Art Basel

Interview with fair director Samuel Keller: Art Basel, the commercial complement to Venice

The director of the world’s top modern and contemporary art fair prides himself on the new talent it has discovered


The Basel Fair is planned to dovetail with the opening of the Venice Biennale and attract the art world over the Alps. Its director Samuel Keller spoke to The Art Newspaper about how his career began.

Samuel Keller: To start with I was in charge of marketing, communications and the press at the fair, and I am very grateful today to have come to know Art Basel from that angle. This is my second fair as director and before that I was deputy director. I have been working for the Basel fair for six years already. The original director is now in charge of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Marina Sorbello: What was your field of study at university?

SK: I studied art, philosophy and history, then I went to work in public relations.

MS: So your approach is somewhere between economics and art?

SK: Exactly, I think I occupy a space somewhere between those two subjects: art on one side and management on the other. My job here is not the same as a curator’s job. Of course in my position it is important to understand art, but my responsibilities are more to do with management.

MS: How would you describe your role as director of Art Basel?

SK: I think the organisation of Art Basel depends on team work. No single person organises it. I am just one of the many people who contribute to the smooth running of the event. In the team we have art historians, and also architects, publicity specialists and people with a straightforward business training. We also have a committee composed of gallery owners and we work with them all year round, discussing plans and ideas; and of course we need someone to co-ordinate the whole thing. The organisation works like this: on one hand there is the team which organises Art Basel and on the other the committee of gallery owners, the Art Committee. We also have art ambassadors in different countries, who tell us what is going on at a local level, if there are any new galleries etc.

MS: Ninety-nine percent of the galleries which have taken part in Art Basel reapply. Is there a kind of roster? How does the selection work?

SK: According to the statutes of Art Basel, every gallery, even if it has been taking part in the fair for 20 years, has to reapply every year. We received 900 applications for this year. The most important criterion for us is the quality of the art exhibited in the gallery, quality and presentation and the amount of effort the gallery puts in to promoting and representing the artists. Art Basel covers the years from the beginning of the 20th century to today, from classic modernism to the youngest artists, so we have to choose a bit of everything. Of course if a gallery is very long established, or if it has already exhibited at Basel makes a difference. Every year we change about 10% of the participating galleries.

MS: During the most recent Cologne Fair there were problems with the participating galleries which related to the principles of rotation. How do you deal with this at Basel?

SK: We do not usually have arguments or particular problems; we take immense trouble because we know that the choice of galleries is a huge responsibility. The committee works on the selection of galleries for at least three months. It is a very difficult task; over the months they meet the gallery owners and study their portfolios. We also have a person responsible for complaints: if a gallery is not satisfied with the committee's choice they can lodge a complaint. As you can imagine, the selection always causes comment, but I think that in the long run everyone appreciates the results and the way it is carried out. We have to bear in mind the history of these fairs. The Cologne fair was set up on the initiative of a group of gallery owners, which means that almost all of those gallery owners have a sense of owning the fair. There are legal questions to be dealt with too, which differ from country to country and the trouble at Cologne stems partly from this.

MS: So how does the structure of Art Basel differ from that of the Cologne Fair?

SK: I think that our strongest suit is our autonomy and independence, combined with the friendly cooperation we enjoy with the galleries. Art Basel is organised in cooperation with the galleries, but it belongs to a company of its own, Messe Basel. The founders of the art fair were gallery owners, but right from the start it was clear that their job was simply to choose the other galleries, not to become the organisers of the fair. The organisation was the work of professionals from the outset. This division of labour has born fruit over the years, and I think that today Art Basel bears excellent witness to that because it does not serve the interests of any particular individual. It is an independent event with art of extremely high quality. For Messe Basel, to which Art Basel belongs, the financial gain to be had from the fair is less important than the prestige of the event, and this can be obtained only through quality and careful selection.

MS: On the subject of Art Basel, you have used the word “event” several times in your answers. Can we talk about the economic aspects of Art Basel? We should not forget money! Do you think that the collapse of the new economy will have an effect on the art market?

SK: I think that the economic situation will undoubtedly have an effect on the art market, but it is very difficult to predict what the effect will be and how serious. For example, the fact that the stock market is crashing does not necessarily mean that the art market is doing the same thing at exactly the same time. Collecting art is a passion with some people, and like all emotions it is difficult to predict. What counts most in the art market is confidence and quality.

MS: I was talking about the new young collectors, who according to recent figures come from the new dot com economy.

SK: Well, what we have noticed in Basel over recent years is that, as well as the big collectors who always come to Art Basel, there are also quite a lot of young collectors who are interested in investing in art. I would not be prepared to hazard a guess about whether they belong to the new economy or not. I am of the opinion that contemporary art today has assumed a major role in society—you can see how interested the public is, how many new museums are being opened etc. You can judge by the social status of the artists. People today make contact with art much more readily. And besides there are far more galleries and museums than there used to be; the media talks about art a lot, and artists aim their work much more at the Alltag, at daily life.

MS: In what direction is the art market moving at the moment?

SK: The situation has changed. We work so closely with the galleries and collectors, we certainly know what is happening. We go to other art fairs, we visit the auction houses, we read the papers and so on. What we began to notice a couple of years ago is that the traditional barriers between the various sectors were beginning to disappear. For example, the division between the role of artist and the role of curator is dissolving; between curator and journalist; between gallery owner and artist and so on. Even the traditional role of the auction houses has changed, if you look at how the situation has developed. This is certainly a fascinating period because we question everything we do so constantly.

I think that recent years have shown us something: in spite of the internet and in spite of the aggressive behaviour of the auction houses, galleries are flourishing and their numbers increasing. The galleries have taken on the job of discovering, promoting and supporting artists; their task is not limited to simply selling their work. The internet has not taken the place of the galleries—on the contrary, the websites which have been set up to sell art are in a state of crisis.

MS: Do you think that the galleries now have in some ways supplanted the museums in the discovery and support of new art?

SK: I don’t think you can talk about supplanting the museums; each institution has its own function and I think that nowadays cooperation is much more valuable than competition. Growth can only be obtained by this means. Art needs all the establishments, galleries, museums, Kunsthalles, collections, the media (for critical judgments), and art fairs at which the public, the artists and the art professionals meet. The point is that each of these has a particular role to play and the more the different institutions cooperate the better it is for art. A while ago it was feared that the auction houses would supplant the galleries, but it did not happen. The galleries continued to exercise their normal function.

MS: Some information about last year: nearly 300 galleries took part in the Basel Fair, with more than 1,000 artists and 50,000 visitors during the week: numbers that might make even a biennale green with envy.

SK: It is difficult to compare an art fair with a biennale. Art Basel lasts only one week; I think that in a week Venice receives just as many people as Basel. And anyway, what does the number of visitors tell you? I think that people are still very interested in biennales, if you think of all the new ones that have been created recently: Berlin; Valencia for the first time this year, and so on.

MS: How do you see the roles, the duties and the prerogatives of the different artistic events: the biennale and the fair?

SK: The function of a biennale is certainly different from the role of an art fair, even if there are points of contact. Let’s say that Art Basel and the Venice Biennale are the originals of this type of event. There is more difference between Art Basel and a local art fair than there is between Venice and Basel, because the last two are world class events with art of high quality. Basel and Venice maintain a very friendly relationship and we take care to co-ordinate the dates of the two events so that visitors from abroad can visit both Venice and Basel in the same week and see everything. A biennale is the creation of its curator, at the end of the day, while a fair aims to display and to sell the best works of art. We need both.

MS: Can we talk about Art Unlimited, the section of the Basel Fair which most resembles a museum?

SK: We created this new platform, Art Unlimited, last year. In this section we show projects which cannot be displayed on a normal stand at an art fair: either they are too big, too complicated or too expensive to install—or too noisy etc. It is not easy to see this kind of art in a museum either, and because of size it is difficult to show in an ordinary gallery. They can be seen at Basel or at a large biennale.

We did not decide to create a separate exhibition as such; we just wanted to create a new space where this kind of project could be seen and sold. We realised that both galleries and artists were ready to take the risk and show this kind of art, so we decided to take the risk too, with the help of our sponsor UBS. Art Unlimited presents difficult projects which are often spectacular: video installations, sculpture, mural paintings, series of photographs, performances etc. There is no other section of this kind at any other art fair. Last year the section was very popular with the public, and the artists were delighted too. We have noticed that most of the galleries which took part in this section have applied again this year, and that many artists have asked their galleries to take part.

MS: How do you make the selection of Art Unlimited?

SK: The committee which selects the galleries also selects the projects for Art Unlimited. We also have two curators who organise the hang in this section, and arrange the entries.

MS: Art Basel is always on the move, always redefining itself. A few years ago you invented Art Statement.

SK: Although we are an art fair, we always think deeply about the cultural value of the event and our responsibility; we don't simply rent the stands to the galleries; we pay attention to the type of art which is difficult to see, and we give our assistance. Years ago there were sections called Perspectives, and New Tendencies for the younger artists; then the Young Galleries, and now we have Art Statement with one-man shows of young artists—this has been the most successful of all so far. A lot of artists who are now famous made their debut at Art Statement, including Mariko Mori, Jorge Pardo, Vanessa Beecroft, William Kentridge.

At the outset we put on national shows, inviting galleries from a particular country every year and housing them in a section of their own: the Soviet Union, US, Israel etc. More recently we were the first art fair to have a separate section for photography, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the invention of photography. This was at a time when photography was not universally accepted as an art form. Nowadays photography is present in all the galleries and many artists are working with it. The Art Photography section has taken on another function and is now a platform for vintage photographs.

Later, we were the first event to have a section for video art, where galleries could show video films at no extra cost; the galleries would not have shown the films on their stands. This is when artists like Pipilotti Rist emerged. We have also created a Print section and a pavilion for sculpture.

Now with Art Unlimited we have created something very unusual which is open to any medium. This is art which could not otherwise be shown on an individual stand. Taking part in a fair is quite expensive, therefore showing very big works on a stand (with a maximum size of 120 square-metres) is uneconomic; in Art Unlimited we put a large space at people’s disposal and we charge just a nominal sum for its use. Bruce Naumann’s work last year occupied 250 square metres, Morellet’s this year about 300 square metres. What we want to do is to arouse the interest of collectors, to create a market for this type of art.

MS: What about sponsors? Do you have several?

SK: Not really, no; the galleries pay for Art Basel. The entrance money paid by the visitors does not amount to very much. We only have a few sponsors because, if we work with someone, we prefer to work very closely with them. We expect more than just money from a sponsor; we expect co-operation, a partnership so that both sponsor and art fair draw benefit from it. UBS, our principal sponsor, invites more than 1,000 VIP clients to the fair every year, and they support Art Unlimited. We also work with the local insurance company who finance Art Statement and also give a prize of SFr50,000 ($29,000) to two young artists in the section. Not only that: they also buy two pieces and donate them to museums. That is the way we work with our sponsors.

MS: Art Basel is spreading its wings this year and holding a fair in Miami. How do you prepare for that?

SK: Art Basel Miami Beach is like Art Basel’s younger sister. It is being held in December in the Art Deco area of Miami Beach. There are going to be 150 galleries; it will be one of the best art fairs in the world from the outset, with the best galleries. Obviously it won’t be identical to Art Basel; there will be novelties and things that we haven’t shown in Basel. It is a separate entity but the quality will be just as high.

MS: Will it be a version of Art Basel for Americans? What will be the difference between the American and the European versions?

SK: At Art Basel Miami Beach there will be more American galleries than there are in Basel, nevertheless, 50% of the galleries participating will not be American. Latin America will be better represented at Miami than it is in Basel. At the same time as the fair there will be other exhibitions at other locations in the Art Deco District, with art associated with music, fashion, design etc.

MS: Why did you decide to hold a fair in Florida?

SK: We thought that perhaps for galleries and collectors alike it was a good opportunity to create a new rendezvous, this time in America and in winter. We decided on Miami Beach because it seemed the ideal place for people to come to from all over the world. The city has a very special atmosphere; in the Art Deco District you can go everywhere on foot, which is quite unusual in America. There are some wonderful hotels and good restaurants, and it is hot there in December. The place where the fair is going to be held is 100m from the sea.

Miami is a meeting place for North American, Latin American and European culture. It is cosmopolitan, and it also has one of the largest airports (and sea ports) in the world. A fair has certain requirements. Art Basel was born to be international, it is not a Swiss fair; the Miami Beach edition will not be aimed at Florida but at the whole world. I also think that in order to function an art fair (and a biennale) needs the network effect of a city where it is easy to meet. But in a big city the cultural offerings are greater and it is more difficult to meet people. In Basel, or Kassel or Venice the entire city is given over to art when these big events are on, and you can meet people in a particular atmosphere. This also affects the success and people’s enjoyment of the event, and this is why we chose Miami Beach rather than Miami, Los Angeles or New York.

MS: Will there be anything new at this edition of Art Basel?

SK: Of course. To begin with, all the art will be “new”. Then there will be some very interesting new galleries—Acquavella, for example, which has never participated in an art fair before. There will be new galleries from China and Japan and they will be showing work which is very unfamiliar in Europe. This year we have invested a lot in the infrastructure. The stands have been changed and will be more suitable now for showing contemporary art.

In the Art Statement section the young artists will be showing work made especially for the fair. And then Art Unlimited. Every year we think of ways of improving the fair, and this year we have come up with the idea of a kindergarten for children which will help parents wanting to visit the fair.

There will be a Collectors’ Lounge for collectors, VIPs and journalists, with a two-star Michelin restaurant. I am also very keen on collaboration with the institutions of Basel. From the point of view of the visitors, I think that the welcome they get is very important and this is what the city has to offer. During Art Basel the museums will have special exhibitions with special extended timetables. We try and organise and co-ordinate events for the evenings—openings and receptions. The more we interact with the city the more interesting it is for collectors to come and visit Basel. We do a lot of little things to make it more enjoyable.

MS: What do you plan to do in the future? Will you stay in Basel for a long time?

SK: For the moment I am only thinking about the fair which is about to open, then I shall be thinking about the fair in Miami Beach, and after that we shall see.

I have never made plans; I never planned to be appointed director of Art Basel. I was born in Basel and I was involved in the fair even when I was a teenager. When I was studying art history at the university I used to work on the stands during the fair, and to write for art magazines, but it never crossed my mind that one day I would be responsible for the fair. So things have gone well without my making elaborate plans, and I intend to continue like this.

Information on Art Basel 32

Dates: Wednesday 13 to Monday 18 June

Opening hours: Daily from 11am to 7pm, last day to 6pm.

Venue: Hall 2 of Messe Basel, Hall 1: Art Unlimited, Messeplatz, Basel, Switzerland.

Preview for invited guests: evening of 11 June.

Admission: Day ticket CHF 29.-. Schoolchildren, students, senior citizens, disabled CHF 15.-. Permanent pass CHF 55.-. Evening ticket (from 5pm) CHF 5.-

Catalogue: CHF 45.- (during the fair)

Events at the fair:

“Art Unlimited” 13-18 June offers artists and gallery owners a platform where works such as wall paintings, outsize sculptures, video projections, installations and performances can be seen displayed in 12,000 square metres of Exhibition Hall 1.

17 one-person shows by young artists from 11 countries will be featured in the “Art Statements” sector of Art 32 Basel.

Information in Europe: Art Basel, P.O. Box, CH-4021 Basel, Tel: +41 61 686 20 20,

fax +41 61 686 31 30, e-Mail:, internet:

In the US: FITZ & CO, Sara Fitzmaurice, 526 West 26 Street 916, New York NY 10001, Tel: +1 212 627 1531, fax +1 212 627 06 54, e-mail:

Selected exhibitions outside the fair

“Ornament and abstraction: Kandinsky, Matisse, Stella and others”, 10 June-29 September. The exhibition looks at ornament's role in early Modern

and contemporary art.

Fondation Beyeler, Baselstr. 101, CH-4125 Riehen, Tel: +41 61 645 97 00, fax 645 97 19,,

The Musikmuseum is new and houses Switzerland's largest collection of musical instruments.

Historisches Museum Basel: Musikmuseum, Im Lohnhof 9, CH-4051 Basel, Tel: +41 61 205 86 00, fax 206 86 01,,

“Arnold Böcklin”, until 12 October, a retrospective of the 19th-century painter.

Kunstmuseum Basel, St. Alban-Graben 16, CH-4010 Basel, Tel: +41 61 206 62 62, fax +41 61 206 62 52,,

“Tibet: the Buddhas, the Gods, the Saints”, ongoing display of the Essen Collection of Tibetan works of art.

Museum der Kulturen Basel, Augustinergasse 2, CH-4001 Basel, Tel: +41 61 266 55 00, fax +41 61 266 56 05,,