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Arts / Galleries

Art Basel Miami’s Best Party — and the Big Money Game That Confronts Smaller Galleries

Insights on the Future of the Fair

BY // 01.14.19

Editor’s note: PaperCity’s Billy Fong looks back at his adventures in Miami at Art Basel as he looks ahead to the big art moments of 2019. This is the third and final part of this series.

MIAMI — Hopefully, you have kept up with my Art Basel 2018 series. Honestly, it’s taken a few weeks to fully recuperate from the week-long indulgences of parties and dinners as well as the sensory overload of amazing art and design

One of the greatest parties in recent years was the one given by Jay Jopling, owner of the iconic White Cube Gallery. This blue-chip endeavor began in London and now has two locations: Bermondsey and Mason’s Yard. It also has an outpost in Hong Kong. His impressive roster of artists includes Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer and Liza Lou. The invite promised to be an amazing evening since the entertainer was to be Neneh Cherry.

For those of you not familiar with the geography of Miami Beach, the Soho Beach House is a few miles up from the South Beach center-of-action. In years past, making that trek, given the traffic could take up to an hour. However, this year we were fortunate to make it there in less than 20 minutes.

Always keep in mind distances from where you are staying when making plans during Art Basel week. What might look like just a few miles on a map could take up to an hour. Entering the members’ only club was similar to customs in any large European city. Numerous lines were for various audiences (member’s line, one for a dinner that was taking place by the pool).

We found our way to the White Cube line. The trek through the entire establishment was a fun sight to behold. I forget that “dress code” isn’t something that is considered in Miami this time of year. Many patrons were choosing to expose as much skin as possible.

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The event was OTP with a Morrocan inspired tent placed on the beach adjacent to Soho Beach House. Slews of security continually checked your wristband to make sure you were heading to the right area. I chatted up one of the bartenders to find that most of the staff for that particular party had been brought down from the NYC Soho House.

Pretty impressive. As I nibbled on the colossal plat de mer that was stationed adjacent the tent and sipped cocktail after cocktail I met guests from Buenos Aires, Munich, and Chicago. One of my favorite star spottings that night was of acclaimed artist Chuck Close (who was traveling with a large entourage).

Party Distractions?

On to the actual fair, the behemoth program found in the Miami Beach Convention Center. I want to take a step back however and look at the capitalist ecosystem of art fairs. They have been in existence for decades, but have truly become the epicenter for the art world over the past 15 years. The greatest expense that most galleries see over the course of the year is likely the costs associated with participating at the shows that take place around the globe — with a frequency that seems like every few weeks.

Art Basel itself has three fairs a year in its namesake city (in June), Hong Kong (in March) and Miami (in December). The smaller galleries cannot compete since participating in just one fair annually could cost upwards of $500,000. When you take in to account the fee for a space (at Art Basel Miami, if you are even accepted in the main Convention Center space, the cost will start at $100,000), the expenses associated with shipping the works that will be on view, the travel for two to three gallery staff to handle the booth and then all of the entertaining that takes place the week of a fair for existing and new clients (a dinner for six to eight at respectable restaurants in Miami that week will run a few thousand dollars).

It was inevitable over the past 15 years that the fairs would spin slightly out-of-control. I recall 2007, the year before the economic meltdown when seasoned and new collectors would purchase works for one million plus after spending five minutes in a gallery booth. With the downturn in 2008, of course, there was a dip, but the past five years seem to once again be a feeding frenzy.

The global companies that focus on the luxury market were as easily spotted as blue-chip galleries at fairs. Booths and VIP spaces were in every conceivable space funded by UBS, NetJets, Perrier-Jouët, and every fashion house. This massive, glitzy and chaotic world is unwieldy for many that are new to the art scene. In fact, it can be so daunting that I’ve heard first-timers remark that they only made it through 25 percent of the fair before they hit the proverbial “wall” and were spent — physically and financially.

As I wandered Art Basel Miami this year I thought about this program and perhaps where it was heading. Would it remain a powerhouse or would the fluff and parties that have proven to be significant distractions the past 10 years lead to Miami’s demise?

I asked some friends of their thoughts on this year’s fair. Dallas art consultant, Ashley Tatum, shared: “Overall the quality of inventory at Art Basel was outstanding this year.  Galleries were safe in their offerings, I didn’t notice very much risk, but the quality was superb. Miles McEnery, Berggruen, and Thaddaeus Ropac all had stellar booths.  Fun surprise at Art Miami was a small work by Jim Hodges at Vivian Horan Fine Art.

But even Tatum, a seasoned veteran of art fairs, still gets starstruck and distracted as when she encountered Lenny Kravitz in an elevator at the Delano hotel. I wish I had been part of that elevator ride with the “Are You Gonna Go My Way” man.

My cohort, Meredith Harper, remarked as we were packing our things for our trips home: “This year the galleries seemed particularly committed to bringing strong work and a curated focus to their booths.  And collectors were buying more with their eyes than their ears… they were very thoughtful about quality and pricing.

“I hope that this combination of forces continues, as this was one of the best Art Basel Miami fairs in memory.” 

2018 Official Collecting Canine Jamerson
2018 Official Collecting Canine Jamerson

Well, no matter what I will likely be found again in Miami in December 2019 for the fair. I forgot to mention that I met the quirkiest of collector this past December. A terrier named Jamerson. The beloved pup of Denver collectors that was always by their side.

The terrier seemed to gravitate towards booths and works that I found myself attracted to as well. Coincidence?

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