Like most global luxury businesses, the international art business has its own flagship brands. one of the largest is Swiss-based art baselWhich hosts fairs of modern and contemporary art from hundreds of the world’s top dealers in Hong Kong, Basel, Paris and Miami Beach for four seasons each year.
A VIP preview of Art Basel’s mother-ship event in Switzerland opened Tuesday. Dealers traditionally set aside their most desirable pieces for Basel, whether they cost thousands or millions. In a massive exhibition center featuring a circular courtyard with booths for 284 gallerists from 36 countries, plus an adjacent hangar for dealers to offer sizable works, the format feels reassuringly familiar.
But directed by James Murdoch, whose Lupa Systems venture capital firm has been an “anchor” investor in the organizer’s Swiss parent company, maternal and child healthFrom 2020, and the new chief executive officer of the fairs, Noah HorowitzArt Basel has been quietly revamping its business model.
“There are some changes and trends that are in place,” Horowitz, 43, said in a recent video interview. “We’re also very open-minded about how the culture is changing,” he added.
“People are always more driven by experience, and people are always more driven by brands,” Horowitz said. “They buy at a major auction house, but they also buy from Art Basel galleries because we are a brand.”
Horowitz’s appointment, announced in october, came as a surprise. he replaces the formidable Mark Spiegler, who oversaw the development of the Fyre brand for 15 years and was widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the art world. Horowitz returned to Art Basel from Sotheby’s, where he had 13 months as head of gallery and private dealer services; Prior to this, he spent six years as the director of Art Basel of America. Miami Beach Fair,
“When I left Art Basel two years ago, one of the difficult things was not knowing what impact James and his partners would have as stakeholders,” Horowitz said.
Murdoch, 50, rarely discussing his vision for Art Basel podcast interview Earlier this month, Grands Prix around the world expressed praise for Formula 1’s “traveling circus” business model that “calls on a wider community.” Although Murdoch said he was not sure how many large fairs the art market could sustain, he said Art Basel is one of those brands that “are bigger than their business, and have opportunities for growth.”
At a time when the art world is facing economic adversities and many fear a market correction, consolidation rather than expansion seems to be Art Basel’s priority. In January, the MCH Group announced that it would no longer organize its Kriti Mela in London in late June, citing rising costs and declining international exhibitors.
In East Asia, a key growth area for the international art market, MCH has recently made measured investments boutique events, such as the SEA FOCUS and Art SG fairs in Singapore, as well as Art Week Tokyo. Industry observers saw these moves as MCH’s hedging against deteriorating trading conditions in Hong Kong, where many of the West’s leading auction houses and galleries have set up branches, and where Art Basel runs a fair. Last year, Art Basel’s main rival, friezeOwned by California-based entertainment group Endeavor, a branded fair opened in Seoul.
But, for now, Hong Kong remains the power art market hub of Asia. The latest May edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, the first held since China’s longstanding coronavirus lockdown restrictions were lifted, attracted 86,000 visitors, just 2,000 fewer than the 2019 event’s attendance.
“That week set a marker for the centrality of Hong Kong in the Asian market,” Horowitz said. As for Art Basel’s other investments in East Asia, these were about “recognizing the size and scale of the Asian market” and “supporting galleries in the ecosystem that sustains them,” he said.
Horowitz said Art Basel’s four own-brand fairs are his central priority. He added that without these developments no expansion can “remain thriving and best in class”.
To ensure this, Horowitz has overseen the introduction of a new management structure for Art Basel’s more than 120 full-time employees. below Horowitz, vincenzo de bellis, a former curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, oversees the management of all four fairs, each of which now has its own dedicated director. In May, Mike Krause, respected former director of Gallery Weekend Berlinwas appointed to lead the Swiss fair.
Yet beyond the scope of corporate restructuring, and the corporate language that goes with it, Horowitz, like Murdoch in their podcasts and Spiegler before them, have a vision of Art Basel as an experience that is more than just an art fair. Horowitz said that Art Basel should use “brand activation” to include other “cultural sections” such as fashion, film, music and design, and “with audiences on the periphery of what we do, potentially to create new realities”.
But how can Art Basel connect with an audience on the fringes of the art world if it charges 67 Swiss francs, or about $74, for a standard day ticket – nearly three times the price of admission? Museum of Modern Art in New York – and charges super-wealthy VIPs nothing for their preview days?
Horowitz said, “We have a duty to drive customers to our galleries,” and “a responsibility to drive the world’s great collectors and institutions to their booths.”
“That’s the business we’re in,” he said.
For all the talk of art fairs becoming zeitgeist-changing cultural events, they remain bottom-line, high-stakes commercial events. Participating dealers, many of whom operate multiple galleries, pay hundreds of thousands of dollars To perform in Art Basel’s traveling circus of fairs. “These dealers are running big business,” said Candace Worth, a New York-based art consultant who, as usual, will be in Basel for the Swiss fair’s first VIP day. “They need to sell a lot of art to keep these businesses afloat.”