Contemporary art Fairs USA

The substance beneath the style

Miami is still partying, but galleries have institutional collectors in mind

Galerie Thomas (D6) expects to sell Max Beckmann’s Before the Ball (Two Women with a Cat), 1949, priced at $10.8m, to a museum

It is currently in vogue to dismiss Miami as a hedonistic party town where art plays second fiddle to the fizz and glamour of this week’s soirées. The sheer number of events organised by brands promoting booze, bags and luxury goods has recently sparked criticism from art-world figures and leading newspapers including the New York Times, which ran a story headlined “At Art Basel Miami Beach, Squeezing Art Out of the Picture” last weekend.

Those who fear the demise of meaningful creative content, however, would do well to actually look at the art on show. “The steam around the fair is frothy, but not the work on the stands,” says Tim Marlow of White Cube (L9). “We’ve had conversations here over the past decade that have led to serious acquisitions as well as major museum shows.” This, the largest art fair in the US, is a nexus for people whose opinions matter to the dealers: more than 130 museum groups are scheduled to attend this week, a spokeswoman for Art Basel says.

Many galleries are specifically targeting those institutions. Andrea Rosen (M10) is showing a work by Hannah Wilke—Untitled, around 1960, priced at $200,000—which the artist’s estate says can only be sold to a museum. Ingleby Gallery (L1) is presenting the first ever US show of work by the Caribbean artist Frank Walter. The gallery has shipped the Antiguan shack in which Walter lived in isolation for the last 25 years of his life to the fair in a display “obviously aimed at a museum collection”, Richard Ingleby says.

Going out of their way

Meanwhile, Greene Naftali Gallery (E2) has brought several works with museums in mind. These include a large-scale abstract painting by Günther Förg, Untitled (Rivoli), 1990, priced at $170,000, as well as colourful new works made from mattresses ($65,000 each) by Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker—a continuation of the series shown at the Kunsthaus Bregenz earlier this year. “We go out of our way to make museum acquisitions possible, even though we often have to offer larger discounts and the waiting period for a final decision is so much longer,” says Los Angeles-based Susanne Vielmetter (C22), who brought a large, and rather dark, collage by Wangechi Mutu (The storm has finally made it out of me, Alhamdulillah, 2012, $250,000) for a museum, as well as a work by Rodney McMillian (Untitled, 2013, $30,000).

Although major institutional sales are paramount for dealers who hope to establish their artists as historical figures, they are less of a concern for secondary-market dealers. “We don’t care whether we sell to a museum, a private collector or someone on the moon. I don’t bear museums in mind particularly—they take forever to pay and I’m not interested. Private collectors make quick decisions,” says the dealer Christophe Van de Weghe (D8).

The protracted nature of museum acquisitions, which have to be agreed upon by committees at meetings that take some time to schedule, means that most galleries hoping to charm institutions begin their wooing before the fair opens. “You don’t just put stuff on a wall and hope a museum drops by. If a serious institution wants something, there are lots of prior conversations,” Marlow says. He also says that “most serious artists produce their best work for exhibitions—Mark Bradford is a case in point”. White Cube is currently showing new work by the US artist in its vast space in Bermondsey, London (until 12 January 2014), and Marlow says that “almost all of our sales have been to museums. If a private collector wants to buy [a work], they have to promise a serious donation.”

Professional approach

Although public museums still carry more weight than private institutions, a shift is under way. “Private museums are becoming more interesting. Some of them have amazing, rigorous collections,” says Shaun Regen of Regen Projects (C14). She points to the new Museo Jumex, which was opened in Mexico City last month by the fruit-juice heir Eugenio Lopez, and the large museum that the collector Eli Broad plans to open in Los Angeles next year. Many private institutions have become more professional by aping their public counterparts, hiring curators and creating education programmes.

Private collectors in the US are held in high regard because the country has such a long tradition of philanthropy. “People here buy and then donate,” says Janis Gardner Cecil of Edward Tyler Nahem (H6). The great advantage of US fairs is that buyers are more likely to give works to museums because of generous tax breaks, says Raimund Thomas of Munich-based Galerie Thomas (D6). It is showing important historical works including a late painting by Max Beckmann, Before the Ball (Two Women with a Cat), 1949, priced at $10.8m. Thomas believes that the work will ultimately “end up in a museum”.

Private buyers can be more nimble than public institutions. “American public museums don’t prioritise art from Africa with their acquisition budgets,” says Liza Essers of South Africa’s Goodman Gallery (C20). “I focus more on private collections when making my selection for Art Basel Miami Beach.” However, she hopes to engage the interest of major museum curators and “get them interested in giving our artists shows in the US”. Meanwhile, the bulk of the sales made to Latin America this week are likely to be to private buyers, because public museums there tend to have meagre acquisitions budgets.

Miami itself has become a cultural destination largely due to the efforts of the city’s private collectors and the organisers of Art Basel. Public institutions are now entering in their wake. The opening of the Pérez Art Museum Miami earlier this week “is a big deal and creates a lot of possibility. I hope people take notice,” Shaun Regen says.

Art market’s Black Friday

Nonetheless, it is hard to deny that Miami is a mecca for networking. Many of the heavyweight institutional figures are here for serious schmoozing rather than serious spending this week. “I’m getting a lot done here. The fair allows for great conversations with curators,” says Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art. Even though he called it “the Black Friday of the art market”, Anderson says that “if you tunnel surgically, you can find important works” in the fair.

“The quality of the work is very high,” said Eli Broad during yesterday’s VIP opening. He has bought some major pieces at Art Basel Miami Beach over the years, and considers it to be one of the top three international art fairs. However, Art Basel, its more sober sister fair, “has more historic material and is a better fair”, he says.

The parties have long been a crucial part of the Miami experience, but the reason for their existence is the art; the brands have piggybacked on the success of the fair. While the hoopla keeps things humming, a sense of perspective is in order, says the New York dealer Alexander Gray (K3). “The party image undermines what we do here.”

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