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Parties, private jets, and multimillion-dollar paintings: Art Basel, explained

Art Basel Miami is part of a global network of art fairs that have transformed the worldwide art market.

The crowd at Art Basel Miami Beach.
Art Basel

Tens of thousands of artists, gallery owners, art collectors, celebrities, and hangers-on will descend on Miami this week for Art Basel Miami Beach, the North American leg of the storied Swiss art fair.

Now in its 16th year, Art Basel Miami is perhaps better known for the party scene it attracts than for the deals that take place there. The fair is “renowned for its sometimes highly decadent parties,” journalist Georgina Adam writes in her book Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market, “with the combination of the tropical climate, Latin-American lustiness, availability of drugs and luxury hotels that seem to invite excess.”

This year’s iteration of Basel Miami kicks off on Thursday, December 6, and lasts until the 9th — but the festivities aren’t limited to this weekend alone. Dozens of satellite fairs happen in the days surrounding the main event. These fairs don’t just capitalize on Basel’s success; they show just how much the fair has transformed both Miami’s local art scene and the global art market as a whole.

Different Art Basels for different markets

Before Art Basel made its way to Miami, there was Basel in Basel.

Founded in 1970 by a trio of Swiss art dealers — Trudi Bruckner, Balz Hilt, and Ernst Beyeler — Art Basel was an attempt to replicate the success of the burgeoning art fair scene. Inspired by the German art fair Kunstmarkt Köln, which was founded in 1967 and is now known as Art Cologne, the Swiss dealers decided to internationalize the art fair scene. Art Basel’s inaugural fair, held in Basel, Switzerland, featured 90 galleries from 10 countries, according to Artspace’s brief history of the fair. Five years later, there were 300 exhibitors from 21 countries.

Since Art Basel’s founding, the galleries that exhibit there have been chosen by a committee of gallerists. During the fair’s first 22 years in existence, the committee was composed of one delegate from each country represented, making for a more democratic — if slightly more bureaucratic — process.

In 1992, Art Basel director Lorenzo Rudolf shrank the selection committee to just three members. (The committees have since expanded to six members per city, all of whom are “prominent gallerists.”) Two years later, Rudolf secured a sponsorship from the Swiss investment bank UBS and implemented a new VIP lounge, one of the many ways the festival pampers those few collectors who they know are willing to write six- and seven-figure checks. (It’s not uncommon for works to sell for upward of $1 million; Artnet has a list of some of the highest-priced works from the 2017 fair, including a $7 million painting by American artist Lee Krasner.)

Under the auspices of director Sam Keller, Art Basel expanded to Miami Beach in 2002. And in 2013, Art Basel’s parent company MCH bought Art HK and relaunched it as Art Basel Hong Kong.

The three Basels, which happen in three continents at various times of the year, are designed to cater to a different segment of the art market. Basel in Basel, Adam told me, happens in the summer and is “certainly the leading fair in the world for modern and contemporary art”; it also features a “much less frenetic” scene than its North American counterpart.

Basel Miami occurs every December and is known for luxury, excess, and parties — and for its attendance by wealthy collectors not only from North and South America, but also European collectors looking to escape the cold. Though the event is put on for the benefit of dealers and buyers, anyone can buy a ticket; day passes start at $50.

A woman walks past the Alfonso Artiaco gallery’s exhibition at Art Basel Hong Kong in March 2018.
Art Basel

Basel Hong Kong, the latest addition, happens in the spring and represents the fair’s foray into Asian markets. “Hong Kong has been very attractive for Art Basel because of the mainland China market,” said Olav Velthuis, a professor at the University of Amsterdam who studies sociology in the arts. “China, within a bit more than a decade, became the second-largest art market in the world. The number of millionaires and billionaires in China has been growing.”

Art Basel’s transformation from a European-based international art fair into a network of fairs around the world is indicative of just how much the contemporary art market has changed in the past half-century. The rise of a new billionaire class in Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe has led to a commensurate rise in superrich art collectors, and those collectors are wealthier than ever before.

Even though each Basel is meant to corner a different market, it’s not unheard of for wealthy collectors to jet from country to country, attending not only each city’s Basel but also other fairs like Frieze in New York and the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht. Art fairs are more than places to buy art. As one art dealer quoted in Adam’s book said, they’re both “social events” and “lifestyle choices.”

“There’s no doubt that art fairs have been a fantastic way of growing the art market in general. One of the reasons why is that they are also a lifestyle choice,” Adam told me. “There’s an enormous number of closed events, parties, visits to collectors [in addition to the fair itself]. There’s a whole VIP program, events, presentations by artists, conversations. You can get involved in all of these — very attractive, let’s face it — events that are very exclusive. But of course, you have to buy some art first to get invited.”

Some find the scene-y elements of Basel a deterrent rather than an attraction. Adam’s book, for instance, features a lengthy quote from billionaire investor and art collector Adam Lindemann’s 2011 essay on why he was “not going to Art Basel Miami Beach” that year.

“Here are all the things I’m absolutely not going to: Tuesday it’s a lunch with Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezomolo (nice name!), then there are the cocktails for artist Teresita Fernandez (I like her, she’s pretty, she’s Cuba, and she won a MacArthur fellowship,) then there’s my friend Lapo Elkann’s Ferrari party, which I’ll have to leave to make the dinner Delphine Arnault is having (she’s the daughter of the owner of LVMH, no less) for Berlin-based artist Anselm Reyle,” he writes, continuing in this vein for another several hundred words.

Some events are more exclusive than others, but they all have the same few general characteristics: guest lists that include some mix of artists, celebrities, models, and dealers of both the art and, supposedly, the drug variety; open bars courtesy of whichever liquor company happens to be sponsoring the shindig; and a musical act or DJ of at least some renown. Last year, actress Issa Rae hosted a party at the Versace Mansion sponsored by Bombay Sapphire; this year, it’s being hosted by Tessa Thompson.

The art fair — and Art Basel — effect

In the nearly 40 years since Art Basel’s founding, the number of art fairs has ballooned to more than 200 each year, benefiting gallerists and collectors alike. The market is so crowded that it’s difficult to plan a new fair that doesn’t coincide with an existing one. Among this proliferation, Art Basel remains the cream of the crop.

At fairs like Basel, buyers can get access to thousands of works by hundreds of artists from different countries — it’s like a shopping mall for high-end contemporary art, if shopping malls were the kind of place you got to by chartering a private jet.

For dealers, art fairs are the best way to compete with auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, by, as UBS and Art Basel’s annual report on the art market put it, “developing the competitive atmosphere and ‘one-room’ excitement” of art auctions that galleries lack.

At Basel and other art fairs, buyers may have access to thousands of works of art, but they’re also surrounded by tens of thousands of prospective buyers, making them more likely to buy impulsively and spend big. “It’s a meeting place of the art market and the art world,” Velthuis said. “This is where you would meet curators who may be important for the promotion of the artist you represent. You may meet new collectors you didn’t know about yet. For networking, it’s a very important place to be.”

In 2017, dealers made 46 percent of their sales at art fairs, according to the UBS/Basel report, meaning that participating in fairs, whether it’s Basel, Frieze, or one of the smaller satellite fairs, has become an economic necessity. Despite the benefits, fairs are incredibly costly, with some dealers saying that “both their expenses and revenues from fairs [are] equivalent to running another gallery in terms of magnitude,” according to the report.

The 47 Canal booth at Art Basel Basel in Switzerland.
Art Basel

Those costs include travel and accommodations for the gallery staff, plus daily expenses; the price of the booth at the fair itself, which can cost between tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars; and the cost of insuring and transporting all works of art. A 2017 analysis by Artnet found that the cost of participating in Basel Miami ranges from $120,000 to more than $275,000.

The profits don’t always make up for it. “When you look at revenues, for small galleries, it can be quite little. It can be $50,000, $100,000, sometimes even less,” Velthuis said. “A big gallery could sell literally millions of dollars in Miami, so they’ll really make a handsome profit there. The fairs are risky for small galleries and good for big galleries. Maybe the costs will be twice as high for a big gallery, or three times as high, but when it comes to sales, a big gallery isn’t selling twice or three times as much — they’re selling 20 or 30 times as much.” Meanwhile, “some of the smaller galleries don’t break even at the fairs,” and may even incur losses.

Despite this, art fairs in general and Art Basel in particular are a necessary evil — or, as Adam puts it, a “double-edged sword” — in the art world. The fact of the matter is that collectors want to be where the action is, and dealers need to be where collectors are.

“There are so many [fairs] that people go less to the galleries, because there’s always another art fair around the corner,” Adam said. “Fairs gave the dealer with a base in New York the possibility to show in Hong Kong. They extended their international network, their ability to find new international collectors. But at the same time, they have actually taken away from foot [traffic] in their own galleries as a result.”

For collectors, Art Basel and other fairs like it are a one-stop shop for the best contemporary art money can buy, as well as the home of the art world’s most exclusive, over-the-top parties. For dealers, the fairs are a source of both revenue and new overhead costs. And for the rest of us, Art Basel may just be an opportunity to visit an exotic locale, look at art you can’t afford, and maybe even sneak into a party hosted by a mid-tier singer.

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