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As Art Basel’s 17th Miami Beach edition opens, the dynamics of the art fair world seem to be shifting. Art Basel itself has been central to much of the movement. Earlier this year, the fair franchise co-published its annual art market report, identifying a concern that the costs of art fairs are too high for the smaller galleries in the system.
So, in September Art Basel announced a sliding-scale price system that means that the bigger, generally more affluent galleries will pay more per square metre than their smaller counterparts. This is due to kick in at the Basel fair in June and will apply also to its editions in Miami and Hong Kong. Other fairs, including Frieze, have said they would follow suit.
This alleviated some concerns until last month, when Art Basel’s owner MCH Group announced a cost-cutting exercise that includes a withdrawal from its regional fairs in Düsseldorf and New Delhi, as well as a planned fair in Singapore (the latter swiftly found a new investor). On the face of it, the MCH decision plays to Art Basel’s strengths. It is a premium brand, so should benefit from any refocusing towards higher-quality events. But not all of Art Basel’s fairs have the status of its Swiss edition, as the organisers of the Miami event are aware. For this year, Art Basel’s Americas director Noah Horowitz talks of the fair’s “new chapter”, finally marked in the updated walls of a renovated Convention Center.
Even the bigger galleries are reassessing how best to approach art fairs. “A system that was meant to introduce new people to art and to galleries is becoming a little more reminiscent of inside baseball — the same collectors, dealers and artists doing the same sort of dance with each other,” says Marc Glimcher, Pace Gallery president and chief executive. “The people who come to try to learn about art and the market are left dazed and confused.”
This isn’t all to be laid at the fair organisers’ door, Glimcher says. “It’s the whole industry, including us, that are complicit.” One solution, he says, is to make individual booths “memorable and educational”. To this end, his in Miami is dedicated to the West Coast Light and Space artists and the so-called “Finish Fetish” movement, a processed and glossy style associated with California in the 1960s.
Reinvention seems to be in order for the fairs themselves: Design Miami (also part-owned by MCH) recently announced plans to change its director every year, part of a strategy to stay “fresh”. Regular revitalisation doesn’t come cheap, however, and MCH is in streamline mode at the same time as the wider art market — absorbing the economic and political jitters of the world at large — also looks to have hit its peak.
Marc Spiegler, director of the Art Basel fairs, says, “We have never innovated for the sake of it,” but reiterates that there is no dialling back at his events, all of which are “financially healthy”. He says that for the Art Basel franchise, areas such as VIP relations get “constant investment”, but wouldn’t be drawn on other areas of development.
Spiegler says that “the trend isn’t that people don’t want to do our fairs, it’s that they now want to do all three.” He notes that big-league newcomers at its Hong Kong fair in March include Luhring Augustine, Paula Cooper and Matthew Marks. There are 29 new joiners at the Miami event this week. “The reality is that the larger structure you build [as a gallery], the more you need a constant flow of new clients. The best place to get this going is at art fairs,” he says.
December 6-9, artbasel.com/miami-beach
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