Hit hard by the pandemic, the parent company of Art Basel MCH is refinancing and regrouping

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Art Basel is returning to its traditional June dates for the first time in three years this week – and with it a semblance of normalcy. Gone are the on-site Covid-19 masks and tests, while visitor numbers are expected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels. The number of galleries is also up: 289 compared to 272 last year (and 290 in 2019).

Cancellations, postponements and dramatic losses in attendance have decimated the fair landscape in 2020 and 2021, but Art Basel’s global director Marc Spiegler says the Swiss fair has emerged “quite strongly” from the pandemic. “What we see in terms of people applying and considering coming to our exhibitions is a continuation, if not an expansion, of the global art world,” he adds.

Art Basel’s stability can largely be attributed to James Murdoch, whose private investment firm Lupa Systems injected 48 million Swiss francs (46 million euros) into the fair’s parent company MCH Group in August 2020, becoming a member of the board of directors and reference shareholder (with 32.32% of the shares) in December of this year. As Spiegler puts it: “To his credit, James stepped in at a time when other companies backed down. Several people considered investing in MCH and got scared during the pandemic, but James went ahead.

Keep your distance: At last year’s edition of Art Basel, various Covid-19 protocols were in place, including mask-wearing and social distancing requirements. Most visitors were also required to have a vaccination certificate and a negative test result for the virus © ArtBasel

One such company, investment fund XanaduAlpha, recently renewed its interest in acquiring Art Basel, having entered into negotiations with MCH in 2020. According to a report published last week in the Basel Zeitung newspaper, XanaduAlpha has now offered MCH around 200 million Swiss francs (192 million euros) for 70% of the Swiss fair, although a spokesperson for the parent company says MCH “has absolutely no intention to sell Art Basel”.

Nevertheless, the MCH’s financial situation “remains difficult,” said the spokesperson.

The group is now planning a new capital increase, the two reference shareholders, the canton of Basel-City and Lupa Systems, having to invest between 27 and 34 million francs (26 to 33 million euros) each. This “will secure liquidity for the refinancing of [MCH’s] SFr100m bond and the further development of the business,” according to an online statement. Basel City’s parliament is expected to approve the investment, although Green Liberal Party leader David Wüest-Rudin is calling for an exit strategy to be included in the deal, allowing for a vote in two years. determine whether to retain the stake in MCH, depending on Basel Zeitung.

In early March 2020, before the pandemic took hold, MCH forecast sales losses of up to 170 million Swiss francs (€163 million) for 2020. The conglomerate underwent a restructuring into four divisions that separated its industries related to art, its Swiss events, venues and “live marketing solutions” (in April of the same year, the US-based marketing division laid off 150 employees).

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This situation was made worse by the closure of the watch and jewelry fair Baselworld – part of the Art Basel franchise – in April 2020 after its main exhibitors pulled out and created a rival fair in Geneva (its main sponsor, Swatch, bailed out in 2018, citing the eccentricity of the fair’s format). The outlook remains bleak for the watch fair – Florian Faber, the group’s new chief executive “wants to leave Baselworld aside for the time being”, according to the MCH spokesperson. Instead, the group is focusing on “new formats and new platforms”.

Ghost town: The Messeplatz, the hub of Art Basel, which teems with people during the fair, was, like cities around the world, eerily quiet during the pandemic closures © Xavier von Erlach

Expansion and investment are indeed back on the agenda, with an earlier decision to halt the development of a portfolio of regional art fairs now reversed. After pulling out of Singapore-based Art SG in November 2018, in January this year MCH decided to try again by buying a 15% minority stake in Art Events Singapore, the organizer of the Asian fair. “Our investment in Art SG is part of our strategy to support growing art scenes and our galleries across Asia, which we see as complementary to our core business of managing Art Basel in Hong Kong,” said said the MCH spokesperson.

Hong Kong, however, is plagued with its own problems, including a tightening of political control from Beijing. Meanwhile, in the face of some of the toughest Covid-19 measures in the world, many international dealers and collectors opted to stay away from the latest edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong last month, while more half of the participating galleries opted for satellite stands. The result was a much more subdued affair than in 2019, with the number of participating galleries around half that of pre-Covid levels.

Competition is also growing in other parts of Asia. Frieze is launching its Seoul fair in September, while Tokyo Gendai, a new fair announced last week, is set to open in the Japanese capital in July 2023. Both events could help develop market hubs to rival Hong Kong.

The expansion is closer to the Swiss firm’s home, with the October launch of Paris+ by Art Basel. MCH has paid 10.6 million euros for a seven-year term for the new art fair, which is launching at the temporary Grand Palais Pop-up before moving to the Grand Palais once renovations are complete, scheduled for March 2023.

Spiegler predicts that the selection of the first Parisian fair will be “one of the most difficult to date”, with around 60% fewer stands (around 160 in total) at the Grand Palais Éphémère than at other Art Basel fairs. .

Paris was a natural fit, says Spiegler, as a city that attracts “some of the most important galleries in the world.” David Zwirner, Mariane Ibrahim and White Cube have recently moved in, while Hauser & Wirth recently announced that it will also be opening its first gallery in the French capital next year.

Private collectors are also setting up museums on an unprecedented scale in the French capital, contributing to the dynamism of the city. There’s François Pinault’s Bourse de Commerce, the Cartier Foundation’s move to gigantic new premises next to the Louvre Museum in 2024, and the Hôtel de la Marine on Place de la Concorde. Add to that a new generation of museum directors at the Louvre, the Center Pompidou, the Palais de Tokyo, the Petit Palais and the Musée d’Orsay and you have a “generational shift within the Parisian art scene”, as the saying goes. Spiegler.

Frieze launches its Seoul fair in September, while Tokyo Gendai is set to open in 2023

That alone won’t guarantee the success of Paris+, which ruffled feathers to oust the long-running Foire internationale d’art contemporain (Fiac), but the growing focus on Paris will certainly help. Either way, this is a clear statement of intent from MCH.

As its spokesperson puts it: “MCH Group as a whole pursues a strategy of growth and expansion. We strongly believe that there is a need and a desire for live exhibitions and trade fairs. On the contrary, the pandemic and the “return to (almost) normalcy” that followed have demonstrated that people want to see each other again in person. »

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