Annals of competition, art-fair edition

By Felix Salmon
May 11, 2009

There was an interesting quote from an Art Basel spokesman in the FT on Saturday, about the placement of the satellite Scope art fair “just a football throw away from the main fair”:

“Obviously, our exhibitors are not enthusiastic about the idea of Scope being so close to Art Basel,” says a spokesperson for the main fair, “[but] the groups actually pressuring Scope are the residents of Landhof.”

Why is it at all obvious that the Art Basel exhibitors would not be enthusiastic about having Scope nearby? I suspect that the true story is that Art Basel is unhappy about Scope’s proximity, and that it therefore reckons that its exhibitors are as well. Even if they’re not.

I would have expected, however, that even Art Basel would have been quite excited about Scope. After all, the massive success of its own spin-off fair, Art Basel Miami Beach, is largely a product of the fact that a very large number of satellite fairs — Scope, Pulse, Flow, etc etc — sprung up around it and helped to give it a lot of free extra buzz. Just as specialist retailers tend to cluster together geographically, so do art fairs tend to all appear in the same place and at the same time, to the benefit of them all.

In today’s straitened economic times, however, it’s possible that Art Basel is worried that its dealers will desert the more-prestigious Art Basel location for the adjacent (and significantly cheaper) Scope. Given that most collectors who attend Art Basel will look in on Scope as well, it’s easy to see how dealers looking to cut costs might willingly take the step down, especially when Scope is so nearby.

Even if they don’t take that step, the proximity of Scope is good for the dealers, since it applies downward pressure on the amount that Art Basel can charge them. So I’m frankly skeptical that the exhibitors “are not enthusiastic” about it. Anything which improves the vibrancy the art world is a good thing for pretty much everybody these days. But I guess the competitive mindset dies hard.

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