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Art Basel, founded by gallerists Ernst Beyeler, Trudi Bruckner and Balz Hilt, staged its first international art fair, in Switzerland, back in 1970. The event attracted tens of thousands of visitors, and work from some 90 prestigious art galleries, and 30 art publishers.
The investment bank UBS began supporting the event in 1994, and in 2002 the bank supported the launch of the inaugural Art Basel festival in Miami Beach; a third festival, Art Basel Hong Kong, was added in 2013, showcasing mainly work from Asia and the Asia Pacific region.
Since its inception, Art Basel Miami Beach, which takes place in early December, has become arguably the most prestigious of the three fairs, although all three attract a similar sized crowd; around 85,000 people – generally well-heeled, wealthy private art collectors and art lovers, and globally recognised institutions, as well as the artists themselves, across the six-day events.
In September, it was announced that Art Basel Miami Beach had agreed to stage the fair for at least five more years at the Miami Beach Convention Centre, with the option to renew for another five years. As part of the deal, The Convention Centre is undergoing a $615 million expansion – including a 60,000 square foot grand ballroom to be constructed on the second floor.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine described the deal to keep the fair in Miami as “comparable to locking in the Super Bowl for five years”, such is the financial value of the event to the city.
So what is it that makes Art Basel Miami such an iconic event?
It is not simply the fact that Art Basel Miami attracts a notable crowd of jet setting millionaires and billionaires and celebrities, as well as a who’s who of the art world’s most iconic and influential figures – although this undoubtedly helps.
In fact, most of the ultra-high-net-worth attendees secure either VIP, or super VIP tickets, allowing them to attend the private viewings which take place on the first two days of the festival, Wednesday, and Thursday morning, before the event opens to the public at 3pm on the Thursday.
These tickets are by invitation only and not available to the public; the invitations are handed out by either by the galleries, or their sponsoring brands. The most sought-after tickets last year, known as “First Choice VIP Preview”, allowed the chosen few celebrities, wealthy private collectors and sellers to attend the festival before its official opening, and browse and buy in privacy, whilst being entertained by the sponsors – including high end luxury brands Ruinart, NetJets, and Audemars Pigeut.
Away from the Convention Centre, however, there are as many as 25 satellite art fairs taking place, offering art for sale at prices the casual art fan would consider buying at. Amongst these, the NADA Art Fair, Aqua at the Aqua Hotel and Design Miami come recommended – although wherever you go, expect to spend at least four figures on works.
The Festival and its sectors
Art Basel Miami operates a number of different “sectors”. First there are the galleries – more than 200 – displaying works by 4,00 artists, ranging from installations, to photography, video, digital art, paintings and sculptures.
The Nova sector is where galleries dedicate space to artworks created within the last three years, often being exhibited for the first time.
Positions, gives a single artist a platform to present a series of works that form a larger project, based on a particular theme.
Edition allows publishers to showcase the results of their collaborations with renowned artists. This year, rarely seen works from the likes of the Alan Cristea Gallery, Sabine Knust, Two Palms, and Polígrafa Obra Gràfica will be on display.
Kabinett is where you will find galleries lending booth space to a curated exhibition by an artist of their choice – “thematic group exhibitions, art-historical showcases and solo shows for rising stars”.
Survey gives over space to art-historical projects, reflecting different cultures, ages, eras, generations and artistic approaches – look out for Judith Bernstein at The Box, Wesley Duke Lee at Ricardo Camargo Galeria, and William Turnbull at Offer Waterman.
Public, set in nearby Collins Park, is a collection of large-scale sculptures and installations, supported by MGM Resorts, Film presents screenings at the SoundScape Park, using a 7,000-square foot projection wall at the Frank Gehry designed New World Centre, and last, but not least, Magazines lets publications from all over the world put their magazines on show on stands or a “collective booth”. You and I might refer to this as the “Gift Shop”!
Welcome to Miami! It’s no secret that the art mega-deals being done in December at the fair are a cause for celebration – and luckily, Miami is the perfect setting for a plethora of super-exclusive, super-high-end parties.
As the week progresses, the more formal, expensively ticketed events give way to what one publication describes as “more mainstream, bacchanalian events that are available to Joe Public during the week.”
Apparently, some of the best after parties are to be discovered at places like Basement at The Miami Beach, the Doheny Room at Delano, South Beach Mega-club Ora, local joint Sweet Liberty, and the recently opened Miami branch of exclusive New York cocktail club Employees Only.
The Art Sales
Thanks to a combination of Donald Trump, market uncertainty, and the Zika virus, last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach was reputed to not be a vintage one for attendance or sales, but even so, works of art were going for eye watering sums, including Lee Krasner’s “Another Storm”, the subject of a bidding war which began at somewhere around the $6 million dollar mark.
A 41-foot-tall sculpture, “Compression”, went for $2 million, and several works by Anish Kapoor for between £500-700,000. Thousands more works were sold, with five or six-figure prices the norm.
Yes, Art Basel is an ultra-exclusive event – a billionaire’s flea market, if you will, but away from the celebrities and the super-rich, there is also much for Joe Public to enjoy too, from the outdoor installations in Collins Park, to the artistic vibe that holds the whole of Miami Beach under its spell for the six days of the festival.
It’s an example of how a cultural event can avoid snobbery and pricing out of the public by generating an atmosphere that everyone can enjoy. It is also a jaw-dropping experience for art fans the world over, and one the world’s biggest art dealers, and collectors, and artists, dare not miss.
And don’t forget, if you do make a purchase, you can save yourself a small fortune by using the right money transfer broker to help you send the funds over the Atlantic.