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All’s fair in art market war: Competition heats up as Art Basel and Frieze expand

Smaller art fairs such as the Armory Show and Art Stage Singapore are feeling the strain

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The news that the Art Basel and Frieze art fairs are set to extend their empires (see www.theartnewspaper.com) has been welcomed by galleries, although their brand-building has had a cooler reception with rival fairs.

Art Basel’s acquisition of a 60% stake in Asian art fair, ArtHK, has gone down well with dealers trying to find a foothold in the potentially lucrative Asian markets, who believe that the Art Basel machine has the experience, contacts and brand appeal that counts. “We have been looking for a fair in Asia for a long time.

"With Basel behind [ArtHK] it will inevitably become Asia’s number one fair,” said art dealer Iwan Wirth.

Art Basel will change the dates of the Hong Kong fair from May to February next year to avoid a clash with the Swiss event in June, putting it in direct competition with Art Stage Singapore, slated to open its second edition on 12 January. The move “attacks us in an unfriendly way”, said Singapore director Lorenzo Rudolf. Art Basel co-director Marc Spiegler said it was the company’s policy not to comment publicly on other art fairs.

Competition is hotting up in the US, too, with Frieze New York set to open on Randall’s Island in May 2012. The existing New York fairs that run each March are splintered, and lack the gravitational pull of, for example, Art Basel. The Armory Show has seen major dealers dropping out; members-only The Art Show, organised by the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), is well respected but limited in size, while the young pretender Independent can accommodate no more than 40 or so dealers in its current location.

Given the proliferation of art fairs, dealers will have to decide where to plant their flags. “The danger for these art fairs is that they put too much pressure on the dealers to find the material, and on the artists to make it,” said deputy chairman and co-head of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art department, Brett Gorvy.

Nonetheless, the message from the ADAA and The Armory Show is more collegial than combative. “Any art event in the city is good for New York,” said Paul Morris, vice president of Merchandise Mart, which owns The Armory Show. Linda Blumberg, executive director of the ADAA, said it “welcomes and supports Frieze in New York City and has no plans to alter our schedule at this time” to coincide with Frieze Art Fair.

As art fairs become ever more critical to a gallery’s survival, the launch of Frieze Masters in London demonstrates the ambition of its organisers. “A lot of smaller fairs have outlived their usefulness. Frieze…is moving into the sustainable realm of a Basel,” said advisor Allan Schwartzman. The new London venture will gather around 70 dealers showing a range of art made before the year 2000.

This is seemingly a shot at the market traditionally covered by European stalwart fair, Tefaf Maastricht. But chairman Ben Janssens said he does not see it as “direct competition as we are in March and they are in October”.

Frieze Masters will clash with the Pavilion of Art and Design fair (Pad), which opens on 12 October. Pad co-founder Patrick Perrin said the two fairs operate in different markets: “They are an enormous show. We are a salon that is all about refinement. We will perfectly complement each other.” Potential defectors should take heed, however. “Those that do take the risk of leaving us will have trouble getting back in,” he said.

Masterpiece London, now in its second year and dedicated to fine and decorative arts as well as collectibles, said it welcomes the new addition to the calendar. “Masterpiece London and the planned Frieze Masters are, in fact, very different,” said chairman Thomas Woodham-Smith.

As the art world becomes increasingly international, the strength of brand names is ever more vital. With Frieze Art Fair and Art Basel consolidating, maybe to become art fair Goliaths, it remains to be seen what strategies their rivals will take to adapt.