Mammon and the muse

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The Art Basel Miami Beach fair had not yet opened but the convention centre was humming. The commercial carapace that encases it, as it increasingly encases the entire art world, was being put in place. In the recent past, commercial sponsorships of cultural events were usually matters of what was not yet called branding. A manufacturer of cigarettes, say, or motorcars would fund an “artistic” TV programme or an opera season, hoping that customers would feel more warmly about their wares – might even choose them over some more philistine brand.

Now, though, the art world has become such a generator of wealth – doing, depending on what one defines as “art,” £6bn-£8bn worth of business annually – that many businesses form symbiotic relationships with the art world and with fairs in particular.

Often the linkages are self-explanatory. It’s natural that South Beach hotels would become intimately intertwined with Art Basel. André Balazs’s Raleigh is widely regarded as the fair’s unofficial HQ, the Delano and the Shore Club, which boast respectively an Art Bar and Art Lounge, are equally a part of its DNA, while the Sagamore has a permanent, revolving exhibition of avant-garde art. But the fair’s very success has caused problems. The funky art deco hotels were inexpensive in 2002 when Miami Basel launched. Roland Augustine, head of the Art Dealers Association of America, was enraged to find room rates in his hotel had jumped from $350 to $700 in one year.

There are other symbiotic relationships. A walk into the Collectors Lounge at Miami Basel required a VIP pass and was a giddying experience. The central space was hung with translucent lilac drapes. Along one wall ran a bar with glowing orange panels. People were strolling around, holding catalogues and champagne flutes. A booth housed Cipriani, once best known for Harry’s Bar in Venice. It was hung with photographs of such former habitués as Noel Coward, Cole Porter, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

A young woman offered me a Bellini and a tote bag containing a beach towel. What were they selling? A local real-estate development.

Another real-estate company, Related, was walled with photographs of their developments. “We own the Miami skyline,” a young woman told me.

OK. But what were they doing at an art fair?

“This is a wonderful place for us to showcase our properties,” she said.

Other spaces were occupied by Bulgari, which was in the final year of a three-year sponsorship, and the mammoth art insurers, Axa. Three others were occupied by BMW, which supplied the VIP cars, by NetJets, and by the fair’s principal sponsor, the Swiss bank, UBS.

NetJets sells shares in planes. In 2006 there were 129 NetJets flights into Detroit for the single best-known sporting event in the US, the Superbowl, and 221 flights into Augusta, Georgia, for another huge event, the Masters golf tournament. There were 216 flights into Art Basel Miami Beach. As the global diary of the art world becomes ever more crammed with events, private flying is becoming more or less mandatory for the well-heeled dealer or collector. No wonder NetJets has taken care to have a prominent profile.

So, too, UBS. UBS is not by any means the only bank to have positioned itself in the art world. Citibank long preceded them and Deutsche Bank is extremely active. UBS, though, was a natural fit for Miami, being that they are Zurich-based, that they have sponsored Art Basel for 13 years, and that they have had a US presence since they took over Paine Webber, the brokerage firm.

The UBS lounge opened on to the Collectors Lounge at Miami Basel and was a great deal larger. It was filled with creamy light. There were glass bowls of tangerines and lemons on Lucite tables and fleshy lilies that smelled a bit like raw potatoes.

Despite the size of the place it was soon humming. UBS had been host to 1,000 clients at the first Miami Basel; this year, 4,000 were expected.

“We had a limited number of tickets,” says Christoph Butikofer, who works on the art banking side. “There was more interest than availability.”

UBS offers what Butikofer calls “a nail-to-nail service,” meaning moving a picture from a gallery to a collector’s wall. This includes providing scholarly expertise, often by calling in outside experts, and by making deals with galleries. “And they get good prices. UBS are big clients with some of these galleries,” says Richard Fitzburgh, a senior vice-president at the bank’s New York office. Is fresh business generated at the fair?

“Absolutely,” says Butikofer.

UBS does not give a precise number on how much their sponsorship is worth but Fitzburgh says it is well north of $1m.

“There was a special dinner at the Delano last night,” he says. There were 1,250 guests. “You could have drowned in the caviar. That was a big branding thing. It was not so much about meeting people. And that could have cost half a million by itself.”

I asked Butikofer whether the bank benefits. “There is payback,” he said. “And we get a lot of press – and it’s not about money laundering and bad things.” Is the payback greater than the cost of the sponsorship? “Absolutely.”

anthony.haden-guest@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/hadenguest

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