For 19 years, Art Basel Miami Beach has injected a jet-fueled blast into the local cultural and tourism calendar. The fair doesn’t just put a massive trove of world-class art on public display, but also draws mobs of some of the world’s richest people, fills hotels and restaurants, and, not incidentally, helps sustain Miami’s ongoing maturation as a global center for culture and commerce.
The contemporary-art fair has been canceled only once. What would have been the inaugural show was called off following the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
But, with five months to go, a big question hangs over the 2020 editions of Art Basel Miami Beach and its companion but much smaller Design Miami fair: Will the show go on?
The COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened long-running financial woes at Art Basel’s parent company in Switzerland, forcing MCH Group to cancel lucrative sister fairs in Hong Kong and its hometown of Basel — on the 50th anniversary of the signature show that spawned the art-fair phenomenon, no less. Desperate for a cash infusion, MCH said last month it’s looking for an investor to buy a minority interest in the company as it lays off employees at its separate live-events division.
Now the accelerating spread of the novel coronavirus across South Florida and the rest of the country has further complicated the picture for revenue-starved MCH, raising fresh doubts over the prospect of holding a crowded, indoor international art fair in what could still be an epicenter of the pandemic come December.
As of right now, Art Basel on the Beach still on. Organizers say they’re planning on holding the Miami Beach fair from Dec. 3 to Dec. 6 “if at all possible.”
But fair director Noah Horowitz hedged his bets considerably. He said the decision will be determined by the course of the pandemic and orders or guidance from government and public-health officials, as well as the willingness of exhibitors and collectors to participate.
“Our fairs play a critical role for our galleries—in terms of generating both sales and new relationships—and for many exhibitors those needs have never been greater,” Horowitz wrote in an email in response to questions from the Miami Herald. “It is extremely important to us that we support our galleries as best as we can, and we will continue to plan for our December fair as long as the circumstances allow. Likewise, we are mindful that our show held in Miami Beach each December is an important economic driver to the local economy.”
Horowitz did not address whether there’s a hard deadline for the decision on whether to go on or not.
But it likely can’t wait much past summer, and could be made sooner. That’s because of the event’s long lead time — in large part a product of the complex, lengthy logistics of packing and shipping valuable art from around the world and building up the vast, elaborate show floor at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
Also playing into the decision will be financial calculations by gallery owners whose businesses have been already hard hit by the pandemic, including some of the biggest in the world. Mega-dealer David Zwirner, an Art Basel mainstay, recently laid off 40 employees amid an expected 30 percent drop in sales, for instance. (Zwirner, like other blue-chip galleries, received at least $2 million in paycheck protection payments from the federal government.)
Show-booth fees, shipping and staff travel to art fairs can amount to tens of thousands of dollars. Many galleries are closing or in danger of going under: Artsy.net reported that a third of France’s art galleries expect to close by the end of the year, while U.S. dealers projected a 73 percent drop in overall gross revenue.
Those gallerists may be unable to afford the cost of attending Art Basel. Even if they can, the expenses represent a considerable risk if collectors and buyers — many of them older people susceptible to developing serious COVID-19 symptoms — fail to show up. Moreover, even if the Beach fair takes place, it’s may be in a space reconfigured to allow for social separation, likely meaning fewer or smaller booths, if not both. Attendance would likely be limited, too, though that may not be as significant because most people who buy tickets don’t come to buy.
Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who has been critical of the city administration’s coronavirus lockdowns, said he would welcome a full-fledged Art Basel but doubts it will happen.
“For the galleries, it’s now close to the point where it’s a go-or-no-go decision,” Arriola said, citing the logistical challenges amid so much uncertainty. “Art collectors themselves may be hesitant to come. We don’t even know whether the U.S. will allow people from certain countries in, including Europe and China — and Chinese galleries and collectors have increasingly been a presence at Art Basel. . Given that, I don’t see how Art Basel can happen in 2020.”
But he still hopes the show can happen with a reduced footprint or with some kind of a hybrid model combining online sales and viewing with private or limited in-person showings.
“They would have to re-imagine Art Basel this year,” Arriola said. “Maybe it could be more private viewing and less of a party atmosphere. I do hope we have some semblance of it. It’s important for us economically. And not only that, art and culture are vital. We can’t abandon hope. We need to signal to the world that Art Basel will continue, even if it’s not the Art Basel we’re accustomed to.”
Horowitz confirmed that Art Basel is in discussion with Miami Beach city officials regarding health safeguards at the fair, but provided no details, which he said will come “at a later date.”
“We are actively addressing all of these factors,” he said. “The health and safety of our guests, staff, partners, and exhibitors remain our primary concern, and we are prepared to take any necessary measures to safely hold the fair and to ensure the best possible experience for all participants and visitors. We are in active conversation with City officials and our local partners as we develop this framework.”
In a Wednesday letter to exhibitors, Horowitz said updates on health and safety procedures and policies would come by early September at the latest.
Some other fairs, like Art Basel competitor Frieze, have looked to stagger visitors on the all-important VIP-only opening day, when many of the big sales take place. Frieze is still planning to hold its simultaneous Frieze London and Frieze Masters shows in October, but converted its recent New York fair to an online-only affair.
That’s a tack galleries and art fairs, including Art Basel, are increasingly taking in the face of the pandemic. Art Basel held online fairs in place of its Hong Kong and Basel on a new Online Viewing Rooms platform. About 100 participating galleries also hosted related virtual events on their own websites for the June Art Basel fair, Horowitz said.
Art Basel has not disclosed sales numbers but said artworks on offer were valued at $1 billion. Reports suggest that at least some collectors have overcome hesitation to make big online purchases. Artsy.net reported that one big gallery, Hauser & Wirth, sold an “enormous” painting by Mark Bradford for $5 million, while Zwirner made 10 sales, including a Kerry James Marshall painting purchased by a U.S. museum for $3 million.
“We received positive feedback from galleries across all levels of the market, many of whom shared that the platform generated serious and qualified leads and connections, as well as strong sales,” Horowitz said. “Ultimately, while nothing can replace the experience of visiting Art Basel in person, it was hugely important for us to be able to provide an opportunity for the art world to engage and stay connected.”
Another Basel competitor, UNTITLED, ART, which holds an art fair in a tent on the beach during Miami Art Week, announced this week that it’s launching a four-day online fair on July 31 using video-game software to set up virtual-reality galleries and aisles that visitors can “stroll” through. UNTITLED, which also holds a fair in San Francisco, has not said whether it intends to hold its Miami Beach fair this year.
The digital offerings, coupled with the live fairs, may turn out to be a growing piece of the Art Basel empire as executives search for alternative revenue sources. But MCH Group says the live art fairs will remain the core of their business.
“Our teams are now focusing on the digital offerings around Art Basel, as well as on the realization of Art Basel in Miami Beach and Design Miami in December 2020,” Bernd Stadlwieser, CEO of the MCH Group, said in a recent statement.
The emphasis on the art fairs comes as MCH’s other events have taken a nosedive. MCH cancelled a major luxury auto show scheduled for Miami in 2018. Major brands abandoned its Baselworld watch fair, prompting cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 events. MCH also laid off 150 employees of its MC2 live-events division, which the company had touted as a big revenue generator after acquiring it in 2017.
The company, a third of which is owned by the Basel-Stadt canton government, last year rebuffed a minority owner who had been pressuring managers to sell its trade-fair business to focus on live events. MCH said in a release in March that it expected its sales to drop between 130 million and 150 million Swiss Francs ($135-157 million), ouf of an operating budget of 445 million Swiss Francs ($465 million), because of the coronavirus crisis this year, but added that the company is not at risk.
After the company said it was seeking investors, a Swiss newspaper reported that media mogul Rupert Murdoch was considering a deal. On July 1, though, a Murdoch spokesperson flatly denied he’s involved “in any way at all.”
MCH isn’t the only actor in the field desperately seeking a bailout. Endeavor, the giant conglomerate that owns a majority of Frieze as well as the UFC mixed martial arts fighting circuit and the IMG agency, recently saw its credit rating slashed by S&P Global, which recommended it seek a distressed debt restructuring. The company, with liabilities totaling $7.2 billion, laid off 300 of 1,500 employees and took on a $260 million loan in May to stay afloat, the Wall Street Journal reported.