“All the art world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

To adapt one of Shakespeare’s most famous verses, we can think of Art Basel as perhaps the biggest ‘stage’ in the art world, and the ‘players’ the leading lights in contemporary art. But an art fair juggernaut of this size and fervour requires a logistical powerhouse behind it. Our ‘unseen engine room of the art world’ – fine art logistics – manages the complexities of a global operation that begins months before, continues through the frenetic throws of the fair itself and carries on after it closes its doors for another year. Approximately three quarters of our membership are involved in managing this organised chaos, working together to put on the greatest (art) show on Earth.

The nerve center of Art Basel’s logistical operations

The intense workload and diverse, fast-paced exhibitor requirements mean the seamless global connections that ICEFAT facilitates are absolutely crucial. Sam Schaerer, COO of Kraft (one of four official shippers for Art Basel), notes that his team has serviced 114 galleries at Art Basel 2023, along with 25 galleries exhibiting at Basel satellite fairs, and worked with ICEFAT members from Brazil, Mexico, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and across Scandinavia. Elsewhere in Switzerland, Julien Dragon of Rodolphe Haller reports that “almost half of our technical resources are booked for delivery and installation days.” Importantly, international galleries shipping to Switzerland trust that they will receive the same exacting standards from the ICEFAT agent on the ground in Switzerland as they would from their local ICEFAT shipper, particularly with the unique and complex customs regulations required for importing to Switzerland.

A glimpse of Züst & Bachmeier’s deliveries to Art Basel

Gathering these works in Switzerland for installation is an immense task taken on by ICEFAT agents within Switzerland and beyond. To give an example of the former, Chiasso-based Züst & Bachmeier managed the arrival of four Italian booths into Switzerland before handing over to ICEFAT colleagues. Beyond Switzerland, US-based Dietl International transported 44 booths to the 2023 edition before handing over to Swiss ICEFAT colleagues at Kraft E.L.S., Welti-Furrer and Crozier Schweiz to manage installation day.

While planning begins for many ICEFAT agents four to six months before the fair opens, last-minute requests are an increasing factor in Art Basel logistics both before and during the fair. Even with the best-laid plans, changes may come in the form of recently completed works by an artist that require expedited shipping in the weeks prior to the fair, or during the fair itself, an overnight rehang for a gallery booth when works are sold. Some works may not be on ‘front-of-house’ display but many agents facilitate private viewings of works in storage that galleries showcase for their buyers. While these demands require utmost versatility from our ICEFAT members, they are only requested because our gallery clients are cognizant of an ICEFAT shipper’s capabilities. Anouk Cateland of Welti-Furrer says: “this trend has led to a significant increase in customer loyalty. The galleries need a reliable partner who can meet their short-term requirements at any time.”

ICEFAT agent Kraft E.L.S installing works at Art Basel 2023

Once the fair closes its doors, the race is on to prevent a bottleneck of art leaving Switzerland. Shippers that were not directly involved in the installation such as Geneva-based Natural Le Coultre take works into storage at the Geneva Freeport while their clients decide their next move. Kraft has a charter flight from Basel to New York, and also arranges direct road transport to the other regional flight hubs of Frankfurt, Luxembourg or Liege.

Kraft repacking crates at the conclusion of the fair

The scale, complexity and pace of Art Basel is certainly a challenge, but one adeptly met by our global membership. Every year, our agents cooperate closely to plan and react to our clients’ requests for the fair, successfully getting the show on the road every year, ensuring an artistic triumph.