We went behind the scenes with the ultra-wealthy attendees of Zurich Art Weekend, now an essential stop before Art Basel

Saturday night in Zurich, Switzerland, during a symphony of enthusiastic chatter and clinks of champagne glasses toasting Zurich Art Weekend, a seasoned French art collector fake hesitated, raising a glass to his lips.

“If that’s not too vulgar to say” – and, in the amber glow of the table lamps on a balmy summer night, I knew he would say it anyway – “Zurich is the preliminaries of Art Basel .”

It has become a ritual for the wealthy classes bound for the first European art fair to pass through the Swiss financial center as a curtain raiser for the coming week. Some, like the Belgian collector Frédéric de Goldschmidt, like to make it a road trip; those coming from abroad find it a convenient stopover when landing in Zurich on their way to Messeplatz.

The rest of the year, the Alpine town is a cozy enclave for wealthy Swiss collectors, from publishing magnate Michael Ringier to photography enthusiast Nicola Erni – and tax relief for residents means it welcomes the foot on the ground many wealthy foreigners, too.

Since the Art Weekend officially launched in 2018, it has, in the words of local collector and former gallerist Claudia Groeflin Ziltener, “done a great job of making Zurich sexy again”.

Performance by Théo Mercier activating “Outremonde–Dream Hunters”, at Luma Westbau, Zurich. Photo by Naomi Rea.

On Friday afternoon, as the sun beat down on the terrace of the Löwenbräu, a brasserie transformed into a white cube that is full of galleries, art bookstores and museums, Swiss truck collector and pharmaceutical heiress Maja Hoffmann made her own assessment.

“Zurich is the lifestyle, Basel is the business,” she said, sipping her Aperol spritz. “Here the air is clean and people can swim in the lake, but it’s hard to find a good hotel in Basel.”

Hoffmann was there to watch a captivating performance by French artist Théo Mercier taking place at Luma Westbau, the Zurich outpost of his Arles-based art foundation. Elsewhere in the building, galleries were using the weekend to do business at a more leisurely pace before the food frenzy started at the fair.

Francesca Pia exhibited works by American artist Wade Guyton and photographs by Alvin Baltrop alongside sculptures by Heimo Zobernig. By early afternoon, they had already sold a small 2020 Guyton inkjet on linen to a Swiss collector for between $500,000 and $1 million, and were using the show to market a piece to scale of 2013 with the institutions of the city.

The Hauser and Wirth mega-gallery, which was founded in the city in 1992, hosted a sublime exhibition of paintings by Jack Whitten (priced between $300,000 and $2 million) and works on paper from the 1960s. also sold its upstairs gallery of giant, virtually fluorescent paintings by British artist Frank Bowling, for £900,000 ($1.1million) each.

“It’s a very important moment for us to settle before Basel,” said gallery partner Barbara Corti. “While American collectors are more intuitive or faster at making decisions, with Europeans they always need more, and they will usually take a little longer to decide things.” The gallery will present, among other things, Bowling works at the fair.

Photo: © Urs Westermann for Zurich Art Weekend.

Photo: © Urs Westermann for Zurich Art Weekend.

Compared to last year, when masks were mandatory and people had to check in everywhere to comply with Covid-19 restrictions, the atmosphere in Zurich was positively charged. On Friday evening, Hauser and Wirth entertained customers at the legendary Kronenhalle restaurant, where Kandinsky and Chagall are known to have enjoyed gourmet cuisine. Near Badi Utoquai—a bathing station on wooden stilts bordering the former Swiss lake – a motley mix of guests from the Gregor Staiger Gallery and the Swiss Institute raised their glasses to toast artist Raphaela Vogel and the New York institution’s new director, Stefanie Hessler.

Swiss collectors Cristina and Thomas Bechtler were in attendance, as was Art Basel global director Marc Spiegler, who is primarily based in the city. News had just been announced that US visitors would no longer be required to test on their way back to the US, which bodes well for international attendance at the fair. (The crowd I encountered in Zurich seemed to be mostly European, although everyone was whispering that the americans were back– I didn’t see any.)

Spiegler was also optimistic about the return of Asian customers – with the exception of China, which still enforces strict testing and quarantine restrictions – he expects to see VIPs from Japan and Korea return in force. The reshuffling of the Venice Biennale calendar also meant that its opening week fell earlier than usual and under more unfavorable conditions. Spiegler therefore suggested that many collectors would use the fair as a starting point for a less rainy Eurotrip.

It remains to be seen how buying behavior will react to the whiff of the looming recession, although recessions have historically not been a terrible thing for the art market. “A lot of people use a recession to bolster their collections,” Spiegler pointed out.

Photo: © Urs Westermann for Zurich Art Weekend.

Photo: © Urs Westermann for Zurich Art Weekend.

The recession certainly didn’t make itself felt as the wine flowed easily on Saturday night during Eva Presenhuber’s gallery dinner at the sumptuous Hotel Baur au Lac. And while Zurich is a litmus test for the sales environment in Basel, the outlook is optimistic. Elsewhere in the city’s historic cultural hub, deals were struck over raclette and vodka martinis at the Grand Café Odéon.

Presenhuber, who is one of the founding members of Zurich Art Weekend, presented the airport photographs and car sculptures of Peter Fischli and David Weiss from the 1980s and, across the city, a group exhibition of the young stars of his stable. She said she expected half a dozen sales to come out of foot traffic over the weekend as well.

“For rich people, I think the recession is not really a problem,” she said. Those who can afford it will seek to diversify their portfolios, betting on art as a bulwark against inflation. “Also…it’s fun!” Ultimately, people buy art because they like it.

While she conceded that last September, sales in Basel were a little slow, she expects this show to mark a return to normal. We will see. It’s hard to feel sullen with a Hugo, a Swiss-favorite gin and elderflower blend in the summer, in your hand and a belly full of fondue.

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