Strug­gling gal­leries cast dark shadow over Art Basel open­ing

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - By Ben Si­mon

BASEL, Switzer­land: As wealthy VIPs fil­tered into Art Basel’s im­pos­ing halls to view some of the most valu­able works in con­tem­po­rary art, the staff at Frame Art Fair were a kilo­me­ter away scrub­bing floors.

Frame, which launched in Basel this year, is the new­est satel­lite fair try­ing to re­spond to a wealth gap in the art world, with big-name gal­leries get­ting richer and smaller play­ers in­creas­ingly go­ing broke.

Frame’s founder, French busi­ness­man Ber­trand Scholler, told AFP that the cur­rent sys­tem that sees gal­lerists bat­tle for slots at fairs like Art Basel, where par­tic­i­pa­tion for a small gallery can cost tens of thou­sands of dol­lars, is “killing” art.

“If you are a new­comer, you die,” he told AFP.

He voiced hope that Frame’s model of profit and bur­den shar­ing among about a dozen emerg­ing gal­leries can pro­vide an al­ter­na­tive to Art Basel, which opened its 49th edi­tion to the public Thurs­day.

Scholler said he re­spected the work ex­hib­ited at Art Basel each year but raised con­cern that the pres­sure to notch up mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar sales had made the show stale and al­ler­gic to new gal­leries tak­ing risks on provoca­tive artists.

“Our fo­cus is not to col­lab­o­rate,” with Art Basel, he said. “Our fo­cus is to do it right.”

Even Art Basel, the art world’s most dom­i­nant fair, rec­og­nizes the in­dus­try is hurt­ing.

The Art Mar­ket Re­port com­mis­sioned by Art Basel and its main cor­po­rate spon­sor, Swiss bank UBS, noted that while global sales of art and an­tiques bal­looned to $63.7 bil­lion last year – a 12-per­cent in­crease com­pared to 2016 – the smaller fish are strug­gling to sur­vive. In 2007, five new gal­leries opened for ev­ery clo­sure, but in 2017 that trend had flipped, with gallery clo­sures out­num­ber­ing open­ings for the first time in years, the re­port said.

The main ex­pla­na­tion for clo­sures is that the costs of “main­tain­ing a re­tail pres­ence in a promi­nent ur­ban lo­ca­tion have be­come pro­hib­i­tively high, ver­sus the low and vari­able vol­ume of sales,” the re­port added.

“This is a fair that is tak­ing place at a mo­ment when gal­leries are speak­ing openly, more openly than ever, about the strug­gle, how hard it is to be a gal­lerist,” Art Basel’s di­rec­tor Marc Spiegler told re­porters Tues­day. He said that ex­pand­ing Art Basel be­yond the 290 gal­leries al­ready ex­hibit­ing this year would not help, as the show would risk be­com­ing “a long, kind of death march ex­pe­ri­ence,” with far too much art to di­gest.

He also dis­missed the no­tion that mak­ing it to Art Basel in­di­cated a gallery was fi­nan­cially solid.

“There are many gal­leries here who are go­ing to strug­gle,” he said, adding that very few of the 290 were “cruis­ing” fi­nan­cially.

Ex­ist­ing on what could be de­scribed as the Basel art scene’s scrappy fringe, a gallery called The Pro­posal, spe­cial­iz­ing in in­stal­la­tion con­cept art, was us­ing stunts to at­tract pedes­tri­ans on their way to more pres­ti­gious venues.

In a space re­sem­bling a U.S. fra­ter­nity house – in­clud­ing the hot­dogs and beer in plas­tic cups – The Pro­posal was sell­ing minia­ture stat­ues of Damien Hirst en­cased in glass and sit­ting on a toi­let, a spoof on Hirst’s in­flu­en­tial se­ries “The Tran­quil­ity of Soli­tude,” which en­cases dead an­i­mals in the loo.

The Pro­posal’s chief Jeremie Jean-Fer­di­nand Maret joked that he was ex­ploit­ing “the rich­est artist in the world [Hirst] … to re­fi­nance [the] gallery.”

The gim­mick, helped by staff shout­ing “Damien Hirst for sale” out the win­dow to passersby, was a last­ditch op­tion avail­able to a gallery on the brink of ex­tinc­tion, he told AFP, adding he would close af­ter Art Basel and pos­si­bly re­open in Ibiza, partly be­cause it was cheaper.

“I’m sell­ing art like I’m sell­ing fish. I’m scream­ing out [the win­dow]. All the things you shouldn’t do as a gallery,” Maret said.

Clare McAn­drew, founder of Arts Eco­nom­ics re­search and con­sult­ing firm and lead au­thor of the Art Mar­ket Re­port, said eas­ing the gallery eco­nomic crunch had proved dif­fi­cult. She said that while more promi­nent gal­lerists have al­ways done bet­ter fi­nan­cially, the art mar­ket has been mov­ing to­ward a “su­per­star, win­ner-take-all” mind­set.

Hours af­ter VIP view­ing be­gan at Art Basel Tues­day, the Hauser and Wirth gallery an­nounced it had sold a paint­ing by Amer­i­can artist Joan Mitchell for $14 mil­lion.

Public at­ten­tion is of­ten so fo­cused on mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar sales that some col­lec­tors er­ro­neously feel they can­not get “any­thing good” for less than $100,000, McAn­drew said.

“It threat­ens the en­tire in­fra­struc­ture,” she added, stress­ing that emerg­ing artists need medium-sized gal­leries to help them de­velop and sur­vive. “If that is not there, then where do [new artists] come from?”

A woman passes by Josep Grau-Gar­riga’s “Hores de llum i de fos­cor” at Art Basel.

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