The concept of the art fair has been developing and evolving organically for decades, but this process has been supercharged during the last two years with the onset of the pandemic. Art fair organisers have needed to think laterally about how to engage their traditional audiences and attract new buyers, then how to engage safely with all parties involved, exhibitors and collectors alike. Inherently bound up in this conversation is the work of art shippers, who operate as the logistical engine room to bring these international events together.

Rodolphe Haller

Our members have long offered diverse services for exhibitors and collectors at art fairs globally, cooperating closely to ensure that skilled “boots on the ground” are available wherever they are needed. In an exhibiting gallery’s origin country, an ICEFAT shipper will pack and crate artworks and all exhibiting materials (including the table and chairs!), before transporting it to an international airport or port. Once transported to its destination country, the works are picked up by another ICEFAT agent and brought to a storage facility to be kept before the ‘put-in’ takes place at the art fair. The install day of the fair (always an extremely busy time) takes place and the fair opens and following its closure the logistical process is reversed to return works that haven’t been sold back to their origin and works that have been sold to their new homes.

The team at Gander & White installing

With the move to online-only fairs caused by the pandemic, parts of these processes completely disappeared. Márk Vargha, Head of International Projects at Hungary-based Museum Complex Transportation and Services outlines the changes caused by this format. “There was no possibility for the organisation of larger, centralised, consolidated shipments to and from the art fair venue”, says Vargha. “We often provided other services such as packing and unpacking assistance for the exhibitors and installation and deinstallation, this part of our work completely disappears when a fair is only held in the online space.”

Instead of being exhibited at art fair venues, artworks ‘on display’ have in fact stayed within their galleries or in storage. Many ICEFAT agents offer fine art storage, which has been a way in which they have maintained revenue from galleries exhibiting at art fairs during the pandemic, as these works still need to be kept in a safe warehouse and then shipped from there to their destination at a collector’s home or museum. Christian Aegerter, Director of Swiss ICEFAT shipper Rodolphe Haller points out the continuation of this practice throughout the pandemic: “if the gallery has these works in storage with us, and they are sold, then the last shipment only is organised [rather than the whole fair logistical process].”

Even prior to the pandemic, many agents had already begun the process to move away from art fairs as a revenue stream, but the pandemic caused a complete halt in their work in this sector. “Atelier 4 pivoted away from art fairs when they disappeared,” says Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of US-based Atelier 4 and Chairman of ICEFAT’s Steering Committee, “we will consider whether or not it makes sense to engage in art fair business next year.”

Despite uncertainties throughout the pandemic, art fairs have bounced back with the invention of the hybrid fair – combining the advantages of virtual whilst enabling the irreplaceable ‘buzz’ of the in-person art fair. As Elizabeth Stevens of Gander & White New York points out: “even the Online Booth and Online Viewing Rooms at art fairs have not come close to the live art fair experience – people need live interaction”, and thus the hybrid fair has brought the buzz back. “Nothing will replace the good old-fashioned art fair,” agrees Aegerter of Rodolphe Haller. Vargha of Museum Complex sees the expanded audience of the hybrid art fair being a very positive thing, saying, “more potential buyers have full access to the exhibited material, this attracts collectors that would not be buying at all had the fair been held in the traditional way only. This can mean potential orders and business from collectors around the world that we might not get into touch with otherwise”. Hybrid fairs clearly increase the accessibility for audiences who have the choice of enjoying a fair at home or on-site and this leads to a more diverse clientele who require shipping solutions that ICEFAT shippers can provide.

Art Basel Hong Kong in May 2021 was one of the first fairs to return, having physical exhibitors alongside ‘satellite booths’ where artworks were shown with no gallery representatives on site. ICEFAT agents in Hong Kong adopted a crucial role in making this event a success Ida Ng, CEO, Art Move of Helu-Trans Group reports that the company’s “relationship with fair organizers actually became closer as they approached us for advice and comments on the new format and operational issues since this has never been done before”. Shippers therefore occupied a new role with this new type of fair.

The team at RNTRANS installing

One challenge with online and hybrid fairs has been identified by Renato Marques, Head of Fine Arts at RNTRANS of Portugal who sees that “final customers are gradually searching for the lowest price which means that mass-market, non-specialised shippers will be the primary option.” Schwartz of Atelier 4 has also noticed this trend in the United States and this is the reason for its leaving the art fair altogether. He says Atelier 4 made this decision in order to “reduce exposure to a hyper-competitive marketplace which has attracted a greater number of lesser experienced companies.” These unspecialised shippers are seen by Schwartz as causing a “chaotic environment that has become less “artwork” friendly, expanding the risk of claims”. All in all, the pandemic has brought accelerated evolution to the art fair space with the advent of the hybrid fair, a move welcomed by many shippers as a way to increase and diversify audiences. The disruption to the norm during the pandemic was not an easy time for ICEFAT agents, as many had to find a way to adjust to the more remote market landscape. Where restrictions remain in place, the recovery will take longer. Ng of Helu-Trans reports that if current conditions in Hong Kong “remain status quo, I don’t think business will go back to the pre-Covid dates and revenue generated by Art Basel Hong Kong (March 2022) will be about 15 -20% of what it used to be.” There is cautious optimism, however, that the international art market will return to its heyday of before the pandemic, albeit with new adaptations to reach broader audiences and some restrictions that may stick around for a while yet. Working together (when possible), our agents have endured the travails of the past eighteen months and will continue to work with businesses within the art market as requested and required.