Basel and beyond

In a previous article I looked at the importance of the art fair in the commercial art world and how the brands of Basel and Frieze have taken an increasingly important place in the strategy of galleries looking to position the artists they represent, and reach potential new collectors through the showcase of their work.

Basel 2018 was held last month, and as a delegate across the three days I gained a sense of a strong fair with a good atmosphere. Good weather helps the mood, and in the main galleries I found the works to be more accessible than in some previous years; there were fewer ‘shock’ pieces and, to my eye, more concentration on quality works that people might actually want to buy.

Strong buying interest

Dealers I spoke to reported sales being good and while some are understandably reticent to release details of all sales there was an upbeat mood. The VIP day on the Wednesday was very busy, a day when millions of dollars can be committed, and one gallery I spoke to reported strong interest from Chinese buyers. They would not have been alone. Although there is Basel Hong Kong in March, this fair is seen as the ‘mother ship’, the original and the best to which it is important to attend. Reports were of a strong buying network and I saw interest and sales in the works of Uwe Wittwer, a Swiss artist whose atmospheric pieces seemed to appeal to the eye of those buyers.

Each day Basel distributes The Art Newspaper and the reports were less of headline mega sales – although two works by Joan Mitchell reportedly sold for around $14m – but also dealt with the challenges galleries have of adapting to current market conditions. It is not cheap to exhibit at Basel – take £100,000 as a guide – and so the strategy of who to exhibit and how to market is vital. 

Space for emerging artists and galleries

Two areas should not be overlooked in this context. Firstly is the Statements section of the fair, an area for emerging artists. Stands there cost a lot less (approx. £10,000) and there were 18 exhibitors this year where the idea is to showcase solo projects by emerging or lesser known artists.

Alongside this is Liste, a separate fair in Basel which provides a more affordable space for emerging and younger galleries. Costs to exhibit are much lower and some galleries transition from Liste to the Statements section in the main fair. While Basel reports a footfall of around 95,000 it would be interesting to see the numbers for Liste. My impression on the Saturday was of a younger audience, more families, with a café/street food style but a high level of interest in the work. Exhibitors are internationally represented and the standout artist for me was Glasgow based France-Lise Mcgurn, who has been exhibiting at Tate St Ives and whose work had a freshness with commercial appeal. 

Highlights from galleries sales

At the end of the day the fair is all about sales. Without the commercial success galleries will be less willing to participate and there will be less variety on offer for collectors both old and new. Reported sales need to approached with a degree of caution but a few caught the eye.

Galerie Max Hetzler sold a 2016 work by Bridget Riley, Measure for Measure 6, while David Zwirner reportedly also sold a work by the same artist. The balance here is not overexposure of one artist’s work but careful management of new work from an artist with high international reputation and commercial reach.

In a homage to British Pop, Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert presented works by Allen Jones, Peter Blake, Jon Tilson and Eduardo Paolozzi among others. Reported sales of works by Paolozzi from an eye-catching and well-presented stand show how classic art of the period remains attractive to collectors.

Not all galleries are willing to report sales but the feeling from conversations was generally positive.

Beyond Basel

Basel remains the pre-eminent European art fair and will continue to attract exhibitors from around Europe, the USA and Far East. As a barometer of the health of the market it is important, but at the same time one should not get carried away; collectors and galleries will have their contacts with buying and selling taking place out of the spotlight. So there is a beyond to Basel and the connections made at the fair will help inform and drive the market in the months to come.

For more information on how we can support the art world, please contact Philip Clark.

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