Art Basel’s Flagship Fair Returns IRL with Push and Pull Between Past and Future

Art Basel 2021, Basel, Switzerland. Image courtesy of Art Basel.
Robert Rauschenberg, Rollings (Salvage), 1984, acrylic, collage and graphite on canvas, 386.1 x 395 cm. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / ARS, New York 2021. Photo by Glenn Steigelman. Image courtesy of Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Thaddaeus Ropac.
Philip Guston, The Poet, 1975, oil on canvas, 174.8 x 188.8 x 2.5 cm. © The Estate of Philip Guston. Photo by Genevieve Hanson. Image courtesy of the Estate and Hauser & Wirth.
Art Basel 2021, Basel, Switzerland. Image courtesy of Art Basel.
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This September, Art Basel returned for the first time physically since June 2019. But even with strong sales and the traditional art world crowd, not everything was pre-pandemic typical, thanks to digital disruption, wary gallerists, COVID-19 precautions and more.

TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

Following three postponements and various editions of online viewing rooms since the pandemic hit last year, Art Basel made its physical comeback this month from 24 – 26 September in Messe Basel, Switzerland. The art world’s renowned mega art fair seemed to stand the test of digital disruption and pandemic, mainly due to an art market with deep pockets. At least for now.

 

Art Basel 2021, Basel, Switzerland. Image courtesy of Art Basel.

 

While visitors from Asia and America were markedly low and masterworks “few and far between”, the fair drew 272 leading galleries from 33 countries and territories, and an overall attendance of some 60,000 visitors. Sales were brisk with seven-figure transactions happening during the VIP opening, thanks in part to collectors from Europe turning up.

On the very first day of the fair, Thaddaeus Ropac sold a Robert Rauschenberg work, Rollings (Salvage) (1984), for US$4.5 million to a European museum. Other early big-ticket sales included a Philip Guston painting for US$6.5 million and a David Smith sculpture for US$5.5 million by Hauser & Wirth; a Kerry James Marshall painting from 2021 sold for US$5 million by Jack Shainman Gallery; a painting by Ellsworth Kelly sold for US$3.5 million by Lévy Gorvy; and two Yoshitomo Nara paintings for US$1.75 million each by Blum & Poe.

 

Robert Rauschenberg, Rollings (Salvage), 1984, acrylic, collage and graphite on canvas, 386.1 x 395 cm. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / ARS, New York 2021. Photo by Glenn Steigelman. Image courtesy of Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Thaddaeus Ropac.
Philip Guston, The Poet, 1975, oil on canvas, 174.8 x 188.8 x 2.5 cm. © The Estate of Philip Guston. Photo by Genevieve Hanson. Image courtesy of the Estate and Hauser & Wirth.

 

Paris art dealer Emmanuel Perrotin, who was spotted “buying a little raspberry tart with pep in his step and a big-kid smile on his face”, sold two-thirds of his booth by Thursday.

Other notable art world personalities who made an appearance include acclaimed curator Hans Ulrich Obrist; Sotheby’s former Chairman of the Global Fine Arts Division, Amy Cappellazzo; Hauser & Wirth’s former Sales Director Graham Steele; and of course, renowned Swiss art collector Maja Hoffmann, famous for her recently opened US$175-million arts complex Luma Arles in France. British royal Princess Eugenie was also spotted at the Hauser & Wirth booth as the gallery’s Global Sales Director.

But not everything was pre-pandemic normal.

Prior to the fair opening, due to the widespread Delta variant, the US issuing a “do not travel” advisory for Switzerland at the end of August, and Swiss authorities pushing out strict requirements for entering large-scale events, galleries grew nervous. Art Basel responded with two letters of reassurance, first on 2 September, and the second a week later, offering to foot the bill for hotel quarantine and setting up a US$1.6 million “solidarity fund” for art galleries “disappointed with their sales at the fair”.

Moreover, at Basel this past week, there was a COVID-19 Certification Centre housed in a pop-up marquee tent near the event space where attendees were checked for valid COVID-19 certificates or vaccination proof and provided an access wristband for the fair. There were also face mask mandates and broader aisles for social distancing.

On the other hand, the art market’s digital disruption, accelerated by the pandemic, was fairly evident at the fair this year. Art Basel hosted its Online Viewing Rooms in conjunction with the physical event, along with customised VIP tours via FaceTime and selfie-stick at the request of those who could not attend the fair. Exhibitors also offered their own means of digital engagement such as Lévy Gorvy’s dedicated app to provide a virtual experience of their booth.

NFT, the blockchain technology that rocked the art market this year, made its presence felt, albeit with some confusion and hesitation from the traditional art world. Germany’s Galerie Nagel Draxler presented a “Crypto Kiosk” of NFTs and related digital art by Luke Willis Thompson, DotPigeon, Sarah Friend, Olive Allen, Kevin Abosch and more at its Art Basel booth. Art world gadfly Kenny Schachter, who curated the booth, plastered the word “NFTism” on the walls and floor. The gallery sold “Post-death or The Null Address NFT” by Allen for close to US$30,000 on the opening and Abosch’s NFT for approximately over US$46,000 on preview day.

 

Art Basel 2021, Basel, Switzerland. Image courtesy of Art Basel.

 

The irrefutable conclusion from Art Basel is that the art market is undoubtedly strong because there are many with deep pockets and money to spend. It says a lot that on the first preview day approximately 20 private jets from private aviation company NetJets landed in Basel. In fact, because of its postponement, Art Basel may even have benefitted from coinciding with the Monaco Yacht Show held the very same week.

However, the first major in-person international art fair to be held in Europe since March 2020 also made it clear that it has a long way to go to win over in-person visitors and exhibitors. Dominant perceptions of the fair include that it was “playing it safe”, seemingly unaware of the social media-savvy art market, with many already in the know about artists even before they are shown at Art Basel. While most gallerists were satisfied with the sales and connections made at the event, there is a growing awareness that regionally focused platforms and lower fair participation per year are more favourable options in these uncertain times.

 

 

 
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