(Bloomberg) -- The number of attendees at the first VIP day of Art Basel in Switzerland seemed to surprise nearly everyone.
“There were days where no one wanted to go, there were days where we were like, ‘No one’s going to be here, but we have to do it anyway.’ It was very up in the air,” says Marc Glimcher, president of the mega gallery Pace. It was only last week, he says, “that I had a feeling it was going to be good.”
Art Basel is known as the world’s most prestigious art fair, with 272 galleries selling hundreds of million-dollar artworks to the world’s super-rich. During normal years, the anticipation and the hype lead to a (genteel) melee at the opening, as collectors rush to their favorite booths to buy works before they’re spirited away by someone else.
That rush was eliminated in 2020, with the in-person fair canceled entirely and moved to online viewing rooms. Then the 2021 edition was delayed until September. Since then, several fairs have dipped their toes in the art market’s waters, but none have been on the scale—or market import—of Art Basel. This means that the art world has had to wait more than two years for the Swiss fair’s concentration of high quality, high price material to provide a true test of the market.
Initially, enthusiasm appeared to be muted. It would be an overstatement to say that there was a rush for anything but the pre-fair Champagne breakfast, and many attendees seemed content to linger in the convention hall’s courtyard, drinking and talking well after the doors to the hall were unlocked at 11 a.m.
“It feels quieter than previous editions, but it doesn’t feel quiet,” says Alex Logsdail, the executive director of Lisson Gallery, which has locations in New York, London, and Shanghai. “On a regular year, that’s my ideal equilibrium,” he continues. “There needs to be a kind of environment where you can have real conversations—and not 30-second pitches where you’re looking over someone’s shoulder to see who you have to talk to next.”
Most of the talking on the first day seemed to be in German and French, a product of the fact that, even though vaccinated Americans can easily enter Europe, they still need to furnish a negative Covid test to get back into the States. The threat of having to quarantine in Switzerland proved a major deterrent for American collectors who would have otherwise attended.
“It’s weird,” says Wendy Olsoff, co-founder of the New York gallery P.P.O.W. “There’s not the usual hubbub of American voices.”
That, for Olsoff, came as something of a relief. She’d brought a variety of pieces to her booth, the most striking of which was a single work by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, composed of 44 photographs taken from 1978 to 1979, which carries the asking price of $850,000. “A lot of people coming from America, who actually we don’t do any business with, take up a lot of energy,” she says. “So having a minute with collectors we don’t know is great.”
Nice, But Not Necessary
That seemed to be the somewhat surprising takeaway from the most Eurocentric Art Basel in recent memory: Even though the U.S. market still represents an estimated 42% of the global art market’s sales value, Americans themselves are nice but not necessary for business.
“There are not many Americans here,” says Glimcher, who sold 20 artworks in the fair’s first three hours. “But evidently, we didn’t need them.”
This year, Glimcher filled his booth with comparatively affordable artworks by the likes of Robert Longo, Sam Gilliam, and Latifa Echakhch; the most expensive was a painting by Chuck Close, priced at $5 million. “We didn’t go out and hunt down $20 million paintings for this fair, I just wasn’t that confident,” Glimcher says. “But I definitely wish I had.”
Art Basel is split into three main areas. Unlimited, which opens a day earlier than the main fair, is located on the second floor of a convention hall adjacent to the building that houses all the booths; there, galleries traditionally stage such large-scale installations as, say, Urs Fischer’s house made entirely of bread, that they hope will be destined for a museum or private foundation.
In the main fair’s hall, the ground floor is primarily filled with dealers selling expensive contemporary and blue chip art. Upstairs is for younger galleries—age, in this case, being a vibe rather than anything specific—showing generally less established artists at lower price points.
A European Rush
On the second floor it was the same story. “The majority of the Americans we work with on a regular basis are not coming this year,” says Daniel Wichelhaus, the head of Société gallery in Berlin. That didn’t keep him from selling 10 artworks, priced from €10,000 to €100,000 ($11,726 to $117,267), in the fair’s first 45 minutes. By the end of the day he’d sold 20 more.
Four out of the 30 artworks were sold to Americans, Wichelhaus says, two of whom stayed home and bought the work remotely. “The energy felt great in the last two weeks already, leading up to the fair,” he says. “It was kind of boiling up.”
After two years of relying on fitful online viewing rooms in lieu of in-person art fairs—during which most galleries managed to thrive—Art Basel’s success this week is being watched closely by dealers as a barometer for future art fairs.
“The last two years have shown people that they don’t need to be flying around, doing art fairs once a month, especially when you’re selling to the same people you know already,” says Logsdail. “It seems extremely wasteful, and it’s draining on everyone’s mental and physical capacity.”
Still, he says, the fair’s first day could augur well for business as a whole.
“We are still in a pandemic,” he says, “and confidence is everything.”
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