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Interview with Sam Keller: “Art Basel is not a shopping mall”

Fair director Sam Keller believes his greatest achievement has been to combine culture with commerce

Sam Keller, 41, director of Art Basel since 2000, steps down at the end of December to head the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland. As he oversees his final Miami Beach excursion and prepares to hand over to his successors, he tells The Art Newspaper why he thinks fears of an art market crash are overstated, and how his tenure might have ended almost before it began.

The Art Newspaper: Will the recent turmoil in the financial markets affect Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB)?

Sam Keller: The turmoil has of course made some people nervous, especially people in America who work in finance. However, it has not had a big effect on the art market. Auction and gallery sales are still strong and the fairs in Berlin, London and Paris did well this autumn, in some cases better than last year. The contemporary auctions in New York were very strong. And in the modern and impressionist sales, Christie’s did well and Sotheby’s [on 7 November] did less well but you have to look at the works that were on offer.

Major collectors, dealers, and advisors think the market is actually stronger than before. It is on a record level and if it continues to grow people will no longer be surprised. Remember how amazed everyone was when the first auction made over $100m? Now sales make over $300m.

The press over the last year has been writing constantly about the imminent fall of the market. The truth is that nobody knows what will happen including many of us who thought that after 2000 the market could not get any stronger. We were wrong. All the indications are that Miami will do very well.

TAN: After Sotheby’s sale, financial analysts advised their clients not to buy the auction house’s shares.

SK: The analysts understand the art market less than dealers and collectors. To take the Sotheby’s sale as an indication of how the entire market is doing would be a mistake. Analysts judge shares by looking at the profits of a company. Because of the guarantees they offer, auction houses can hold record sales and still lose money.

I am not saying there is no relation between the financial markets and the art market, I’m saying there is no obvious relation. It makes more sense to relate the results of the sales to the freshness of the work to the market, the quality of the art on offer and so on. There are a lot of factors.

Also, the auctions reflect a part of the market made up of relatively few artists. At Art Basel we show over 2,000 artists and that number only represents a fraction of the artists the galleries exhibit. So, it is better to take auction results only as one indicator, of course a strong psychological indicator about general confidence in the market, but one which only reflects a small part of the overall art market.

TAN: If the art market did crash, how do you think fairs would cope?

SK: There was a crisis in the art market in the 1970s and then in the 1980s and again in the 1990s and there was also a crisis in 2001 before 9/11—although nobody speaks about that one; it was a very short one and it introduced a period of boom. What we can say about Art Basel is that if you’re the number one art fair, you benefit from the market growing as much as you benefit from it shrinking. In good times, galleries will go to many art fairs. In bad times, they will go to only those they consider necessary. If you asked most galleries they will probably tell you that the last fairs they would stop doing would be Art Basel in Europe and ABMB in the US.

We are careful not to exploit periods of boom in the art world, for example by raising prices for stands. Art Basel is the most important art fair in the world so we could easily have the highest stand prices. We do not because we think the less we charge, the more we give galleries the opportunity to invest in their displays. And the more likely the galleries are to continue participating. Some of the art fairs which take place alongside us in Switzerland and Miami, and some of the new art fairs, charge more than we do.

One of the great things about art fairs is that [they are] the place to see work by artists who are not fashionable and who don’t necessarily sell well at auction; they’re exhibited because they’re interesting. Art Basel doesn’t only show the newest art but also prides itself in showing historical works. As a collector you can always go back and rediscover artists whom you may have overlooked. Also financially, you might ask yourself: “What can I get for the price of this hot, young artist?” This has a positive, regulatory effect on the market. It also helps the young artists because they are being shown under the same roof as the established masters.

TAN: Would you agree that the hyperinflation in the contemporary art market has led to a lot of bad art being produced?

SK: Not everything that sells is good and that’s not new. Because of the market expansion, there’s certainly more of that. Before, if we used to have 1,000 artists in the world maybe ten of them were good. Now we might have 10,000 artists and 100 are good. Do we have more good artists? Yes. But do we have a harder job in finding those good artists and separating the interesting ones from the non-interesting ones? Yes. Also with such a strong market there is more temptation for artists to produce the same work again and again. There are some artists who can only sustain the level of quality by producing very few works and there are others who have a lot of ideas and are organised into studios with many assistants and can produce a lot of work without the quality suffering.

TAN: What has been your biggest challenge as director?

SK: The most difficult time was setting up ABMB. It was supposed to launch in December 2001 but we postponed the first edition after 9/11. That was a difficult moment for the entire art world. The art world, as it is now, relies on people travelling. And people did not travel after 9/11. It also relies on people enjoying the process of buying. Of course, if you’re grieving you’re not going to enjoy buying. You will have other priorities.

The few months after 9/11 were critical. I believe things could have gone in a totally different direction. We could have entered years of depression when people didn’t travel, didn’t buy art. We had already signed contracts with all the galleries, we had booked the convention centre and printed the catalogue, so as a company we had spent about $5m, this was a lot of money for us but many galleries were telling us they did not want the art fair to go ahead. We knew that an event like this which doesn’t launch when it’s supposed to, is unlikely to get off the ground the next time. We also knew that the art market had started to slow before 9/11 and the future did not look good.

I went to the company and said: “I think it’s right to postpone the first ABMB to gain the confidence of our galleries; they don’t feel like doing it under these circumstances and we should not charge them. We should still go ahead and do it next year.” And I also offered to take responsibility for this decision. It was my second year as director of Art Basel and we stood to lose a lot of money as a result of this decision. I told the company: “If the decision proves to be wrong, I will resign.” The company said: “We agree with you. Thanks to the galleries, we have done well over many years. It’s time to give something back.”

That was perhaps the most important moment in my time as director because we also decided to come to Miami in December 2001 and launch all the ancillary events we had planned for the first edition of ABMB: the collectors’ visits and museum programmes.

This made sense for us because we had devised a new model of an art fair as a cultural event which we believed would work independently of whether or not it was the right moment for the market. We thought it should be tested. We also thought it would be good to bring the art world together at a difficult time.

So we went ahead and launched the programme. Hundreds of people came including patrons of major, international museums like Tate in London. When we returned to Basel we were even more enthusiastic about launching ABMB. The experience taught us how important the cultural programme was because we tested it without the actual fair; it was a huge challenge overcome.

TAN: At Frieze in London, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota said galleries should bring more ambitious art to the fair. What do you think of his comments?

SK: Nick Serota raised very important points. An art fair is not only about having important galleries taking part. It’s about what art they are showing. He is right as a client of an art fair to expect galleries to be ambitious.

What we do to ensure quality is, first of all, selection. We spend more time than any other art fair in researching which galleries should be participating. We ask the galleries not just to apply with their names but to apply with their projects, which artists they are bringing even in the general gallery section and we ask them to re-apply every year. Second, our committee is travelling throughout the year to various cities to visit fairs, biennials and galleries and see how they are developing. Thirdly, galleries in Art Basel are in very tough competition with each other. If they’re not ambitious, they may not sell well, or worse, may not be invited back.

However, the most important thing we are doing is that a lot of our sections are not only selected by the galleries taking part but by the artists they are bringing. For example, in Miami in our Art Nova (58 galleries) and Art Supernova (20) sections, galleries are presenting carefully selected works of three artists that were created this year. So that’s new work by almost 200 artists vetted by the committee.

In addition to that, even in the gallery sector we encourage the galleries to propose Art Kabinetts—little curated shows in a separate space in their booth. We have selected over 20 this year, some of them very ambitious.

TAN: If a gallery is taking a very big risk by bringing just one work would you offer a discount on the stand price?

SK: Never. We don’t believe in offering discounts to galleries for showing good art. They should show good art because it’s good for their business and for their reputation. They will be offered a better position and a larger booth; that is their incentive. Those participating in special sections like Art Kabinett get a double page in the catalogue where they can write about their artists, they are pointed out in the floorplan. So we promote galleries to a more prominent position if they make a great effort. And we would speak with galleries who make less of an effort and if that continues to be the case they will lose their position and eventually their place.

TAN: Art Basel does not publish sales figures. Why not?

SK: First of all, we think that the price of a work of art is only one piece of information among many and it is not the most interesting. We’d rather speak about the artist and the work itself than the price. Secondly, the trading done on the Art Basel platform is a private affair between the dealer and the collector. We’re not an auction house, we don’t take a percentage, we don’t interfere. We never select galleries or artists or pieces because they sell. This is not what we do. The galleries can release this information if they want. And also we cannot guarantee that the prices are correct so we don’t want to be responsible for misinformation. The art fairs that release sale prices are not serious.

Also, there are many works sold at an art fair which are not actually there. Galleries sell from computers and storage. And many things sell afterwards. Where it all begins and ends is very hard to establish. And the press will always focus on the highest price and won’t then write about inexpensive works. We all know how it is: as soon as the price tag is next to a work, we can’t get it out of our heads. People shouldn’t look at the price tag first. Art Basel is not a shopping mall.

Prices actually range from a few hundred to 20 or more million dollars with everything in between. It means that everyone can buy art. Significant numbers of work which galleries bring to Art Basel cost less than E5,000. This is another reason why every year we invite Printed Matter and Art Metropole and Parkett and others who produce high-quality inexpensive multiples and editions which everyone can afford.

TAN: What has been your biggest mistake as director?

SK: One thing we could certainly do is to develop the educational side of our art show. The art world has been expanding fast and maybe there is a need for us to look at the educational side which of course is primarily up to academies and museums but we can also support their efforts. Maybe it is not enough to organise the guided tours that we are currently offering; many of our panel programmes are on a very high level and targeted to collectors and professionals and not to a broad audience. We can develop this further.

Also, I think we started to involve artists in the art fair too slowly. Now that we are doing it, I realise how important it is and that it was neglected for a long time because the received wisdom was that artists don’t like to come to art fairs. Artists are of course at the centre of the art world and the most important element of it. Having artists be involved does not mean they have to stand on the booths and sell the art. It means that their thinking informs the fair and that the fair becomes a place where artists meet and have some involvement on panels or talks or they are being honoured with dinners or they come to install their works. I am very happy that so many major artists are now returning to Art Basel.

TAN: Did they come and then stop?

SK: They were there in the 1970s when Art Basel was founded. Artists like Henry Moore, Roy Lichtenstein, Joseph Beuys went to art fairs. Some time in the 1980s they came less and less. It’s a great thing in the last few years that Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Gilbert & George, the Kabakovs, John Baldessari, Marina Abramovic, Jeff Koons, and all those wonderful artists have come. This year it was a highlight when Lucian Freud came to Art Basel.

TAN: What has been your greatest achievement?

SK: The creation of all these new platforms for showing art. This began with the establishment of Art Unlimited in Basel in 2000 and continued with our programmes for performance, film, video and sound art, artist books and public art. This has been very satisfying and it has been crucial to how Art Basel has developed as an event which combines commercial and cultural goals. We don’t even use the term “fair” anymore to describe Art Basel, we call it an art “show” which is more appropriate.

TAN: Finally, on a more personal note, do you collect?

SK: No. I started buying works of art when I was a student but more by accident than design. When I was at university studying art history, I even bought at Art Basel.

TAN: What did you buy?

SK: I am not going to tell you. I am still friendly with the dealer and we never talk about it. We’re both embarrassed. He’s embarrassed that he ever showed this artist and I’m embarrassed I bought [his work]. We don’t even know what the artist is doing now; we’ve never had news of him again. I still have the piece and I still look at it every morning. I have it in the room where I get dressed and that’s because Marty Margulies [the Miami collector] taught me a very good lesson when I was visiting his collection once which is one of the best private collections in the US.

In the last room there was a hyper-realist painting that didn’t fit into the rest of the collection. So I was looking at it and Marty could see that I wasn’t very convinced so he asked: “Don’t you like it?” And I said: “It’s not really my cup of tea; what is it?” He said: “This is the first painting that I ever bought and I keep it here to remind me how far I’ve come. And to remind myself how important it is to study and learn about art.”

I see the first picture I ever bought every day. It reminds me that I had a lot of things to learn about art.

A longer version of this interview will be published in the January issue of The Art Newspaper