School's Out for Summer
Art Basel is officially over and thus completes yet another segment of the seemingly perpetual international fair circuit. The general consensus this year seems to be that sales were up and collectors were in a buying mood, but don’t let that distract you from some of the more pressing issues facing the industry.
As has become The Canvas’s customary end-of-fair tradition, we’ve put together a few thoughts and takeaways from this year’s iteration of Art Basel in Basel. We include warnings that we’re sure will go unheeded, suggestions that we’re positive won’t be taken seriously, and hot-takes that plenty of our readers will find controversial. To keep the conversation going- or offer your own thoughts and suggestions as to what we should cover- feel free to email us by simply replying to this email. We'll respond. Promise.
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Until then The Canvas will be on a beach somewhere contemplating some of the truly important mysteries facing the art world today. How many miles do Marc Spiegler and Noah Horowitz really walk on a fair day? What’s it like to do shots of tequila with Paula Cooper? And what are Cooke and Jennifer’s dates like? Here’s to those questions and more in a universe that doesn't always provide the most satisfying of answers.
1. First thing’s first- we have to come up with a nomenclature that we can all agree on. While those in the industry may intuitively know which gallery is a mid-sized player and which is more of a niche outfit, no substantive reforms can be instituted without having a very clearly defined taxonomy in place. The Canvas isn’t the first one to mention this. Art Basel’s Global Director, Marc Spiegler (amongst others) have repeatedly spoken to the difficulty of having larger galleries subsidize fair costs for smaller galleries when there’s disagreement as to what constitutes a large gallery vs a small one in the first place. Do we measure based on booth sizes at the fair? By number of employees worldwide? By the total value of sales derived over the course of the fair? It’s tricky, and probably more of an art than a science if we’re being realistic about things. But until such a classification system is more firmly set in place, no firm changes can take root.
2. There were 78 galleries from New York spread out across all sectors at this year’s fair (out of a total of 290). With one of the most consistent refrains from dealers being that the ancillary costs of participating in a fair (as opposed to the booth costs themselves) are the biggest obstacles to profitability, The Canvas is shocked (and yet somehow not at all surprised) that more galleries aren’t pooling their resources to negotiate better deals from vendors. Why aren’t dealers working together to achieve better economies-of-scale for travel, hotel, shipping, insurance, security, and marketing costs? Rarely is there a use-case scenario more ripe for increased cooperation leading to better cost efficiencies.
3. We would all love to believe that the 95,000 people who visit Art Basel each year are as dedicated to the curatorial themes of the various sections (Feature, Statements, Unlimited, etc…) as curators and fair organizers have intended. However, as is so often the case in this cruel, harsh world, those hopes would be belied by the pesky facts on the ground. As evidence continues to mount that a small percentage of top galleries are walking away with a disproportionate amount of the benefits from any given fair, it is unconscionable that fair organizers continue to segregate galleries in such a fashion. The Canvas understands that the layout of the Messeplatz lends itself to such shenanigans (as does the Park Avenue Armory’s second floor for the ADAA Art Show and TEFAF New York), but fair organizers need to resist such urges; whether they be motivated by legitimate curatorial purposes or by more capitalistic driven desire. Spread the love around and place smaller galleries next to the behemoths that so readily attract the free-spending collectors like moths to a light.
4. While the poaching of artists and estates from one gallery to the next isn’t an art fair-specific problem, it is perhaps the most pervasive, pernicious, and urgent trend plaguing the gallery ecosystem today. And even though it has long been an undisputed byproduct of an intensely competitive, sometimes incestuous, and almost always unfair art world, the problem seems to be getting more pronounced; with the main perpetrators becoming increasingly bold. The latest such example was gallery heavyweight, David Zwirnerswooping in and stealing the Joan Mitchell estate away from Cheim & Read. Paula Cooper, Sean Kelly, and Jerry Saltz all called out the act for what it was- a clear money grab that never would have passed muster if the artist were still alive. Debate the details all you want (and send The Canvas hate mail- we’re used to it at this point), but until there’s some sort of new policy put in place that discourages the mega-galleries from viewing their smaller counterparts as mere feeder systems meant to be plundered and pillaged at will, then we’ll continue to hear about the woes and struggles across the industry.