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Art fairs take on terrorism by keeping calm and carrying on

The industry is putting on a brave face in the wake of another devastating attack on a European city

The latest in a bloody series of terrorist attacks on European soil took place at Brussels international airport on 22 March, only two days after The European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf) closed its doors, and just over a month before the opening of both Art Brussels (22-24 April) and the new edition of Independent (21-23 April) in the same city.

With Europe’s art fair season now in full swing, people have been putting on brave faces even as the sight of armed soldiers in capitals such as Paris

and Brussels becomes more and more commonplace.

As we went to press, Katerina Gregos, the artistic director of Art Brussels, said there would be extra screening of visitors but that they were “moving on from the attacks”. Elizabeth Dee, the New York dealer and co-founder of Independent, said she “liaised with Art Brussels and Daniel Hug of Art Cologne to see if they were expecting any visitors to pull out, but there were no changes”. Hug himself added: “It’s obvious that security measures have to be thoroughly considered.”

Shaken but not stirred

While the tourist industry has taken a hit, as have visitor figures at museums, art fairs seem to have remained relatively unaffected, though of course everyone has been shaken by events. “If terrorists have certain cities in mind, you can imagine that something arguably elitist [such as an art fair] could be a target, which makes people nervous,” says the British collector David Roberts.

“Everyone was a bit nervous before we went to Tefaf,” says James Roundell of Simon Dickinson Gallery. However, many dealers reported decent sales. “The casual tourist might be against coming, but a real art buyer will go to the North Pole if they are really interested,” Roundell says. Madelon Strijbos, Tefaf’s head of marketing and communication, adds that the fair has had an emergency response plan for a number of years that includes terrorist attacks.

Insurance woes?

Of all the fairs so far, Paris Photo has suffered the most from a terrorist attack, but only because of unlucky timing. The attacks, on 13 November 2015, coincided with the fair’s weekend opening—its busiest time (the Paris Tableau fair, now folded into the Biennale des Antiquaires, also coincided). As the city went into lockdown, the authorities shut down Paris Photo, which missed out on a predicted 25,000 visitors and two days of sales. Under such extraordinary circumstances, the fair’s organisers, Reed Exhibitions France, compensated exhibitors for 20% of floor costs.

Contrary perhaps to expectations, however, this did not have much of an effect on exhibitors’ insurance policies at art fairs. Most cancellation policies tend to cover out-of-the-ordinary events including volcanic eruptions and terrorist attacks. Robert Read, the head of fine art at Hiscox, says “a few more clients are asking about that type of policy” but that the increase is negligible. “You’d have thought that fewer people would fly after 9/11 but that didn’t happen,” says Louise Hallett of Hallett Independent art insurers.

Stiff upper lips

The general mood seems to be one of resilience, and also acceptance that events such as these are becoming a fact of life. “We’re not going to let them affect the way we conduct our lives,” says Nick Brett, chief executive of Axa Art, the main sponsors of Tefaf.

The next big date in the Parisian calendar was the Pavilion of Arts and Design (31 March–3 April). “I must admit, we were all concerned, but traffic was higher than last year—we honestly felt it—and all the big clients showed up,” says the dealer Julien Flak.

Might events such as these encourage US dealers and collectors to conduct most of their business on home turf? For the moment it would seem not. “While there are safety concerns around the world, I don’t believe there is a correlation between those and American art dealers’ decisions to participate in international art fairs—decisions that are most often driven by how well a fair has advanced a gallery’s mission and programme,” says Adam Sheffer, the president of the Art Dealers Association of America.