Commercial galleries Contemporary art Fairs Switzerland

Power of one

More galleries are bringing single-artist shows to fairs, but is the risk paying off?

Among the dealers doing solo shows is Peter Blum, whose stand is dedicated to the artist Helmut Federle. Photo: David Owens

The number of galleries bringing solo shows to Art Basel—and other art fairs—is on the rise. Of the 304 dealers exhibiting here this year more than 40 are presenting works by a single artist, with 24 galleries taking part in the Statements section, which is dedicated to solo projects by young and emerging practitioners. This is up 41% from a decade ago, when 17 galleries took part in Statements. The Feature section, which was introduced in 2010 to show “precise curatorial projects”, also includes 24 galleries (the highest number yet)—16 of which will present work by a single artist. A further 79 solo projects are on display in the largest Unlimited section to date.

While the younger galleries participating in Statements and Feature have brought the majority of solo booths to Art Basel in recent years, last month Frieze New York saw single artist presentations from big-name galleries such as Marian Goodman (2.0/B17 at Art Basel), which presented a performance by Tino Sehgal, and David Zwirner (2.0/F5 at Art Basel), which brought photographs by Thomas Ruff. At Art Basel Hong Kong established galleries also plumped for solo shows: Victoria Miro (2.1/N7 at Art Basel), together with the Tokyo gallery Ota Fine Arts, brought works by Yayoi Kusama (the choice paid off; 40 works sold in total, for up to $2m each), while Galerie Gmurzynska (2.0/D14 at Art Basel) exhibited paintings and sculptures by Fernando Botero.

Joost Bosland, a director at the South African gallery Stevenson, which at Art Basel is presenting drawings (priced at around €2,000 each), a mural and performance piece by Kemang Wa Lehulere in the Statements section (1/S8), as well as a large-scale sculpture by Meschac Gaba at Unlimited (1/U74), says single-artist booths can increase a younger gallery’s chances of being accepted by the more competitive fairs such as Art Basel. Once inside, a solo presentation can also help get you noticed by collectors. “They tend to stop people in their tracks,” Bosland says.

For the younger galleries, they are about long-term marketing. For example, they can be a good way to introduce collectors to a young artist’s oeuvre; a few works hung together provide a sense of context. A solo project can also advertise an extended exhibition outside of the fair, or the other artists in a gallery’s stable. At this year’s Frieze New York Stevenson gallery sold paintings by Zander Blom (priced between $5,000 and $10,000 each) from its solo booth, as well as a work by Nicholas Hlobo, whose solo project was a showstopper at the New York fair last year.

In the main Galleries section of Art Basel, only a handful of dealers are bringing solo presentations this year, including Peter Blum Gallery (2.0/A2), showing work by Helmut Federle, whose retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Luzern opens this autumn, Daniel Blau (2.0/B4), who is exhibiting previously unseen drawings by Warhol, and Galerie Löhrl (2.0/B1), which is showing around 20 drawings and paintings by Terry Fox, priced between €5,000 and €35,000. Dietmar Löhrl has been bringing solo presentations to Art Basel for the past six years. With a small booth—around 50 sq. m—Löhrl says his strategy is not commercially driven; he hopes instead a museum will buy Fox’s works.

Marc Spiegler, the director of Art Basel, says that while solo shows are still rare in the Galleries section, “we are seeing an increase in presentations that display one or two artists in more depth. A good example is Hauser & Wirth’s [2.0/C10 at Art Basel] stand at Miami Beach last year, where they exhibited work by Roni Horn and Guillermo Kuitca. We also increasingly see booths that show multiple artists, but where the focus of the stand really is on one artist.”

Beyond Basel

Solo booths and focused stands are on the rise at other fairs too. Katerina Gregos, the artistic director of Art Brussels, encourages galleries to “consider their booths curatorially” and is expanding the solo show section of the fair next year. Amanda Coulson, who co-founded Volta Basel in 2005, and in 2008 came up with the solo show idea for Volta New York, says attitudes have changed in the past few years. “Before, galleries felt they would have a better chance of appealing to curators with a broad portfolio. Solo booths have grown in popularity because they offer some respite in this oversaturated climate.” Volta Basel now only takes proposals for solo or two-person shows.

Stephanie Dieckvoss, the director of the London fair Art14, meanwhile, does not stipulate that galleries bring solo booths, but encourages them if galleries propose them. “It can be a high-risk strategy, which is why I am cautious about being prescriptive about it,” she says.

The challenge for galleries today, says Dina Ibrahim, the gallery manager at the Dubai gallery The Third Line, which is exhibiting works by Laleh Khorramian in the Statements section (1/S6), is to present a “conceptually tight booth”, while maintaining maximum commercial appeal. Art Basel, it seems, is still very much a marketplace. As Julia Joern of David Zwirner (who despite having done solo shows at Frieze New York, the Armory Show, the Art Dealers Association of America’s Art Show and Fiac has never done a solo booth at the Swiss fair) says: “Art Basel is the one time of year when we show the best of our overall programme.”

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