An Up Close View of Art Basel Miami Art Week
Art Basel 2018 just wrapped up another dizzying and dazzling edition in Miami Beach. But what exactly goes on this first week of December year in and year out? To many observers from the outside, this week seems like an oversized commercialized behemoth and indeed there is some surface merit to that assessment. In addition to the staggering acreage of art fairs, large luxury brands pour countless of dollars into staging exhibits and exclusive events that cater to their brand images. Companies like Perrier-Jouët, Bvlgari, Christian Louboutin, and many more host cocktail and dinner parties at all the swankiest hotels and hot spots in Miami Beach. Prada, for instance, transformed The Broken Shaker, a backyard oasis in the heart of Miami Beach, into a three-day cultural and cocktail outpost for this year's Art Basel. Prada Mode, as it is known, became a temporary hub for panel conversations and art exhibits as well as a destination social club. In addition to commercial brands, A-list movie stars, musicians, models, fashion icons and their hanger ons converged on Miami this week for the endless loop of fabulous parties and brand art collaborations.
The glitzy bacchanal like atmosphere surrounding Art Basel has definitely inspired its fair share of eye rolls from many of my esteemed artist friends. As a veteran fair attendee for the last ten years however, I have formulated a more nuanced view of the revelry known as Art Basel week and what it might mean for the greater art world. I’m aware as December rolls around that many of my artist friends, and indeed otherwise beloved supportive family members, dread my Instagram feed saturated as it is with colorful matching art to outfit selfies. “I am having pure fun in the sun!” I tell them, “and besides it’s a way to keep my eye sharp looking at patterns and color!”. By the look on their faces I know these explanations do more to make their argument that Art Basel is all fluff and no meat. But still, I insist, that despite outward appearances and the judgments I hear, Art Basel week is a vital engine to the art world and to artists specifically.
Over five days, the multiple art fairs attract tens of thousands of visitors including private collectors and directors, curators, trustees and patrons of nearly 200 museum and institution groups. Galleries from all around the world and at all levels can be seen within a few miles radius. To understand what Art Basel truly is, I present an analogy derived from the ancient Greek Games. According to the Olympics.org:
“The tradition of the "Truce" or "Ekecheiria" was established in ancient Greece in the 9th century BC by the signature of a treaty between three kings. During the Truce period, the athletes, artists and their families, as well as ordinary pilgrims, could travel in total safety to participate in or attend the Olympic Games and return afterwards to their respective countries. As the opening of the Games approached, the sacred truce was proclaimed and announced by citizens of Elis who travelled throughout Greece to pass on the message.”
The relevancy of this idea to Art Basel becomes apparent when one begins to understand that the “art world” itself is made up of warring factions and competing interests, as it were. For the most part there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to artists, galleries, and collectors. Often times artists live and operate in very different socio-economic worlds to their would be collectors. Many galleries are often not receptive to out of the blue artist overtures. To the average artist, the alchemy of economics surrounding the art world is thus utterly opaque. How does one get “seen” can be a frustrating experience especially to artists who are making work geographically far removed from the central locations of the art market or who have not travelled the traditional academic paths. Under such conditions, Art Basel offers a unique opportunity to be seen by a vast swath of the art world all crammed into one location. Like city states during the ancient Greek Olympic truce, during this one week in December, all levels of the art world menagerie become equal. Segments of the art world that may not regularly fraternize so openly, merrily descend on Miami Beach for Art Basel. Gallerists, designers, curators, arts organizations, brand representatives, collectors, collectives, artists, and art enthusiasts arrive in a fairly open and enthusiastic manner. I assure you the sun drenched skies of Miami beach in December can put even the most stone faced gallerist in a good conversational mood.
Between the main exhibition and the one offs that comprise Art Basel week—the likes of Scope, Pulse, Untitled, Nada and more—there are a plethora of ways to make connections both direct and indirect. If you are bold enough to chat you can meet gallerists from around the world who are warm and welcoming when entering their booths. This was the case especially at the always bright and sun filled Untitled Art Fair tent, where I got to meet the generous art dealer Karen Huber of Mexico City. Her colorful works and fresh vibe stood out to me. I feel as though I made a new friend and perhaps an opportunity for future collaboration. I also got to speak at length with Los Angeles gallerist Luis De Jesus whose gallery I have admired from afar. Luis was showing a phenomenal painting by Peter Williams which was subsequently snatched up by the Smithsonian Museum. These are but a few of the dealers that were very receptive to conversation and dialogue about art and life amidst the uniquely festive atmosphere of Art Basel Miami.
Of course there are other opportunities to network besides the art fairs. In the evenings, if you like to party, you may find yourself chatting at a swanky affair with an exhibition director or interior designer. The lobbies and bars of even the most exclusive South Beach hotels are often open to everyone. The allure of a colorful cocktail on a warm Miami night can lead to wonderful chance encounters with virtually anyone in the art world. Art Basel for all its glittering exclusivity veneer, can act as a playing field leveler if you approach it with eyes wide open and judgments aside.
This year as in all years I had the opportunity to talk to a diverse bunch of folks who came down to Art Basel. I tend to enjoy talking to people and learning about their lives. Growing up with five sisters definitely instilled in me a flair for the gregarious. What stood out to me was how varied each of their experiences were from each other. It was encouraging to see how many ways there were of getting art out there into the world to be seen. As each of the fairs themselves have a slightly different focus there is room for all kinds of art and artists.
At the annual Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) VIP party I ran into Heidi Elbers an accomplished artist alum from the New York Academy of Art (NYAA) and director of their exhibitions. This year the NYAA set up a both at the Art Miami fair as well as their own exhibition at the Mandarin Oriental, Miami. Heidi gave me her take on the week:
“As an artist, I like to see what other artists are making and as an Exhibitions Director, I’m always getting ideas from other galleries with their booths. It’s a ton of work to put together but in the end, they’re really fun: team work, problem solving, meeting new people, and of course- making sales! For the Academy, it was our first time in Miami during art fair week and not only did we gain several new collectors, but we also created new relationships with potential partners, patrons, and prospective students.”
One of the more interesting fairs was NADA. According to The New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) website, it is the definitive non-profit arts organization dedicated to the cultivation, support, and advancement of new voices in contemporary art. This human sized fair was abuzz with a wide array of works with varied and innovative approaches to image making. Over there I ran into the tireless Georgian artist Levan Mindiashvili who was having a solo presentation via ERTI Gallery. I asked him what he thought of NADA as a platform for artists as compared to the other art fairs. According to Levan:
“I’ve been following NADA New York for a couple of years and it always has been something I was looking forward to. I discovered so many exciting and inspiring galleries and artists there. NADA truly provides an alternative platform within the global art market. As Art Basel (main fair) undoubtedly is a blue-chip establishment (even though that doesn’t mean it lacks freshness and excitement, at least in the works shown this year) - NADA to me seemed an evolving organism that allows and encourages experimentation and new approaches. I think its importance is vital for the contemporary art scene as it keeps perfect balance and to me serves as a link between fresh and emerging artists (and I don’t mean “young” in age) and established institutions.”
It was good to have Levan’s inside view as it dovetailed with my own gut instincts about the NADA fair.
During the week I had a chance to connect with a social media friend of mine, art consultant Kyle Hamilton, at a party at the Surf Lodge Hotel. Kyle often consults with interior design professionals and architects to curate fine art in residential and commercial projects. Kyle also assists collectors with acquiring works from emerging contemporary artists as well as assists in selling and purchasing secondary market blue-chip works from established artists. Due to his fluid role in the art market I found his thoughts most elucidating:
“2018 is my 5th time visiting Art Basel and every year has gotten larger and more inclusive. The main fair at The Convention Center is always full of the expected works by Warhol, Basquiat, Koons, Lichtenstein and Picasso but there are always amazing new finds as well. While I did not have time to visit every fair I covered a lot of ground and found amazing works by young and emerging artists at Untitled, NADA, Scope and Pulse. I enjoy finding younger and mid-career artists who have the “X factor” and sharing those finds with my clients. A few of my favorite artists I discovered this year at Basel are Daniel Knorr, Aaron Curry, Ann Veronica Janssens, Nina Chanel Abney, Zhang Wei at the Main Fair. My favorite works are those that express the soul of an artist. Appropriation on the other hand has become such a serious problem in the art world and many works look entirely too similar to works made 20 to 70 years ago. While some people are definitely only in Miami to party, there are so many wonderful discussion panels and networking events for Artists and Art professionals. I always feel inspired leaving Miami with new contacts and new artists I hope to partner with for years to come. The amount of work you can view during one short week in Miami is incredible and I am always looking forward to the next year.”
Midweek I attended a panel discussion at Joe and the Juice in Wynwood, of art world entrepreneurs including the fascinating and vibrant Elizabeth Sutton. Sutton is a social media maven who has figured out a way to utilize Instagram’s hidden algorithms to her advantage. Her always updated live feed gives viewers a glimpse into her process and overall life as a single working mother and artist. Her open approach has garnered her quite a few successful collaborations with major retail brands and she is just getting started. To any artist who wants to up his or her social media game I recommend connecting with Elizabeth as she will be running courses to share her prodigious knowledge and experience.
As the week came to a close I was eagerly awaiting word of the winner of SCOPE fair’s Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series contest not least of which because I myself had been a semifinalist over the summer in the Northeast region. Although I didn’t make it to this final round during Art Basel Miami week, I was rooting for fellow artist Erik Nieminen from Canada who ultimately did take the grand prize at a star studded gala at the Versace Mansion on Ocean Drive. This contest perhaps best exemplifies the alternative possibilities of exposure that Art Basel week offers. By partnering with a major commercial alcohol brand, SCOPE was able to facilitate a huge North American wide contest that saw several regional shows before the finals. Erik, a quite astonishing and ambitious artist is also quite modest. Despite the cash award and coverage by Vogue and Vanity Fair, he remains committed to his original aims of art making:
“Personally, success is pretty simple: make a decent living off your art, but most importantly be able to participate in the conversation. All I want is for my work to be a part of the dialogue. I don't have any need to be seen, but I do want my work to be seen.”
There is another aspect of Art Basel that is often overlooked. That is that there are opportunities for artists to show their own work and thus network directly with the public. At both AQUA and SUPERFINE! Art fairs you could find excited artists manning their own booths. I appreciated the kind of guts it takes to not only go through the expense to come down to Miami with their work, but to sit all day as the near constant shuffle of art fatigued viewers ambled by. Before art fair week commenced I happened to meet artist Tony Michale Estrada at a mutual designer friend’s birthday party in NY. This was his first fair and he did not know what to expect. Over the course of the week we stayed in touch and discussed various strategies to make his booth stand out. Tony’s willingness to change it up when needed and his open spirit paid off with several sales made and new opportunities to show abroad presented to him. In Estrada’s own words:
“For a long time I’ve been like this kid making art in my room and only showing my family and friends, so I jumped at the opportunity to represent myself and show the work publicly for the first time, finally making a contribution to the world, however small. Now I know the lay of the land a bit better, but more importantly I made some amazing friends and allies I might never had connected with sitting in my room and watching the show on Instagram.”
Tony Michale’s first time impression of Art Basel captures the true essence of the week. At the center of the glitz and glam, the commercial excess and sheer theme park insanity that descends on Miami Beach, lies the art and artists. At the end of the day it is an appreciation of art and the endless potential for human ingenuity that draws the world’s most influential people and brands to one location. There are numerous ways to shine during Art Basel week just as there are many ways to plug into the commercial engine that drives the art market. And though partying until dawn for a week straight may not be everyone’s ideal expression of an artful experience, Art Basel week is truly worth at least one visit for anyone making or conversing about art at any level. It is an enriching and eye opening experience. Once you return to the cozy confines of your own mortal existence, you will be left with renewed inspiration and appreciation for the varied opportunities to grow ones art audience. If nothing else you will at least have a golden Miami tan to show for your efforts.