French art fairs in disarray as rival goes after slots

The year has started dramatically for France’s leading art fairs, Fiac and Paris Photo. Just before the Christmas holidays, and without warning, their respective places in October and November in the Grand Palais and the Grand Palais Éphémère, their temporary replacement during renovation works, were put out to tender by the French cultural institution, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais ( RMN-GP). According to the tender, the move was prompted by an unnamed third party who had expressed interest in a seven-year contract, reportedly worth at least €20 million. Chris Dercon, president of RMN-GP, has said: “There is a need to rethink shows, be ambitious, curious and open.”

Michel Filzi, chief executive of RX France, owner of Fiac and Paris Photo, said in a January 4 letter to exhibitors that the situation had “very worrying consequences” for the future of the fairs. The RMN-GP’s decision was made “without any consultation with us, the resident and historical partner for decades,” the letter said, adding that “to summarize [legal] procedure has been started”. The original January 10 decision date has been extended – an RMN-GP spokesperson says the future resident of the coveted slots will be announced “at the end of January”.

About the “mystery third party”, Filzi writes that this must be a well-equipped “professional with the necessary experience to organize art fairs of this level”. MCH Group, owner of Art Basel and Masterpiece, and the Frieze Scholarships, which both fit into such an account, declined to comment, although my money goes to the organizers of the Swiss Scholarship.

A woman with sunglasses for some street art

Victoria Siddall has been with Frieze for 18 years © Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Elsewhere, the art fair landscape remains unsettled. Victoria Siddall, who last year stepped down from day-to-day running of the Frieze events, will leave her role as strategy-focused director in March after working for the stock exchange for 18 years. She will remain on the board of Frieze in a non-executive capacity and will act as an advisor, including for the new edition of the Seoul show in September. She has not revealed any roles elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Frieze will still take place from February 17-20, although many other events have disappeared from the winter calendar as Covid-19 continues to disrupt travel and mass gatherings. Tefaf Maastricht has postponed its March fair indefinitely, while the India Art Fair and the London Art Fair have moved their early-year shows to April, The Winter Show has become a spring outing and Brafa in Belgium has moved the date from January to June. The Outsider Art Fair in New York is more optimistic by only a month delayed and now runs from March 3-6.

Two people in front of floating translucent cloth cubes

London Gallery Weekend returns May 13-15 © Linda Nylind

Alternative events continue to gain ground and, thankfully, London Gallery Weekend (LGW) — a pooled effort of some 140 of the city’s contemporary art specialists — is getting its second appearance between May 13-15. The dates are earlier than last year to coincide with the extended holiday for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and now coincide with the planned outings of Photo London and Eye of the Collector fairs in the city.

What started as a Covid-19-driven opportunity is still relevant in a more eventful art world. “We were all so international in our focus before,” said Sarah Rustin of Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery and a LGW co-director, who works with founder Jeremy Epstein. “LGW has given the impetus to refocus on how much potential there is locally.”

As well as championing the London community, this year’s event is partnering with the Art Fund, a charity that supports museums across the UK. This includes sponsoring approximately 20 curators to travel to the event from outside London and developing a focus group on behalf of the country’s many – and often struggling – institutions.

Additional programming, related to the LGW shows but organized separately, is also on the leash, including talks and performances. “Last year we were more hampered by the restrictions in some ways, but this time we can be more ambitious,” Rustin says.

Painting of a young girl getting dressed

‘Sunday Morning’ (1891) by Anders Zorn, the most expensive Swedish painting ever sold © Bukowskis

Bonhams has bought leading Scandinavian auction house Bukowskis for an undisclosed sum from the wealthy Swedish Lundin family. The move is a further sign of consolidation in the mid-market after the Gurr Johns group, which owns Dreweatts and Bloomsbury, bought Forum Auctions late last year.

Bukowskis holds the record for the most expensive Swedish artwork at auction: Anders Zorn’s “Sunday Morning” (1891), which sold for the equivalent of £2.9 million last year. Bonhams chief executive Bruno Vinciguerra says the acquisition will help his group “go from global to hyperlocal” in its strategy. He says the combination will give Bukowskis a more international platform while also connecting its loyal customers and sales spaces in Stockholm and Helsinki to the Bonhams business. Digital sales also play a role: Bonhams’ share of its online business grew from 12 percent in 2019 to nearly 40 percent last year, while Bukowskis now generates about half of its revenue this way, Vinciguerra says.

While Bonhams, which has been owned by the private equity group Epiris since 2018, has had seven-figure sales, both companies specialize in what Vinciguerra calls the “core market” of items valued between £2,000 and £1 million. “This is where we want to expand our position,” he says, hinting at further acquisitions coming soon.

A sculpture of cubes and hexagons

Hexa 8 n°EA IIIIV (1978-2008) by Victor Vasarely © Fabrice Lepeltier and Fondation Vasarely

London’s high-end department store Selfridges plunges into the trippy geometry of Op Art this week with an exhibition of work by Franco-Hungarian Victor Vasarely (1906-97). The windows of the Oxford Street store will be sheathed in a Vasarely design from 13 January, while 50 of his works will be on display inside, most of which are for sale (£40,000-£400,000).

A separate suite of 12 non-fungible tokens of Vasarely’s work, in editions of 100, will also be released over the duration of the exhibition, priced from £2,000 to over £100,000. The money raised will go to the Fondation Vasarely, including the museum in Aix-en-Provence.

Apparel designer Paco Rabanne joins the fray and incorporates Vasarely’s patterns into the Spring/Summer 2022 collection, while the corner shop of Selfridges carries Vasarely gifts from candles to surfboards. Beware of dizzy shoppers.

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