Art Basel writes letter of reassurance as galleries suggest fair should be cancelled

Fair says it is committed to going ahead but offers concessions to exhibitors, including rolling over booth fees to 2022 if they cannot enter the country and offering staff to man stands

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Art Basel will be more limited this year due to Covid-19 restrictions © David Owens

Art Basel will be more limited this year due to Covid-19 restrictions © David Owens

Art Basel has written a letter to exhibitors in an attempt to calm nerves in the run up to the Swiss fair later this month, telling galleries it is "committed to hosting the fair under the current conditions because we firmly believe that we can do so safely."

The missive was issued this evening in response to an open letter penned by a number of powerful US-based galleries outlining their concerns about participating in the fair after US authorities advised Americans on Monday not to travel to Switzerland. Some flights to Basel from the UK have also been cancelled.

Stringent and confusing entry restrictions for the fair—and particularly the fact the Astra Zeneca vaccine is not recognised by Swiss authorities for entry into large-scale events—have caused some concern, with the London-based (Astra Zeneca-jabbed) art advisor Emily Tsingou telling The Art Newspaper she is "appalled... we are there to work, not be judged. It will put a lot of people off."

One exhibitor, who did not wish to be named, told The Art Newspaper earlier this week that they thought the fair should have just run in June 2022. "There's a lot of anxiety. Many of my gallery colleagues have concerns about fairs in general this autumn, from both a health and financial perspective." They add: "It's a minefield. None of our clients are going [to Basel]. Galleries are stuck between a rock and a hard place—you don't want to pull out of Art Basel and lose your place, but then it's also about the health of your staff and what's responsible." They worry that some galleries "might not be able to survive the hit" if the event goes badly for them.

Stressful situation

Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel, says in a letter sent to exhibitors this evening: "We write to you today to address concerns expressed by some galleries in response to two pieces of news announced earlier this week: the European Union’s recommendation to member states to increase restrictions on US travellers; and the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) placement of Switzerland on its Tier 4 Covid-19 list with a recommendation to limit non-essential travel. We know this has caused concern among some galleries, especially those in the US, and wish to update you regarding several changes we are making in view of these issues."

Spiegler acknowledges the stressful situation and says Art Basel can "understand why some galleries are suggesting we should cancel the fair."

He adds, "to be frank up front, the current conditions are not what we had hoped for when we rescheduled the fair to September. At the same time, many other galleries and collectors have reached out to stress the importance of doing the show under the circumstances".

New rules for exhibitors

Art Basel has made the following concessions to try to reassure galleries:

  • If Switzerland introduces new restrictions barring owners and gallery staff from entering the country or making them subject to quarantine, a gallery can withdraw participation and its entire booth fee will be rolled over to Art Basel 2022. Should any gallerist or member of their staff feel uncomfortable attending the fair, leaving the gallery short-staffed, Art Basel will provide "qualified personnel" from its Satellite booths team to work on the stand.
  • Art Basel is also offering to convert stands to Satellite booths, for those wishing to send art but not staff. "As per the option announced for Art Basel Miami Beach, we would collaborate with you on any adaptations to your booth size while reducing your booth fee by 15% and recruiting qualified personnel to staff it entirely," the letter says.

Art Basel will be holding a "virtual forum" tomorrow, 3 September, at 3:30pm CEST/2:30pm BST/9:30am EDT/9:30 pm HKT to hear exhibitors' questions.

The letter also states that anyone entering the fairgrounds in any capacity, starting with the exhibitor move-in on Thursday, 16 September, and Friday, 17 September, "must show proof of being fully vaccinated, supply a recent negative test, or have proven antibodies to Covid-19 due to recent recovery." Anyone attending will have to wear a mask, both indoors and out.

On the increased travel restrictions imposed on US travellers entering the EU, Spiegler points out that Switzerland is not a member of the EU and: "Based upon our discussions with Swiss authorities and Switzerland's declared strategy of “normalizing” society as quickly as possible—rather than imposing further restrictions on vaccinated people—we fully anticipate that vaccinated Americans will be able to enter Switzerland for the show."

Regarding Switzerland being listed on the CDC’s Tier 4 list, Spiegler says "there is actually no change concerning re-entry into the United States for vaccinated travellers, whilst unvaccinated travellers are now supposed to quarantine at home." He adds that "the Covid-19 situation in Switzerland is once again stable, following a spike in new infections in August as travellers returned from summer holidays."

Gallery support

Some exhibitors are firmly in support of the fair going ahead. Franck Prazan, the owner of the Paris-based gallery Applicat-Prazan, says: "I have no doubt this year’s edition of ArtBasel might prove somewhat different from the previous editions. In my opinion, one should never forget that the art market is not only [reliant on] American or Chinese [buyers] and that the continental European clientele is amongst the most powerful in the world: Swiss, German, French, Italian, name them."

Prazan thinks many clients are "more than happy to resume and to meet at live events" and adds that "after all those years during which Art Basel had been a condition of our success, it is now up to us to support the market and I will personally bring there the utmost I am able to gather in this goal."

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