at the artwork of Barbara Kruger at Art Basel in June 2018. The 2021 fair will be postponed until September, organisers have confirmed. Getty Images  

Art Basel's centrepiece Swiss fair will be postponed, organisers have announced, with the event moved from June until September.

While the announcement isn’t much of a surprise, amid many countries battling rising Covid-19 case numbers, the postponement is the latest acknowledgment that a return to group events is still a long way away.

“It will take a while, even now that we have vaccines,” said Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s global director, on Thursday, January 21.

“The nature of Art Basel shows is that they’re large-scale events. Their success is dependent on widespread international travel, and that, for us, is the uncertainty for how long it will take [to resume]. So postponing from June to September makes the most sense.”

Art Basel is traditionally the final stop on the spring / summer global art buying tour.

Unlike other art fairs, where galleries bring comparatively affordable work that can be snapped up by impulse buyers, the Swiss fair is a showcase for the best dealers have to offer. Galleries will often hold back their most expensive pieces so that they can present them to Art Basel’s nearly 90,000 visitors.

In 2019, the last time the fair took place, an estimated $4 billion worth of art was crammed into a sea of booths and private viewing rooms, as crowds delighted in spectacles such as a 30-foot inflatable recreation of a Nike sneaker by Olaf Nicolai and a 28-foot sculpture by Tom Wesselmann. Last year’s fair was cancelled entirely after a similar postponement to the fall.

Online viewing rooms offered as a replacement

Now this sales opportunity is gone – or at the very least, delayed until Art Basel’s rescheduled VIP preview day on Tuesday, September 21 – leaving dealers to generate sales through other means.

“The annual June edition of Art Basel in Switzerland is a lodestar – for Hauser & Wirth and the entire art world,” says Marc Payot, co-president of Hauser & Wirth gallery. “Given all the indicators and the continued intensity of pandemic, we actually anticipated the postponement and planned accordingly by developing a series of exceptional late spring exhibitions for our gallery spaces.”

Art Basel, for its part, is planning three online viewing rooms (OVRs).

The first will take place between Wednesday, March 24 and Saturday, March 27 and will be “dedicated to artists who have broken new grounds aesthetically, conceptually or socio-politically", according to a press release. The second and third will be held in June and November respectively, with major themes yet to be determined.

“Nobody in their right mind considers an OVR with 100 galleries to be a substitute for an art fair,” says Spiegler. “We think that under a specific set of conditions, and handled in the right way, these digital events do bring attention to galleries and artists.”

What now for fellow art fairs?

Art Basel has cancelled its 2020 show. Courtesy Art Basel
Art Basel cancelled its 2020 show entirely. Courtesy Art Basel

The news of the postponement strikes a blow to other art fairs, who are, as yet, going ahead with plans for in-person fairs this spring and summer.

Frieze plans to hold its annual New York fair between Wednesday, May 5 and Sunday, May 9, and has already pushed its Los Angeles fair from February to July. Tefaf, a showcase for old masters and decorative arts, has scheduled the European branch of its fair for Saturday, May 29 in the Dutch city of Maastricht.

Art Basel Hong Kong plans to open its doors in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on Wednesday, May 19.

In light of the same factors that postponed the Swiss fair entirely, Spiegler’s ambitions for the Asian event are limited.

“We’ve already informed visitors that we expect strong travel restrictions, but it’s not clear what the state of play will be there,” he says. “We’re hoping for a regional fair, but keep in mind that there are many international galleries that have gallery spaces and staff in Hong Kong.”

Published: January 22, 2021 10:12 AM

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