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Basel satellite fairs beset by management complications in the midst of US dealers shunning Europe

Exhibitors wary of investing in weak market, while community groups oppose Scope tent on public open space

Basel’s satellite art fairs are facing multiple challenges this month, in a shrinking market where only the established names can be sure of sales. One fair has already cancelled and another was in considerable doubt just weeks before the 10 June opening of the main fair.

Scope, preparing for its third fair in Switzerland, was under threat from a planning row that may prevent it from using a new site a few minutes’ walk from the main Art Basel fair. Scope signed a four-year contract with the city of Basel to use the publicly owned Sportzplatz Landhof earlier this year, but community groups raised objections and Scope’s application to build a temporary structure was rejected. The fair has appealed, and the decision was expected in the final week of May, as The Art Newspaper went to press.

“We are very disappointed with the latest development, especially since the contract that we signed with the city of Basel clearly stated what our intentions were—and are—for the use of the land,” Scope’s organisers said in a statement. “We are confident that Scope Basel will go ahead as planned. We have been very encouraged by the support we have received from many individuals and organisations in the art world.”

The organisation declined to comment on whether it had a fall-back position lined up in case the appeal fails. Scope is scheduled to feature 85 young galleries with mainly one-artist or themed group shows.

The troubled Bridge group of fairs, another US-based organisation which targets emerging galleries and artists, has announced the postponement of its debut at Basel amid a ­broader review of its future plans.

Michael Workman, the Chicago-based founder and principal of Bridge, said: “We didn’t think we could launch a successful show in Basel this year the way things are, and you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Bridge’s problems have been apparent for some time. It cancelled its London fair during Frieze week last year, and at Bridge New York, during Armory Show week in March, 20 participating dealers signed a letter complaining of poor management. London dealer David Stern, of the Stern Pissarro Gallery, said he had chased a $3,000 refund he was owed throughout the fair; it was finally given to him by hand in a bundle of five and ten-dollar bills. “It was an extraordinary experience. I’ve done many art fairs, and I’ve never seen one conducted like that before.”

Bridge was founded in 2006 and launched fully in 2007, at the height of the boom in contemporary art. Mr Workman said participants were happy at the fairs where they achieved sales, but that changed with the financial downturn, which put particular pressure on emerging art. It is unlikely that Bridge will show in Berlin (Art Forum, 24-27 September) or London (Frieze, 15-18 October), although Mr Workman said he expected to be at Miami in December.

Meanwhile, the organisers of Design Miami/Basel headed off what London dealer Rabih Hage described as a “boycott by New York dealers”, although they were unable to disguise the reluctance of US dealers to invest in participation at a European fair this summer.

A spokesman for the event said: “In Miami we tend to have more US galleries by sheer fact of convenience and location, and in Basel it is easier for European galleries to participate.” This year’s list of 27 galleries is dominated by ten from Paris, with just four from the US, down from ten last year. The eight new galleries also include two from Italy and one from Seoul.

Design Miami/Basel co-founder Ambra Medda noted the international shift: “It is clear that despite the changing economy, the market for this material continues to grow,” she said.

New York galleries who have dropped out include Moss, Antik, R 20th Century, Demisch Danant, Donzella and Yoshii Gallery. “The decision was agonising for us,” said Franklin Getchell, a partner in Moss. “The fair was delivering everything we had been asking for, most importantly moving the design fair right onto the art fairground. But ultimately, it was too great an expense, for booth rental, transport, travel, and accommodation plus paying for the work itself, with too much risk of not making sales. We would need to have done much better than we did in Miami, and we weren’t confident we could.”

Kim Hostler of Antik agreed: “With shorter profit margins and higher costs of doing business, we’ll see fairs become more regional in character.”

New York dealer Cristina Grajales took the opposite view: “I’m being very brave and I’m going back to Basel,” she said. “It will attract even more collectors this year.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Basel satellite fairs under pressure'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 203 June 2009