The Avant-garde really was avant-garde then. There were very few contemporary art museums, prices were generally low, the galleries and collectors were a small band of true believers and there was only one contemporary art fair, in Cologne, which had started in 1967 with just 18 German galleries.
Then, a year later, three Basel gallerists met in the Matterhorn Stübli—nothing grand: Gemütlichkeit and the Swiss dislike of ostentation have kept its highly sophisticated art scene very understated. They were Trudl Bruckner, Ernst Beyeler, and Baltz Hilt, and they decided that Switzerland should have an art fair too.
Trudl Bruckner has said that Ernst Beyeler was the key to its success because he had the international connections. His expertise in modern art also meant that the fair included the canonical masters of the 20th century and attracted the solid, rich collectors who could then be drawn into more adventurous territory. Certainly, Mr Beyeler was the presiding genius in Basel thereafter. He inspired the schoolboy Sam Keller, who went on to become a brilliant head of Art Basel and then his curator at the Fondation Beyeler.
Inevitably, there is some nostalgia for those early days, when gallerists banged the nails into their stands themselves, when the Beyelers had a bash on the Friday night, Sydney Janis and Leo Castelli danced brilliantly, and artists came to the fair because it was a good place to hang out. The restaurateur Peter Wyss, who has never missed an Art Basel, says of the Kunsthalle restaurant: “There they were, those world stars of art, at our table. Not anywhere else. With us! Side by side with ordinary guests, with school children, lawyers, sportsmen, captains of industry, financiers and housewives.” Franco Donati of the eponymous restaurant remembers that he did not dare ask Robert Rauschenberg to draw in his guestbook, but the artist asked for it. He made two holes each in opposite pages, took his black and white silk polka-dot hankie, tied the corners through the holes, and, voilà, when you opened the book you had a trampoline. Later, though, the high-powered business atmosphere made the fair uncool, famous artists got too busy to do much hanging out anywhere, and since 2002 Art Basel has resorted to inviting them specially.
It is easy to forget that the art fair experience was new then. As Annemarie Monteil, the Basel art critic, says: “[It] allowed a new kind of freedom in looking. There wasn’t some museum director steering your eye and soul with labels, stylistic preconceptions and didactic material. The public could experience art close up.” Gerd Harry Lybke, of Eigen+Art, sees it also as a performance: “All the gallerists are the interpreters on their stands of the play the artists have given them with their art. They are directors of the performance and managers of the programme. Artists shape the dealer.” This young east German went there in 1990 straight after the fall of the Berlin wall and rushed enthusiastically from stand to stand, introducing himself and his Leipzig gallery. By the following year he was taking part in the fair himself, “still unaware of how the high the bar was to be allowed in”.
Art Basel is now always oversubscribed. It is an accolade to be allowed to take part and it can also be spectacularly good business. The late Annely Juda and her son David have been there since the start. The first year they made a loss; the second, they had sold all their 22 Christo collages by the end of the opening. Hans Mayer, another founding participant, describes a 1980s Art Basel, when he bought a Palladino from Giancarlo Politi of Flash Art for Sfr2,000 and sold it to the Neapolitan dealer, Lucio Amelio, for Sfr4,000 just as he got it through the door. Amelio then sold it a few minutes later for Sfr7,500 to a Munich dealer, who a few hours later sold it on for Sfr10,000. Of course, the fact that this story gets told shows that it is not the norm. Everyone has good and bad years, but this fair is the last that a gallery would cut out of its programme, however tough the times.
The Miami collectors Don and Mera Rubell, who have bought 335 works at the fair since 1979, explain why it is going to become even more important. “Until the 1990s, almost all art of interest was found in either Europe or the US, but in the last 20 years we have found ourselves looking at, and purchasing, art from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Russia. Without an art fair like Art Basel, it would have been impossible to see this work in person without an unbearable amount of travelling.” Art Basel’s motto could well be “From Stübli to global hub.”