I've always been curious about Art Basel and this year was an opportunity for me to visit the Art fair and now I want to share some industry learnings. Equipped with Custorian's latest live exhibition demos, I urgently sought first impressions from Gallerists on how the beta examples below use Insta & AMP stories as in-gallery guides. Judging from my cards, I'd say I managed to talk at any length with 30-40 gallerists over four days, and I'd say 10 of those were significant conversations.
Here are the exhibitions I discussed:
About Art Basel
First of all, Art Basel is the most significant art fair globally; pre-covid, it attracted 60k+ visitors to 272 gallery booths from 33 countries. It's a very large although traditional booth based affair spread across three enormous halls.
Outside of the main fair, for a sensational short week, the city of Basel becomes an Art extravaganza hosting many satellite exhibitions. Some prominent notables are Design Miami/Basel, LISTE, June, VOLTA & "I never read art book". It's an opportunity for enthusiasts and professionals to see the big private industry picture and for me to put the early demos of custorian to the test.
Art Basel means big business. International visitors paying the high price for entry, accommodation & travel narrow down to the audience to the relatively few big-ticket collectors in the world. Booths in the main fair's halls are leased at £50-150k for space, even before you consider staff, shipping and installing the art. The list of exhibitors reads like a who's who of international Art galleries.
This year, Liste, another excellent fair is allowed into the same hall as the main fair where as previous years it's had to run alongside off-site as a challenger. Liste is for younger galleries and charges £6-14k per booth drawing 81 galleries from 33 countries. This crew might be less socially validated, but to me, loads more interesting. Unfortunately, even with the shared location, the attendance of this event and the other slightly less trumpeted onsite event, 'June art fair', seemed to be far lower than expected. I'd be surprised if 10k visitors from the main halls made it over to Liste, never mind June, which is a shame because the curation of both their areas was way more compelling. On top of this, Gallerists continually mentioned a notable missing US and Asian buyer audience. Some of the the exhibitors believed the footfall to have reduced by around 70% although I think that an exaggeration, perhaps it was down 50% from previous years?
After Hall 1, I'd guess footfall dropped 30%-50% in each area. So in this way, the top 1% of galleries can get the top 1% of artists & artworks seen.
What was I asking?
The Galleries at Basel spend big money to be there and speak with their target customers; they didn't want to bother with a pesky startup trying to do customer research. So, it was challenging to get time with Gallerists on the right terms. However, many generously offered their time after their day, at dinner or were otherwise exhausted!
The high stakes environment made for a tough crowd, but the snubs are worth it for the rare, candid feedback from knowledgeable potential customers. You might think you know, but only through many 1-1 conversations can you form a realistic impression of customer needs.
- How did they plan and share their catalogues & exhibitions?
- Could they walk me through their last sale at home & the exhibition?
- How did they measure the success of their last exhibition?
- What was their most successful exhibition?
- Where did they meet their last customer?
- Where did their customer see the artwork?
- When did their last on/offline conversation result in sales?
- Did the gallerist buy because of the work or the artist?
What did I learn?
Sales make the wheels go round, especially big-ticket sales from regular collectors. Of course! Although deep down, I always questioned how sales motivated commercial Art Gallery programmes and activities. It was confirmed time and time again implicitly at the mention of how their targets dictated exhibition plans.
A Galleries key artists drive sales and not so much the particular artworks. Many artworks were sold sight unseen, but more often, it was via a PDF over email. When there was a choice it often just came down to preference on colours but that wasn't a deal breaker if the artist was a big name. Collectors still safely live in the land of the PDF. The 50+-year-olds own the spending power. A few galleries I spoke with mentioned that their big-money collectors ($100k+) aren't in any way computer savvy. These galleries also see a 5-10 year runway and don't feel responsible for innovating and engaging different audiences. They believe that to be an art institution's job.
It was really surprising to me that there was so little mention of crypto currency or VR. In fact across the main and all the satellite events, Nigel Draxler had the only booth which in anyway tried to engage with the burgeoning technology. I suspect that was for the very reason I mentioned, it's simply someone else's battle to be fought. These Gallerists were here to make hay while the sun was seldom shining.
A big theme was that the vast majority of gallerists are not and do not wish to become content creators. So, on the face of it, when Custorian is approaching them with a guide based interface, they are hesitant about the production overhead.
In saying that, Gallerists were impressed and excited by the demos and suggested opportunities to work together. Gallerists personally want engagement; when pushed, they are, of course, passionate about the opportunity to extend the reach, but they feel their time is limited to what might directly result in sales. So both content production and the debatable ROI poses a bottleneck in Custorian's current adoption with gallerists.
Custorian's north star is the ability to increase art engagement. I now realise that while desirable, engagement is not a driving motivator for private galleries where it doesn't result in a direct sale.
I started Custorian because even though I love contemporary art. I felt unwelcome in private art Galleries. Interviewing Artists, Gallerists & Collectors, even bonafide participants in the Art World feel unwelcome! Art is the only industry where imposter syndrome lasts forever. Why is that?
There is a chasm to be crossed to extend contemporary art's audience meaningfully. I didn't see much evidence of the microcosm being challenged at Basel, perhaps because this is the art market centre and not the art world. Lots to ponder over.
This article featured artwork by:
- Indrikis Gelzis (Supraininfinit, Bucharest)
- Hell Gette (Nagel draxler, Berlin, Cologne, Munich)
- Mamali Shafahi (Dastan Gallery, Iran )