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Photo London plans to open in tent this October with social distancing

Timed entry and face masks are set to become the “new normal” for art fairs, organisers say

Photo London is relocating to Gray’s Inn Gardens this year Courtesy Photo London

What might an art fair look like in a socially distanced world? Photo London is tentatively sketching out that vision with the announcement today that it plans to open in early October, to coincide with Frieze (7-11 October), and is temporarily relocating to Gray’s Inn Gardens while its usual venue, Somerset House, is occupied by the 1-54 African art fair.

Although dozens of fairs around the world have been cancelled in recent weeks, Photo London’s co-founder, Michael Benson, says he is “cautiously optimistic” about his event happening this autumn. “Everyone is willing it to work. It’s also encouraging to hear from across Europe that galleries and museums are starting to open,” he says.

Grays’s Inn Gardens is one of the largest privately owned gardens in London and will allow Photo London to construct a tent large enough to adhere to social distancing rules. “We have done some very aggressive modelling on the basis of only having 300 people in there, but it could be more. In terms of capacity we will work with whatever limit is imposed at that time,” Benson says.

The tent will be on one level with a single exit and entrance, which will “ensure a tight control of the flow of people”, he adds. “Timed entry is probably going to be a factor and masks will be the new normal.”

Benson says it is “too early to say” whether he will consider asking exhibitors and visitors to sign liability waivers. In March, at least 25 positive cases of Covid-19 were reported among exhibitors and visitors at Tefaf Maastricht. Benson says: “The safety of our exhibitors and visitors is an absolute priority. We are obviously in an evolving situation and as there will be a number of similar events in London at that time, we will consult with other event organisers and will devise a detailed plan that covers this and other issues.”

Photo London usually hosts around 90 dealers, a figure the fair hopes to replicate at Gray’s Inn Gardens. “Over the next two months we will be talking to all our exhibitors to get the lay of the land,” Benson says, although he anticipates the show to be chiefly made up of dealers from the UK and Europe.

The initial response from dealers, Benson says, has been extremely positive. Mirjam Cavegn, the founder of the Zurich gallery Bildhalle, says: “Photo London is an important fair for us. No matter where and when the fair takes place, we will be there. We are so happy to be back in business.” Timothy Persons, of the Berlin- and Helsinki-based Persons Projects, says he is “overwhelmed by the new opportunity to be part of one of the first fairs to realistically welcome in the autumn season”.

An exhibition by this year’s Master of Photography, Shirin Neshat, could be held offsite while there are plans to host the talks programme online. “We are looking at hybrid solutions,” Benson says. “We will probably also have a virtual fair running alongside the real thing so that people who aren’t able to travel can view it.”

Benson says collectors are more likely to visit London in early October if there are a number of events happening at the same time. “Frieze is obviously a huge magnet. I think we complement Frieze and 1-54, there’s no question of competition, everybody is just trying to get the show back on the road,” he says. “This is a unique set of circumstances with a unique response.”

In their latest letter to exhibitors, Frieze directors say they still hope to hold Frieze London and Frieze Masters in early October and are looking into “every possible way of achieving this”. They add: “In the event that the fairs go ahead, we will take all the necessary precautions to keep you and all our visitors safe.”

Touria el-Glaoui, the founder of 1-54, says she is still planning to host her fair in October at Somerset House, but is “closely monitoring the situation in London, and with our participating galleries based in different parts of the world, to understand the feasibility of the event”.