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La Biennale Paris cancels 2020 edition. What does this mean for other art fairs this autumn?

President of the Paris show says that thousands of dealers and collectors cannot gather this year due to the coronavirus pandemic

Crowds at the opening of La Biennale Paris last year—an alien sight in a socially distanced age © Florent Drillon

For the glut of art fairs scheduled—and rescheduled—for this autumn, today’s announcement that the La Biennale Paris is cancelling its 2020 event will come as a body blow. The 32nd edition of the stalwart art and antiques fair was due to take place at the Grand Palais from 18 to 22 September, almost exactly coinciding with Art Basel. The next event will now take place in September 2021.

Georges De Jonckheere, the president of the Paris fair, says in a statement that the “health situation will not allow the organisation of a major international event such as La Biennale Paris and the gathering of thousands of dealers, collectors, professionals and visitors as is done each year”.

The fair’s priority and that of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires (SNA), the French association of antiques dealers which runs La Biennale, is “to ensure the health of all concerned and to act responsibly for the benefit of our profession, which is already hard hit by the Covid-19 outbreak”, De Jonckheere says. More than 85 dealers had confirmed their participation.

“We owe it to dealers to eliminate all uncertainty by informing them of the decision today, so that they can enjoy proper visibility in the last quarter of this year. Thanks to the early measures put in place by the SNA, our exhibitors face no financial risks,” he adds.

Thanks to a French government bailout package, which offered up to €300bn in credit guarantees for firms affected by the Covid-19 outbreak, La Biennale was able to offer exhibitors a payment plan spread over four months after the fair. In addition, advance payments normally requested ahead of the show had been waived.

Galleries including Didier Claes, Colnaghi, Ariadne and Lucas Ratton have already committed to the 2021 edition, while the fair's organisers are currently working on a series of online events for this year. Due to major renovation works at the Grand Palais starting in 2021, the fair will now not return to its traditional venue for at least three years.

Art fairs in neighbouring Belgium appear to be taking a similar tack. Last week, it was announced that the sixth edition of Art on Paper, the Brussels-based international fair for contemporary drawing, also scheduled for 17 to 20 September, had been cancelled.

Citing the “uncertainties linked to the evolution of the Covid-19 crisis, the restrictions imposed by our governments, particularly on our travels and the constraints linked to the organisation of gatherings”, the fair’s organisers said they were “not in a position to guarantee the organisation of the 2020 edition of the fair in the best conditions”. The next show will take place at the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts in September 2021.

Big question marks now loom over Art Basel, which was postponed from June to 17 to 20 September, as well as October’s major fairs including Fiac in Paris, currently scheduled to take place in the Grand Palais just one month after La Biennale, and Frieze London.

As of today, museums are tentatively reopening in Switzerland, although they are able to enforce social distancing in ways that art fairs and all their accompanying evening events cannot. At its peak in 2015, La Biennale’s gala dinner hosted 1,500 people, although that figure was much reduced last year. Meanwhile, the Swiss Federal Council is expected to make a decision at the end of May on whether to extend its ban on events of more than 1,000 people beyond 31 August. Even as it stands, there are doubts over whether a fair the size of Art Basel can be turned around in two weeks.

The uncertainty is no doubt adding to the headache over at Art Basel’s Swiss parent company MCH Group. The 2021 edition of its beleaguered Baselworld watch and jewellery fair has now been cancelled, apparently due to financial reasons. The fair was originally postponed from April this year to January 2021, but last month its main exhibitors—Rolex, Patek Philippe, Chanel and LVMH—walked out to set up a rival fair in Geneva. Exhibitors were apparently unhappy over the refund terms and recent decisions taken by MCH Group, which has undergone restructuring since January.