With art galleries closed, art fairs worldwide cancelled, museums in lockdown, auction houses silent and transactions at a very low level, there is no doubt that the pandemic has had a deep and dramatic effect on the art market worldwide.

There was already surprise in many quarters that TEFAF in Maastricht went ahead in March and less surprise when it closed early after positive tests began to emerge. Frieze New York and TEFAF scheduled for May were swiftly cancelled along with the May auction sales and Art Basel in June quickly followed.

In cities around the world, galleries had to cancel shows while museums also closed their doors with many exhibitions effectively mothballed. With no certainty on when the public will be allowed back, tough decisions have had to be taken about which shows and exhibitions to pull from the calendar. Some of this has been sheer logistics as works intended for show are still in other institutions around the world and cannot be transported while a truncated (and optimistic) calendar for the autumn means there are only so many slots available.

All of this has forced the art world to pause, reflect and consider how things may look when some form of restart button can be pressed. From conversations with artists, dealers, galleries and representatives of institutions, some hopes and fears are coming into focus and in this insight, I will focus on the art fairs then consider other business aspects.

What will the future hold for art fairs?

Looking at art fairs there is no doubt there was a sense of fatigue across the market as galleries travelled from fair to fair, continent to continent in a seemingly endless cycle. That is now broken. ArtBasel is hoping to show in September but, in my view, that has to be open to serious question. The fact that they have extended the deadline for galleries to commit to attend indicates to me that many are still hedging their bets and others are unlikely to attend. There are serious logistical and practical questions to answer; will it be possible to travel to Basel and, if so, what restrictions will be in place? If people do travel, will they face further restrictions when returning home, and the UK Government’s 14-day quarantine regulations are likely to be a further deterrent to travel, if they are retained for any length of time. How will organisers manage the numbers and attendance with safety and, of course, will it be possible to transport all the art works and set up the stands?

I am sure there are many further questions, but these alone will cast a long shadow. The same can be said for Frieze and FIAC in October and TEFAF fall in November where organisers hope that further time will allow a little more “normality” to have returned.

I suspect that many galleries will abandon the idea of physical attendance at fairs in 2020 completely and assess how the situation looks in 2021. There will also be commercial considerations; it is expensive to attend the fairs and many galleries will be licking their wounds after a year in which trading has almost ground to a halt.

In these circumstances, fairs have been offering a digital experience; ArtBasel Hong Kong and Frieze New York fairs have experimented with an online viewing platform; ArcoLisboa launched on 20 May and ArtBasel’s offering is due on 17 June with all those who had originally signed up for the fair invited to take part. It will be interesting to see how many do and, so far, my sense is that there a far fewer galleries showing online as there would normally be on the floor. Galleries were reporting sales from Frieze NYC, but it is hard to judge how this compares to “normal” and what the appetite is of collectors in the current environment. My expectation is that sales activity will be down and while viewing online is interesting and the VR experience will no doubt improve for many, there is no substitute for actually seeing the works, walking around the stands and engaging in the wider social experience at the fairs.

In an email issued in May, the organisers of ArtBasel said that “we plan to start hosting fairs as soon as we feel that can be done safely and successfully, as we equally try to imagine and define how the art fair of the future might differ from that of the past.”

Is there a prediction?

Predictions are a difficult and sometimes dangerous pastime as events reveal how wide of the mark you are; but, for better or for worse, these are mine:

  • There will be almost no live fairs until at least the end of the year and maybe nothing of substance until ArtBasel Miami in December or Frieze L.A. in February 2021.
  • Even these depend on the ability and willingness to travel and the specific positions of Florida and California.
  • Tickets for Frieze London this October are meant to go on sale in the summer. Forget it. If it goes ahead it will be smaller, more UK centric and decisions will be made late on.
  • There will be far fewer fairs in 2021 as some fold completely or merge.
  • For those that do take place the number of exhibitors will be down as the galleries that have survived weigh the costs and ration their attendance.
  • Curators will need to rethink how fairs are designed, how attendees can move around and in what numbers.
  • The online viewing platforms will continue alongside the physical fairs and those platforms will become ever more sophisticated and interactive.

What is certain is that the world of the art fair will never be quite the same and, while I listen for the tears of lament, I am struggling to hear them. As more news comes through on this, I will provide an update (and see how far off I was with my predictions) and next take a look at the impact on the galleries.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss the impact of Coronavirus on your business, please get in touch.

The information in this update should not be regarded as financial advice. This is based on our understanding on 11 June 2020. Laws and tax rules may change in the future.