Ten years ago, when The Art Newspaper published its first daily editions at Art Basel, it was almost unthinkable that the world’s leading collectors, art dealers and curators could miss events such as the Venice Biennale or the Swiss edition of the art fair.
Many predicted that a super-league of homogenous events would emerge as the art world expanded. But although it may seem that the entire art world is congregating in Basel this week (to the benefit of its over-subscribed hoteliers), members of the nomadic art tribe are increasingly selective about the events they frequent—even A-list ones.
“The art world is more fragmented; everyone is getting a more Balkanised experience,” says Marc Spiegler, the director of Art Basel, likening the effect to the explosion of available channels on television and online. Glenn Scott Wright, the co-director of Victoria Miro gallery (2.1/N7), says: “It’s such a huge [art] world, with barely any distinct ‘seasons’ any more, so people now pick the events that are important to them.”
Instead of attending a few universally acknowledged “must-see” annual events, participants are taking a more personalised approach, tailoring their trips like a Twitter feed. Add to this the reach of the internet; all the fairs, auctions, biennials and gallery weekends have dedicated websites, and there is a deluge of images of works online (to see and to buy) all year round. There is also less fear of missing out, because the chances are that the people, and even works, that event-goers want to see will be at the next stop on the tour anyway—and that stop is probably only a couple of weeks away.
“It’s easy to forget that this is a hobby [for collectors]; no one has to go anywhere. So if they have more choice and less time, even Art Basel [in Basel] can fall to third in their list of priorities,” says Alexander Platon, a senior director at Marlborough Fine Art (2.0/D8).
David Roberts, the British property developer and art collector, says that while he “loves” Art Basel and attends every year, he has been “quite surprised” to hear of some people who are not coming this time. He limits his visits to a few major fairs each year, plus one or two smaller fairs. The Miami-based collectors Don and Mera Rubell say the crowded calendar means they have to be more selective, and even Spiegler acknowledges the substitution effect. “There are people in Asia who find Art Basel in Switzerland less personally interesting, so they will go to [Art Basel in] Hong Kong instead,” he says.
Many galleries now cap their participation at an average of half a dozen events a year, if only to take the pressure off their artists to produce—and museums’ budgets no longer permit curators to travel everywhere (and all the time).
Thrill of the chase
The Swiss edition of Art Basel still ranks highly on most people’s lists, however. “It is still the granddaddy of fairs,” says Bona Colonna Montagu, a director at Skarstedt (2.0/E14). The timing of the fair, which takes place in between the Impressionist, Modern and contemporary auctions in New York and those in London, makes it both informed and informative, and dealers are still likely to put their best (or at least freshest) works forward. Marlborough has two new works by Frank Auerbach, while Skarstedt has Warhol’s signature Self-Portrait (Fright Wig), 1986. Sigmar Polke’s Stadt der Affen (Monkey Town), 1971, which was originally bought from the artist’s studio by Doris and Charles Saatchi, stands out at Michael Werner Gallery (2.0/B14; priced at $3.75m). The staff of Sprüth Magers (2.0/B19) say they have spent almost a year putting together Hanne Darboven’s installation Kinder dieser Welt, 1990-96, for Unlimited.
There is now, however, an increasing sense that the real discovery of fresh art happens outside the main events. “Most collectors like to have a sense of pilgrimage,” says the dealer Lorcan O’Neill (2.1/R7), who is moving to a larger gallery in Rome next month to match his growing number of visitors. “It’s nice to see even the familiar in a different place; the thrill of the chase is in the chasing,” Roberts says. Even seemingly essential, non-commercial events such as the Venice Biennale have become missable, while lesser-trod shows such as the Gwangju Biennale (5 September-11 November) are attracting increasing attention. “Venice will always be there,” Platon says.
The effect has been positive for some cities that seemed to have been marginalised by the rise of the three main trading centres for art (New York, London and Hong Kong) and the concentration of art fairs in the Art Basel and Frieze franchises; Cologne, Brussels, Dubai and Rio de Janeiro are investing in culture and have revived their status in the eyes of the jet set. This year’s unexpected commercial hits include the Art Genève, Art Dubai and Collect (London) fairs, while the Venice Architecture Biennale (until 23 November) is luring more of the art world’s “who’s who” this year.
Too much choice?
“You could call it fragmentation or proliferation, but there has certainly been a progression away from the idea of there being only three or four [cultural] centres around the world,” says Antonia Carver, the director of the relatively small Art Dubai. “We can be part of the big boys’ gang in terms of who comes, but what we offer should be different.” Other smaller events are demonstrating their clout: the Naeem Mohaiemen show at the Kunsthalle Basel (until 24 August) came about because Adam Szymczyk, the museum’s director and the curator of Documenta 14 in 2017, saw the artist’s work at the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh in February.
The increasing amount of choice is not necessarily leading to better experiences, however. “There is a new, total lack of rigidity in the presentation of art internationally,” says the dealer Daniella Luxembourg (Luxembourg & Dayan, 2.0/G6). “On the one hand, it is more democratic; on the other hand, it is chaotic,” she says.
• For analysis, see p4
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper Art Basel Daily as 'Meet you in Basel… or will it be Gwangju?'