True Colors: Is There a Post-COVID Future for the International Art Fair?

Art Basel Miami Beach, the annual December excuse to leave freezing New York and eat Joe’s Stone Crab on somebody else’s dime, started in 2002 as an offshoot of a Swiss art expo. Before long, it became an indelibly American sun-dappled pleasure dome. No longer is it just an event dedicated to contemporary art—it’s a mainstream wintertime cultural boondoggle set to an EDM beat, its mascots more Paris Hilton and Diplo than Jeff Koons and Picasso. According to the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, each day during the fair, as many as 100 private jets touched down at Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport in the Magic City. By 2019, Basel Miami was generating an estimated $16 million each year for the state of Florida.

But the pandemic has punished art fairs. Many have been canceled since March 2020. In the meantime, gallery owners, once tethered to the global circuit, have found they can sell in-demand work by their artists without shipping expenses and exorbitant booth fees.

This summer brought more bad news for fairs. Noah Horowitz, the Basel Miami Beach head honcho who for years has overseen the Miami fair, announced he would be leaving his post just ahead of the brand’s marquee shindig, the most prestigious art fair on earth, was set to open in Switzerland. Horowitz was seen as an heir apparent to Art Basel global director Marc Spiegler, and the news shocked the gallery-lined nabes of Mayfair and West Chelsea. The mystery of “Who poached Noah” dominated the cocktail-party talk out East this summer.

Now, True Colors can exclusively reveal that Horowitz will be leaving the fair world entirely to work at Sotheby’s as the worldwide head of gallery and private dealer services. He’ll still have the ear of the galleries who begged him for good placement in the Miami Beach Convention Center. But now he’ll be telling them to consign new works by their artists not to an art fair, but to the 277-year-old auction house with locations from New York to Palm Beach to Monaco. It’s a seismic shift in the whole art-market firmament.

“Dealers already do a lot of business…buying and selling at auction,” Horowitz said on a Zoom call earlier this month. “The Basel framework is somewhat finite, and there’s a large community beyond that.”

Sotheby’s—which was bought and taken private by the French telecom macher Patrick Drahi in 2019—is not coy about its ambitions to funnel gallery sales through the auction house balance sheet.

“We’re not a singular art event—we’re a 365-day-a-year business,” said Brooke Lampley, chairman and worldwide head of sales for global fine art at Sotheby’s. “Our positioning is at the complete opposite end of an art fair, which revolves around being a singular in-person attraction.”

Brooke Lampley and Noah Horowitz.

By Julian Cassady for Sotheby’s.

The departure comes at a precarious time for Basel. The scaled-back Art Basel Hong Kong in May was the first fair they held since December 2019. It was not like the Before Time. Many dealers used fair-appointed stand-ins to avoid weeks of quarantine on the island. And while its marquee expo in Basel, Switzerland, is set to open next month, many collectors and advisers have decided to sit it out, citing travel bans, the delta variant, and the quick turnaround for the next edition of the fair in June 2022.

“Based upon our extensive discussions with dealers and collectors throughout the last couple of months, we are convinced there is a huge demand to experience art in person and connect with each other again,” Spiegler said in a statement provided to Vanity Fair which Art Basel reps asked we run in full. “While the past year has been a time of digital innovation, it has not been a time of enormous discovery and the rejuvenation essential to our market. Our Basel fair is taking place, despite the extraordinary circumstances, with 272 leading exhibitors from 33 countries, and full-scale programming—onsite and online. And while the current situation may impede some collectors from attending, especially those from overseas, we’re encouraged by the confirmations we’re receiving from European collectors and a younger generation of patrons in particular, many of which have already communicated their firm intention to join us in Basel.”

Add it all to the to-do list for Art Basel’s new part-owner, former News Corp. scion James Murdoch, who invested $80 million into its parent company, MCH Group, in August 2020, notching his Lupa Systems a 32% share of the enterprise. Rupert Murdoch’s less Fox News-y son swept in to resuscitate the contemporary art concern; despite Murdoch’s wealth and profile, he wasn’t known to be a major figure in the art world prior, apart from his spot on the board of Dia Art Foundation. (He hasn’t publicly made any high-profile donations to the legendary patrons of minimalism, but as previously reported by yours truly, James Murdoch denied HBO hit’s Succession, which depicts a very Murdochian family drama, the right to film at its Chelsea headquarters. At the time, a spokesperson said the foundation had a policy against commercial filming at its facilities.)

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