Fairs USA

Time to take stock

Art Basel Miami Beach pioneers on how the fair and its satellites defied the sceptics

Team Gallery’s José Freire made one sale at the 2002 fair: Banks Violette’s "Budweiser (X-ray)", 2002

miami. Although Art Basel Miami Beach celebrates its tenth edition this year, it really should have been its 11th: the inaugural fair was cancelled after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. “It was a tough decision, and we lost $6m, but it was the right thing to do,” says the fair’s former director Sam Keller, who instigated the adventure of transplanting a European art fair to Florida.

There were many doubts as to whether the fair would succeed. “In the first few years, it was like a baby trying to figure out how to walk. It had an awkward beginning, even though the baby had really good genes,” says one New York collector.

The choice of Miami raised some eyebrows. “It was seen as a cliché, a bit of a joke,” says Christophe van de Weghe (D6). Miami was not the place we see today, despite a number of major private collections open to the public, including the Margulies Collection, the Rubell Family Collection and the Cifo Art Space. Wynwood and the Design District, now humming, were a wasteland of warehouses, and “people forget that half of Collins Avenue [in Miami Beach] was shuttered up,” says Mary Sabbatino of Galerie Lelong (G1). Mari Spirito of 303 Gallery (G5) says: “It was feral. Five people were killed in South Beach that week.”

But today, judging by the crowds thronging the streets, the fair has grown in strength as well as age. Within the first few years, major luxury brands and banks began to join the party—and organise their own glamorous events. In addition to the 260 or so exhibitors in the main fair this year (compared with around 200 in the first year), there are 17 satellite events, meaning that several hundred galleries are represented in Miami. “The biggest change is in the sheer number of people attending,” says the collector Mera Rubell.

At the beginning, dealers wondered what would appeal. “We brought works that were too dry, for which there was no audience here,” says Victor Gisler of Mai 36 Galerie (K11). Sabbatino says she initially chose modern over contemporary works, bringing Louise Bourgeois, Miró and Calder.

Dazzle and depth

Now, Sabbatino shows more Latin American artists and contemporary work. Gisler says: “It’s a bright, colourful taste here; you can’t get around that.” But the idea that Miami taste is only about glitz is roundly refuted by Stuart Shave at Modern Art (M5): “There’s much more depth to the market than that.”

The fair was established as a bridge between North and South America. The organisers do not release a VIP breakdown, but a number of dealers confirmed the attendance of collectors from the increasingly wealthy countries of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. “In the first year, we primarily saw people we knew, but now we meet a lot of new collectors,” says Paul Gray of the Richard Gray Gallery (C3). “You see the main international collectors, but look around today—many are not A-listers. These are the collectors of the future.”

Miami is also famous for its fiestas. Hundreds of events, including lunches, brunches, late-night sessions and visits to collections, are on offer. Not everyone approves. “The parties are catering for people who are not the big collectors. I don’t need to go 1,000 miles to go to some party with 1,000 people and see Puff Daddy,” says a New York collector who did not want to be named, and who says that collectors who don’t want to party can now view art on their iPads at home.

“This scene has grown in terms of glamour, prestige and notoriety,” says Michael Plummer, the co-founder of Artvest Partners, who says that the fair and the surrounding events are a major weapon in the dealers’ arsenal. The US art calendar was previously dominated by the New York auction scene, and Miami has helped to correct the balance.

Dealers who backed the fair from the beginning are the best placed to illustrate its evolution. “The first year, I sold one drawing by Banks Violette for $800, with a 20% discount, making that $640, and that was my only sale,” says José Freire of Team Gallery (G8): “Now, every year we hope to make around $500,000.” Massimo De Carlo (L15) of the eponymous gallery agrees: “I’m proud to be here after ten years.”

A full sales report will appear in the January edition of The Art Newspaper

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