COVID-19 forces cancellation of Art Basel Miami Beach

COVID-19 forces cancellation of Art Basel Miami Beach

The organizers of the annual Art Basel Miami Beach fair, a key cultural and economic event for the region, announced Wednesday they have canceled this year’s edition because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a further blow, two other Miami Art Week stalwarts promptly followed suit. Art Week’s second-largest player, Art Miami, announced it, too, will cancel this year’s fair along with companion events CONTEXT Art and Aqua Art Miami, Artnet News reported. The NADA art fair also said its 2020 Miami edition is off.

The cancellations, though not unexpected, are the latest major jolt to what had been a flourishing art and cultural scene in Miami-Dade before the pandemic forced widespread closures in mid-March. A county survey of local cultural organizations issued this week found that financial losses from lost ticket sales and canceled fundraisers have escalated to more than $99 million, with nearly 16,000 jobs lost, since March.

In a brief statement, Art Basel officials said they had little choice given the continued uncertainty over the pandemic’s course, international travel restrictions and quarantine regulations across the country and abroad. The fair had been scheduled to take place Dec. 3-6 at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

‘It is with great regret and disappointment that we announce the cancellation of our December show in Miami Beach, as we know how crucial our show is for our galleries, as well as for the greater Miami arts community and economy,” Noah Horowitz, Art Basel’s Americas director, said in the statement. “We thank everyone who shared their perspectives and insights with us over the past months and weeks and look forward to returning to Miami Beach next year to deliver a successful show.”

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Noah Horowitz, director of the Americas for Art Basel. Carl Juste CARL JUSTE

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, who has made the city’s cultural development one of his top priorities, said he supported the decision to cancel Art Basel even as the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated an arts industry that struggles for funding even in good times. In May, the city launched an emergency cultural arts fund to help keep afloat Beach cultural anchors, like the Bass Museum of Art, which remains closed, and the Miami City Ballet, which has canceled its full season.

“They’re a very unique, special partner to the city,” Gelber said of Art Basel. “We’re going to put this in the rear-view mirror and focus on having a great 2021 fair. We view them absolutely as a partner. We’re going to want what’s best for them because we think whatever is good for them is good for us.”

The fair’s cancellation also deals a significant new shock to a local hospitality industry already reeling amid vacant rooms, lost dining business and layoffs because of the coronavirus epidemic.

A 2014 New York Times story estimated the base-line economic impact to Miami-Dade from the Art Basel fair to be $13 million, with many local hotels enjoying almost 100% occupancy. Bill Talbert, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the Bureau did not have an impact figure. But he described the economic benefit to the region from the event as “priceless.”

“It shows we’re part of a global community, and shows we can do big important events very well — that we’re more than a beach, but also art and culture,” Talbert said. “You can’t put a dollar amount on the amount of media coverage we get that first week.”

In place of the live Miami Beach fair, which draws tens of thousands of art collectors and art fans from around the globe, Art Basel organizers say they will host an edition of what they call Online Viewing Rooms — virtual galleries where art is sold. Art Basel has increasingly turned to the concept as the pandemic forced cancellation of its main fair in Basel, Switzerland, and a sister fair in Hong Kong earlier this year.

All galleries admitted to this year’s Art Basel will have access to the online platform, organizers said.

Like Art Miami, NADA also said it will move to an online format for gallery exhibits and programs this December.

Meanwhile, Design Miami, the companion fair to Art Basel Miami Beach, will “be progressing in a different format,” a spokesman said. Details will be forthcoming within days, he added.

As recently as July, organizers were still hoping to host a live Art Basel fair on the Beach in December. But the complex logistics involved in putting the show together with galleries bringing valuable art works from across the world meant a decision on whether to go forward had to be made now, at a time when the pandemic is still cresting in parts of the United States, Europe and Latin America.

“We exchanged a lot of ideas about what would be possible,” said Dennis Scholl, president of Oolite Arts, formerly the South Florida Art Center, who spoke regularly with Art Basel officials. “But it became clear as the pandemic extended that it wouldn’t be possible to bring an audience together in the way we need to for the fair to be all we want it to be.

“It is a significant loss for our community, but I know that the Art Basel team is very, very committed to the Miami Beach fair and is already talking about what they’ll do next year. You always have to put safety first, and I think the fair has done that.”

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Dennis Scholl, CEO and President of Oolite Arts in Miami. Christina Mendenhall Oolite Arts

Oolite had planned a significant exhibition, matching works by local and international artists to coincide with this year’s Art Basel, but that will be postponed until December of 2021, Scholl said.

He noted that satellite fairs that take place during Miami Art Week were likely waiting for a decision by Art Basel before deciding whether to go forward or not.

Art Basel’s announcement Wednesday coincided with the re-opening of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, the first local art museum to begin receiving visitors again since March. Visitors were sparse at mid-day, perhaps an indication that people remain hesitant to mingle in enclosed spaces even with strict limits on capacity.

Uncertainty over whether collectors were willing to attend attend Art Basel amid the risk of another potential spike in the fall or winter likely played into the decision to forgo this year’s edition, said Michael Spring, Miami-Dade’s director of cultural affairs.

Spring called the cancellation “a blow psychologically and economically too” for Miami-Dade, and “incredibly regrettable but completely understandable.”

“It’s absolutely not a surprise given where we are with the course of the pandemic, and the kind of decision Art Basel has to make now to have an event in December,” Spring said. “The level of risk for them has to be incredibly high.”

The Pérez Art Museum Miami, which remains closed and has not decided on a reopening date, still plans to go ahead with what administrators say should be a blockbuster exhibition that had been planned to coincide with Art Basel, director Franklin Sirmans said.

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Perez Art Museum Miami director Franklin Sirmans. Miami Herald File

The exhibition, of art from the African diaspora drawn from the collection of developer Jorge Pérez, after whom the museum is named, is being installed now and will be on view when the museum does reopen, he said.

The museum also hopes to go forward with some version of its Thursday night open house during Art Basel, which draws thousands of people to its bayfront home to enjoy art and music, Sirmans said. The museum may also collaborate with Art Basel in some virtual way to shine a spotlight on Miami’s burgeoning “constellation” of artists, curators, art scholars and writers, he added.

“We’re sad it’s not happening this year. We also totally understand,” Sirmans said. “We are anxious to figure out ways we can still collaborate with our friends at Art Basel. They’ve been doing so many things online. I think we can do something interesting. We hope to do something live with people and also something virtual that will be fun and eventful.”

It’s unclear what the cancellation may mean for Art Basel’s parent company, MCH Group, which had been struggling financially before the pandemic took a massive bite out of its bottom line.

In August, MCH announced that media scion James Murdoch agreed to inject $80 million into the ailing firm to become its “anchor” shareholder. MCH said the investment, along with a broader restructuring, would help it ride out the pandemic’s impact. The company has said it expects its overall sales to drop by half this year because of the pandemic, with annual losses mounting into the tens of millions.

Herald Staff Writers Martin Vassolo and Rob Wile contributed to this report.

Andres Viglucci covers urban affairs for the Miami Herald. He joined the Herald in 1983.

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