Art Basel dropped a bomb this morning when the Grand Palais in Paris—which will be under renovation for the next two years—announced the Swiss fair had out-bid FIAC for the French fair’s traditional week in October.
The news marks the continuing growth of Paris as a market center for art. Numerous global galleries have outposts in the storied art city. Now there are major private museums— the Pinault Collection’s Bourse de Commerce and the Fondation Louis Vuitton—to stand besides the wealth of public museums in the city. Brexit, too, has created an opening for art dealers in Paris to flex a bit more. All that was lacking was a signature event that could draw large crowds and, in turn, support even larger cultural events like gallery openings, special museum exhibitions, and fashion shows.
Paris’s role as the capital of luxury—an industry that has created deeper ties to artists over the last decade—also underscores the obvious need for a tent-pole event. But Paris doesn’t have an obvious one. So what’s the solution? Create one, of course.
This was a huge opportunity for Art Basel. Its parent company is flush with new cash and ambition since James Murdoch took a controlling stake two years ago. Art Basel has also suffered mightily from the closures of the pandemic and the shifting times for its signature event in Basel, Switzerland.
It’s also clear from the news reports surrounding the coup that Art Basel has the strong support of those global galleries with a stake in Paris’s growth like David Zwirner and Thaddaeus Ropac. The French also put a premium on having the fair declare its Francophilia. The press release and stories are filled with claims of local investment and the unique character of the fair run by a local team. That’s all good but somewhat besides the point.
If Art Basel only succeeds in squelching FIAC, a fair first conceived before the era of a global art fair circuit, it will have achieved little for itself, for the galleries, and for Paris. Supplanting FIAC might get rid of a competitor, but it still places Art Basel in a poor position in the calendar. Squeezed between Frieze in London—a well established fair with plenty of offshoots and events, including a strong auction series—and the New York auctions in November and its own bacchanalia in Miami in December, FIAC was never able to take off as a destination event.
The galleries were frustrated by that. Art Basel will have little leverage to change that equation.
What’s the right time for a new fair in Paris to focus the attention of the world’s elite on the city? Can Art Basel make enough headway in establishing itself during the rump season before moving to a better time slot?
The fair has committed to 7 years in the Grand Palais in October. That’s probably far too long a timeline for the reshaping of the global calendar likely to move quickly once the pandemic recedes. Art Basel’s best hope is that by establishing a foot-hold in Paris is can scare off any of its rivals. But it may have already been outflanked by Frieze in Seoul. So, while the news is a shock to FIAC, it may not be the warning shot MCH hopes it will be.