Collecting special: Fair game

The art world calendar hardly has a moment free, especially at this time of year. Not only are there a packed few weeks immediately ahead – with the Venice Biennale, Art Basel, Pinta, Masterpiece and much more, including important sale-room events – but there’s yet more in prospect. It’s all change in the world of art fairs,Edwin Heathcote’s articles and recent weeks have brought one announcement after another in a transnational merry-go-round that makes one’s head spin: Basel goes to Hong Kong, Design Miami goes to Basel, Pinta comes to London, Frieze goes to New York (and across Regent’s Park), the Pavilion of Art and Design expands from Paris and London into Park Avenue, China goes everywhere. If I were not so averse to that overworked cliché “global”, I’d be tempted to use it here – but in the absence of any news, at the time of writing, of art market activity in Antarctica or Siberia, I’ll stick with “international”.

The Venice Biennale is not strictly part of the art market. It’s intended purely as display, and of a rather quaintly old-fashioned and un-globalised sort – national pavilions showing off their brightest and best, in a cultural climate where no self-respecting country, apparently, can afford to be absent and fail to set out its artistic credentials. So countries such as Saudi Arabia make a first appearance, as do countries as far apart on the geopolitical scale as Andorra and Haiti; Iraq returns after a long hiatus. But Bahrain and Lebanon, shaken by recent events, have cancelled. Politics is never far away from the best contemporary art anyway, and this year’s Biennale will be sure to have the usual share of controversial work. The US pavilion, which has tended to alternate between safe-choice, big-name artists and the much edgier outsiders, has this time gone for the second of these two extremes – their offerings this year are six new works from the artistic team of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, Puerto Rican residents who make performance pieces, sculpture, photography and sound-and-video.

As for the Biennale’s relationship with the market, it has always been a tricky question: although Paolo Baratta, the Biennale’s president, resolutely declares in our interview that it is not an art fair, during the preview week Venice is nonetheless heaving with collectors and dealers, eager to see and be seen. It has often happened at recent Biennales that works have migrated very quickly into private collections; as Jackie Wullschlager puts it in our podcast on the Biennale: “There’s nowhere that contemporary art is not for sale.”

Immediately after Venice, the art crowd moves on to Basel, in Switzerland, for the contemporary fair that is still seen as the daddy of them all. Art Basel is now in its 42nd edition, and can claim to have invented the format that so many others have followed. It expanded across the Atlantic some years ago, to an early December date in Miami; and a short time ago came a further announcement: it has acquired a large share in Art HK, the annual Hong Kong fair whose 2011 edition ends on Sunday.

Art Basel thus becomes a three-continent behemoth, and a huge operation even at its home base – 300 galleries showing some 2,500 artists to an audience that last year rose to 62,500 visitors.

Not content with all this, Art Basel keeps on ringing the changes too. It needs to: the explosion of fairs in the year or two, as the art market recovered from the severe dip of 2008-2009, means that there’s now hot competition for the best galleries, the best participants and collectors – the scene is now so broad that no one can go to everything, and the expense of participating in the top fairs means that some gallerists are thinking hard about choosing between events in the international calendar.

Some fairs – Frieze, for example – concentrate on ambitious non-commercial curated programmes; others – eg Art Dubai – put much energy into their seminars and talks; some depend for their appeal on a great deal of partying. At Art Basel, there are a number of extra-mural treats. The “Art Unlimited” section was launched in 2000 almost out of necessity: so many contemporary artworks are booth-busters in terms of size, scope and technical requirements that they need to be displayed separately. So here is the locus for video projections, performance works, outsized installations and so on.

For the second year running, Basel also hosts “Art Parcours”, a sort of art trail of site-specific and performance works across the picturesque St Alban district of the city.

Ten special sites, and the works to inhabit them, were selected by Jens Hoffmann, director of the CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco, and the artists making their interventions into the fabric and history of the city include Ai Weiwei at the Old City, where he has created a version of his ambitious 2007 piece entitled “Fairytale (1001 Chinese Visitors)” – a sadly ironic title and concept in the artist’s own present circumstances – as well as Ugo Rondinone in St Alban churchyard, Federico Herrero at the river bank, and Yinka Shonibare’s hundreds of kites of different sizes and colours that will hang dramatically in trees along the river Rhine.

Back in the fair itself, a few minutes walk across Messe Basel takes visitors into the world of design, with the 45 galleries of Design Miami, whose newly appointed director is Marianne Goebl.

The line-up this year includes all the impressive names in the field and their equally impressive price tags. Most pieces at Basel date from the early Modernist era up to the present, although historical objects from preceding centuries are included in a few galleries specialising in antiques.

But as with all self-respecting fairs, the profit motive is not all-consuming and there’s an eye to developing future talent. The Future section, which commissions three young designers each year to produce a special piece of work, has chosen young talent from Singapore, London and Vienna.

The emphasis, in Design Miami, is firmly on collectible design pieces. Function doesn’t feature here. Edwin Heathcote’s articles explore this dichotomy in the world of design, with an interview with veteran product designer Kenneth Grange, in whose work function and elegance mesh perfectly, and with a discussion of a new report on the growing market for design at auction and in galleries, where design art reigns and usefulness is, well, just not a useful concept.

For our podcast on the Venice Biennale and features, reviews and articles, visit

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