The Pressure Points of Global Art Fairs: From Ineffectiveness of OVRs to Insular VIP Parties

Installation view of Taipei Dangdai at the Taipei Nangang Exhibition Center, 2020. Image courtesy Taipei Dangdai.
Insights from The Art Market 2021. Image by CoBo Social.
Insights from The Art Market 2021. Image by CoBo Social.
CoBo Social Design and Architecture

Data from The Art Market 2021, commissioned by Art Basel and UBS, along with real-world insights from the past year, reveal the pressure points of global art fairs such as Art Basel and Frieze. This includes ineffectiveness of OVRs, rise of local and regional fairs, structural economic shifts and the industry’s innate insularity.


TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

This year is not looking very good for global art fairs as they muddle through the impact of COVID-19 on travel and physical events. TEFAF Maastricht has been pushed twice from March to June and now to September, Frieze L.A. from February to July at a new venue. Art Basel, usually slated for June, has been postponed to September, with its exhibition hall in Basel, Switzerland, being used as a vaccination hub.

Art Dubai’s physical edition has been rescheduled from 17 to 29 March, with a change in venue and a reduced number of exhibitors. Postponed from March to May, Art Basel Hong Kong is offering “ghost booths” while facing extended quarantine measures, and a shortage of supply containers. Originally pushed from January to May, and then to July, Taipei Dangdai cancelled its edition this year.

Recently released The Art Market 2021, commissioned by Art Basel and UBS, devotes at least one hefty chapter to making sense of these many challenges faced by art fairs since the onset of the pandemic, through collated quantitative and qualitative data from art fairs, collectors and dealers all over the world. Based on the report, as well as real world observations from the past year or so, here are six takeaways on the state of global art fairs and its various pressure points.


Installation view of Taipei Dangdai at the Taipei Nangang Exhibition Center, 2020. Image courtesy Taipei Dangdai.


When Art Fairs Did Not Happen in 2020

The Art Market 2021 states that fairs, including OVRs, contributed towards 22% of art dealers’ sales in 2020, a sharp drop from 43% in 2019. The numbers make sense to an extent, given the slew of event cancellations and postponements since the onset of COVID-19 and that overall art market sales last year were at its lowest since the 2009 financial crisis, totaling US$50.1 billion.

Following the cancellation of Art Basel Hong Kong in February 2020, the art fair industrial complex tried to remain optimistic, pushing live events such Frieze New York in May and Art Basel in June to the second half of the year. Both fairs were cancelled altogether, along with Frieze London and Art Basel in Miami Beach. Also, who can forget TEFAF Maastricht which went ahead in March and became a super spreader event.

OVRs, OVRs and More OVRs

As such, the report’s collated data, that 61% of the 365 fairs planned for 2020 was canceled, lines up. Instead, the fairs offered online viewing rooms (OVRs) or another digital alternative. Yet, in spite of extensive efforts to push out and promote online initiatives, just 9% of total dealer sales were generated by art fair OVRs.

According to The Art Market 2021, most art dealers were not positive about these digital forays, citing crucial issues such as the lack of physicality in presenting artworks, absence of socialising typical of live events and OVRs not creating any “urge to purchase” or “impulse buying”.

Gallerists were also not happy with the dearth of casual interactivity and introductions with other galleries, rendering OVRs a “less effective forum to share new clients between businesses.” There were reported comments from dealers that OVRs were “more suited to professional clients such as art advisors than selling directly to private clients.”

While largely unsurprising, this feedback does not portend well for the likes of Art Basel which continue to churn out such initiatives like this week’s OVR: Pioneers, running from 24 to 27 March. Even new features, such as a “chance encounter” button, reportedly favoured by collectors at FIAC’s recent online edition might not help much. Afterall, as per The Art Market 2021, 66% of high net worth (HNW) collectors who preferred art fairs as a channel for purchasing artworks, opted for live events rather than OVRs.


Insights from The Art Market 2021. Image by CoBo Social.
Insights from The Art Market 2021. Image by CoBo Social.


The (Possible) Rise of Regional and Local Art Fairs

Interestingly, Mainland China and Taiwan had the largest share of collectors choosing art fairs as their favoured means of buying art, at 19% and 21% respectively, while the lowest OVR take-up rates amongst collectors came from Hong Kong and Singapore. Moreover, in the second half of last year, dealers at several fairs in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and other Chinese cities, reported strong sales and described “buyers obviously craving the physical experience of the art fair”.

Perhaps this explains the slightly more optimistic outlook across the region regarding post-pandemic physical art fairs, especially regional and local editions. For example, Hwang Dal-seung, founder of Keumsan Gallery and the new head of the Galleries Association of Korea, announced in a press briefing on 26 February, that they are in in talks with Frieze about running concurrently with Korea International Art Fair (KIAF) in Seoul. KIAF is also interested in holding an edition in Singapore, alongside ART SG, the four-times-postponed inaugural art fair, now slated for 2022.

International Art Fairs Are Just Too Expensive

Nonetheless, there are various pressing reasons the art world might be slow to jump back on the global art fair bandwagon, even as social and travel restrictions wane and vaccines roll out. The exorbitant costs of participating in international art fairs, for one. A reduction in art fair costs, the single largest aspect of total galleries’ cost (26% on average in 2019), allowed some galleries to compensate for their loss in sales and muddle through the past year with some degree of financial sustainability.

The report’s chapter 4 shows that spending on art fairs and travel by dealers dropped by 66% in 2020, from US$4.6 billion in 2019 to an estimated US$1.6 billion in 2020. Also, only 14% of HNW collectors across the world chose art fairs as their most preferred channel for purchasing in 2020. This could be the start of a new trend, especially since global art fairs were increasingly becoming a question mark in pre-pandemic art world discourse.

We Need To Talk More About Insularity of Global Art Fairs

In addition to high costs, low sales for small to medium sized galleries and the environmental implications of such a travel and logistics heavy event, there is also the engendering of insularity to consider. For example, Art Basel parties are described as “orchestrated rituals of waste” where people “acquire status through spending and wasting” in Ashley Mears’ ethnography of the global VIP party circuit.

This is a socioeconomic aspect not often covered by art market reports but could possibly become exceedingly pertinent, given the overall lack of inclusiveness, equity and diversity in the art world, gaps increasingly highlighted by the pandemic and its ensuing impact.

Do Global Art Fairs Have A Future in the New Economy?

During a panel discussion presented by UBS and Art Basel last week, to mark the launch of their annual art market report, Chief Economist of UBS Global Wealth Management, Paul Donovan explained that the world is not experiencing the usual “recession-recovery model”, involving a gradual grind back to normal.

Instead, he used the word “renewal” to describe the structure of the economy changing in certain irrevocable ways since the onset of the pandemic. Due to these structural changes, there is no recovery for some sectors of the economy. He cited physical department stores as an example.

Given the above-mentioned state of art fairs today, it does raise the question if this sort of redundancy would be the inevitable fate of international art fairs run by multinational corporations such as Frieze and Art Basel, with successful art fairs mostly organised by artists, galleries and gallery associations locally and regionally, if at all?

The art world, and international art fair industrial complex, might find out the answer to this question sooner than they think, given the looming challenges art fairs need to overcome today.



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