"Increased free time, good salaries, far-reaching means of communication and intensive exhibition activity have all led to more and more people becoming interested in contemporary art,” notes the foreword of a fair catalogue. Surprisingly, this lifestyle-friendly blurb is not drawn from the publicity for one of today’s many art fairs but introduces the catalogue of the first Art Basel, held in the Swiss town in 1970. “Several art dealers from Basel [Trudl Bruckner, Balz Hilt and Ernst Beyeler] have taken the initiative… to bring into being the first international fair for 20th-century art,” continues the foreword. The idea to organise such a fair in Switzerland was, as the preface states, “obvious”.
Art Basel was founded as a direct reaction to Kunstmarkt Köln, known today as Art Cologne, which preceded Basel by three years but only admitted German galleries. “Beyeler feared that art fairs could contribute to a vulgarisation of art and insisted that Art Basel should be international and focus on quality,” says Sam Keller, director of Art Basel from 2000 to 2007. But the Cologne event proved to be a particularly important platform for contemporary art, a phenomenon not lost on Beyeler and his cohorts. The Swiss group saw a gap in the market, “especially since Switzerland has become more and more of a centre for the international art trade because of its favourable geographical situation and its liberal foreign exchange and finance policies”, notes the foreword. Swiss Industries Fair, the Swiss event management group known today as MCH Messe Schweiz, which still runs the fair, came on board.
Meanwhile, the prevailing idea that gallerists were running a “closed shop” for specialist, moneyed collectors was being eroded by the burgeoning post-war consumer society, in which commercial interests dovetailed with high-minded cultural concerns. “The dynamic development of present day art has activated broad masses of the population and has transformed many observers into interested participants in artistic life, collectors and potential collectors,” cannily notes the foreword. Art fairs were revitalised shopfronts reaching out to a new, albeit still limited, audience; the art world of 41 years ago was a much smaller, more rarefied elite than today, with Art Basel attracting droves of the stereotypical “grey-haired German industrialist” collectors.
Ernst Beyeler’s standing as “the most important dealer in Europe at the time” helped, adds Keller, who stresses that his late mentor made Basel an art magnet, drawing clients such as the Shahbanu of Persia and key US and Japanese collectors. Jens Hoffmann, director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco, has a theory: “Art Basel has remained the leader in this field because it embraced the globalisation of the art world early on.” The seeds of globalisation were planted, albeit in shallow soil, with 90 galleries from 10 countries taking part, mainly from Europe, and a handful from the US such as Gallery André Emmerich of New York. The strategy, surprisingly, was not just to choose artists with a proven market record, but to offer affordable editions of works.
According to the catalogue, “this spectrum ranges from the masterpieces of the great artists of our century to ‘multiples’, the newly fashionable art form of recent years, which are within everyone’s means, and therefore also suitable for younger collectors”. Around 15 galleries on the 1970 roster are still in existence, such as Galerie Denise René in Paris; six galleries – Galerie Ziegler of Zurich, Bischofberger of Zurich, Waddington Custot Galleries of London (previously Waddington Galleries), Galerie Gmurzynska of Zurich (then in Cologne) and London’s Annely Juda Fine Art and Marlborough Fine Art – will be on the floor at Art Basel this June.
Keller says that the 1970s and 1980s saw mostly Europeans attending including some super-wealthy collectors, with only a few from overseas, mainly from the US with a handful from Latin America and East Asia. “The collector base in Switzerland was enormous then,” agrees David Juda of Annely Juda Fine Art, London, which has participated in every Art Basel fair since the beginning, adding: “We saw mainly German and Swiss buyers, with a few US collectors thrown in.”
Juda paints a picture of Art Basel 1970 as a casual, even amateur affair. “The first two fairs were held in premises opposite the Messe Basel halls [where the Swissotel stands today], the current fair location. There was one floor and a huge mezzanine area taken over by Marlborough, which had stretched a gallery sign over the entire floor,” he recalls. “A fellow dealer asked me what I thought of the Marlborough display, to which I responded that the signage was as large as a Marlboro cigarette advert.” This first-floor area comprised three rooms, measuring 120 square metres each, for separate displays by Marlborough London, Marlborough New York and Marlborough Rome. The London section included works by Francis Bacon, Barbara Hepworth and RB Kitaj; cubist sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz and paintings by Mark Rothko were in the New York room. Spatialist works by Lucio Fontana and sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro graced the Rome section. Visitors to the stand walked through a forest of hanging rods by Jésus Rafael Soto (Pénétrables), the Venezuelan pop artist.
Juda’s most vivid memory is of the “pack ’em in, pile ’em high” approach to displaying works: “People would just plaster the walls, even putting pictures on the floor. The 1970 fair was arranged very much like an antiques fair – nothing was hung in a pristine way. You could say that now there are some beautiful installations of bad art at Art Basel, while in 1970 there were numerous bad installations of good art. In 1970, the fair was a commercial enterprise, not a PR opportunity.” An 11-metre square booth cost around Swfr1,045; the same space today costs Swfr6,380 ($7,200).
Was the fair “contemporary” in any sense, or made up solely of modern masters? Works by the German-French sculptor Jean Arp and Swiss painter Jean Tinguely were on sale with Galerie Denise René. Chagall and Miró were widely available. Juda recalls seeing works by Joseph Beuys, while Keller, who started working at the fair when he was an art history student, points out that Picasso, De Kooning and Bacon were still contemporary artists. Henry Moore, Robert Rauschenberg and Gilbert and George were among the artists attending.
Establishing a template
Combing through the fair’s history, it becomes apparent that from the outset, Art Basel established a template for the modern art fair by introducing a “Neue Tendenzen” section in 1974 for emerging artists that included 50 galleries such as Leo Castelli of New York and Galerie Sonnabend of Paris. This area was replaced in 1979 by the “Perspective” platform, with solo shows of 16 young, then little-known artists: John Armleder, Tony Cragg, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, and Julian Opie to name a few (who says the “Frame” part of London’s Frieze Art Fair, a section for solo presentations by young galleries introduced in 2009, is a particularly fresh idea?)
The concept of the solo artist show was also fine-tuned by Juda at Art Basel in 1971, when the London gallery showed 22 collages by Christo on its stand. “We were surprised and extremely happy that by the end of the opening evening we had sold out the booth. The works were priced at around £1,000 each,” says Juda. Meanwhile, Swiss dealer Galerie Gmurzynska’s decision to appoint Basel architect Roger Diener to design its stand in 1980 for an ambitious “Women of the Russian Avant-Garde” display, with 14 works by artists including Natalia Goncharova and Liubov Popova, was another forward-thinking move. Even Beyeler organised a performance by Jean Dubuffet and a show of street artists, observes Keller.
For some, the fair began to lose its way in the 1980s, when the art market boiled over in the era of boom and bust. Lorenzo Rudolf, director of Art Basel from 1991 to 2000, thinks the fair got stuck in a rut: “There were four other important international fairs – Art Cologne, Fiac in Paris, Art Chicago and Arco in Madrid – as well as Basel. They were all on the same level. The danger was that Art Basel was turning into the worst kind of trade fair.” This prompted an inspired marketing ploy: “We went for quality, not quantity, so every year we started from zero with the gallery selection. You only got in if you were the best – rather like a quality label.” This approach has prevailed to this day, with Marc Spiegler, the fair’s co-director, repeating the phrase “same size for 35 years” like a mantra.
Quality control is a vital part of the Art Basel brand: Jens Hoffmann talks, for instance, of the “rigorous and merciless selection process”. The process inevitably leads to fall-outs: to the surprise of many in the trade, Leipzig and Berlin-based gallery Eigen + Art has been rejected from this year’s fair. Gallery owner Gerd Harry Lybke has questioned the decision by the Art Basel selection committee on the grounds that three of its six members are Berlin dealers and “in Berlin, they don’t like me”. Spiegler defended “the committee’s integrity”, saying: “Any such decision involving a long-term exhibitor is only taken after extensive discussions.”
Rudolf could not have pared down the fair without first overhauling its committee, probably his most radical legacy. When the fair launched, Bruckner, Hilt and Beyeler sat on a 12-member organising committee that also included Franz Meyer, then director of the Kunstmuseum Basel, and Basel-based antique coins dealer Herbert Cahn. A separate “international committee” was made up of eight members including André Emmerich of New York and Cologne dealer Rudolf Zwirner.
By 1990, this set-up had morphed into a bloated 30-strong panel which, says Rudolf, “was run in the most absurd democratic way, with every country represented by a committee member”. So, backed by Bruckner, Rudolf staged what was in effect a coup d’état in 1992. “It was the beginning of the summer holidays and a French-speaking member of Messe Schweiz signed the form to disband the former committee. Everybody accepted except one member,” says Rudolf, who then formed a new working group with only three members – dealers Pierre Huber, Gianfranco Verna and Felix Buchmann – that focused on “strategy” as well as gallery selection.
The result was a raft of new initiatives, the impact of which can be felt at Art Basel today. Keller acknowledges how Rudolf implemented key changes, from securing UBS sponsorship in 1994 to launching a VIP lounge and card. Video took centre stage with the launch of the “Art Video Forum” platform in 1995 (the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist won the inaugural section prize backed by the Swiss Bank Corporation) while Art Statements, initiated in 1996, presented 23 solo shows of young artists (the names are a roll-call of 21st-century stalwarts: Elizabeth Peyton, Gregor Schneider and Vanessa Beecroft, among others). As a forerunner to the “Art Public” series of recent years sited on the Messeplatz, “we began to put art outside, such as a large sculpture by Richard Serra in 1997,” says Keller.
“Lorenzo [now director of the Art Stage Singapore fair] and I started to look globally,” says Keller. “He was first thinking about doing art fairs in Asia and America but couldn’t realise them. We felt it was necessary to attract more overseas galleries and invited younger dealers like Andrea Rosen and Gavin Brown [in the 1990s].”
Collectors sat up and noticed the shift in artists’ provenance. Miami collectors Don and Mera Rubell, who have bought at least 330 works at Art Basel since 1979, stress that in the “past 20 years [in Basel], we have found ourselves looking at, and purchasing art from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Russia”. Rudolf, meanwhile, is explicit about his global ambitions: “Art Basel Miami Beach [the sister fair launched in Florida in 2002] was my baby but Sam fine-tuned the idea of contemporary art as a lifestyle choice.”
The Keller legacy
Sam Keller ran with Rudolf’s initiatives during his tenure as director, but it is worth noting two key, long-term PR projects established by Keller when he was communications chief at the fair from 1994 to 1999. In 1995, in conjunction with a professor at Basel university, he launched the first website for an art fair, a technological breakthrough that Keller has continued to exploit (in 2007, he “extended” the fair online for an extra two months). Then, in 1997, he hired the late Hong Kong-based journalist Jonathan Napack to mine contacts in China by visiting studios and galleries. “I took $10,000 from the communications budget to hire Napack to become Art Basel’s first adviser for Asia,” says Keller.
No other fair supremo has been as public-relations savvy as Keller, turning Art Basel post-2000, and especially its Miami event, into a head-spinning circuit of sideshows, hot-ticket parties, packed-out debates and cultural events. He drew up the blueprint for the 21st-century fair as a hybrid of cultural and commercial concerns, and co-opted the local scene by organising VIP tours of museum and private collections, while capitalising on the expansion of the global market. He also set up “Art Unlimited” in 2000, an arena for outsize, spectacular works separate from Basel’s main halls.
Last year, the rude health of Art Basel was reflected in the fact that more than 150 galleries applied to show works in “Art Unlimited” (56 projects were eventually selected). The move suggested a return of market confidence: the works here are difficult to sell, but if dealers are going to put on a good show, they obviously feel the Swiss fair is the best platform.
Nothing exemplifies the 2010 fair more than this sentence, taken from The Art Newspaper daily edition: “Just as the fair’s doors opened to those lucky VIP card-holders at 4pm yesterday, some collectors were spotted hot-off-the-mark rushing to stands in Art Unlimited. One dealer at Gagosian, showing off Yayoi Kusama’s immersive Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, 2008, had apparently locked Greek collector Dakis Joannou into its mirrored space and was not going to let him out until he’d bought one of the €500,000 editions.”
Sixty museum groups, 2,500 accredited journalists, Russian collectors in particular, and new Middle Eastern buyers, pored over works on show at over 300 galleries from 36 countries. It has been difficult for Marc Spiegler and his co-director Annette Schönholzer to add anything startling to the Rudolf/Keller mix, but the pair, who took the reins in 2007, added subtle touches to the 2010 edition, introducing an “Art Feature” category with 20 “gallery-curated” projects. However, with the recent announcement that MCH Messe Schweiz has taken a 60% stake in Asian Art Fairs, owner of the Hong Kong art fair ArtHK, they will certainly have an opportunity to stamp their mark on the brand.
The transformation of fairs has also not been to everybody’s taste, with some old-guard dealers sniffy about younger gallerists falling out of the Kunsthalle bar at 3am. Rudolf is adamant that “fairs are cultural events, not parties. In the end, you have to seduce the buyer but the art has to be the most important criterion.” More and more people are, after all, interested in contemporary art, noted the 1970 Art Basel catalogue.