Updated: Jun 27, 2019
by Jordan Levin
By most of the usual metrics, the 2018 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) – and the Miami Art Week frenzy that surrounds it – was as successful as ever. The main fair at the gleaming, remodeled Miami Beach Convention Center was again filled with the world’s top galleries selling their priciest art by their best artists. The many satellite fairs that have made this annual December event a towering pillar of the art world spread beyond the core districts of Miami Beach, Wynwood, and the Design District to new areas like Overtown, a historic African-American neighborhood, and Doral, a suburb dominated by Latin American immigrants. There was the usual hurricane of openings, parties, VIP brunches and dinners, and odd celebrity appearances, like a cannabis-themed dinner with former boxing champion Mike Tyson.
But there were also rumblings that, after years when art fairs mushroomed around the world, this key driver of the cultural economy has reached a limit. The last year has seen multiple reports of galleries driven out of business by the spiraling cost of an endless fair treadmill, or cutting back as sales decrease. Collectors are complaining of “fair-tigue.” Art fairs, the financial engine of the art world, seem to be running out of fuel.
“The art fair business is in crisis,” said Deborah Harris, former Deputy Director of The Armory Show in New York, another landmark event on the circuit. “The number has reached a breaking point. If you talk to anyone in the art world they will say there are too many.”
“We hear from collectors and donors that there are too many fairs and they’re exhausting,” said Alison Keating, co-director of L.A.N.D., a non-profit group from Los Angeles at the N.A.D.A. satellite fair, who said they may not return after four years of diminishing returns. “That despite the projects and performances, it’s a lot of the same.”
ABMB still seems largely unaffected. Officials said attendance was about 83,000, while the Miami Herald reported that insurance company AXA ART estimated sales there at $2.5 billion.
Fair executives and city officials glowed at a kick-off press conference at the convention center, re-modeled at a cost of $620 million, largely for Art Basel. “We have been ‘be-Baseled’,” proclaimed Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber. “This week Miami Beach is the center of the art world, the crossroads for the creative class of the Americas,” said Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s global director. “Our success [here] gave us the confidence to transcend our original identity as a fair producer and become a cultural innovator.”
However, that new identity is facing new challenges, as MCH Group, Art Basel’s Swiss parent company, confronts financial and organizational pressure. In the last two years, MCH’s biggest moneymaker, the watch and jewelry show Baselworld, lost half its exhibitors, who complained of dropping attendance, rising costs and arrogant management. Resulting losses were expected to top $100 million, and last year MCH’s share price on the Swiss Stock Exchange plummeted by over two-thirds.
The company has cut back in response, saying it would focus on its core businesses, particularly its main fairs in Switzerland, Miami and Hong Kong. In November MCH ended a major initiative to expand into regional art fairs in India, Singapore and Dusseldorf. (It continued another initiative, Art Basel Cities, in Buenos Aires.) In December, they canceled Grand Basel, a luxury auto fair scheduled for Miami Beach in February, just six months after signing a contract with the city.
ABMB also dropped two major free programs; Art Public, a sculpture show at Collins Park at the Bass Museum that was one of Art Week’s most popular and accessible events, and an outdoor film series at the New World Symphony. Instead it presented Autoreconstrucción: To insist, to insist, to insist, a free performance/installation, in a convention center ballroom. An Art Basel spokeswoman said the shift was made to take advantage of the expanded facility, and that they have made other programming changes over the years. And in response to a groundswell of complaints about fair costs, the company said it would cut booth rental rates for smaller and new galleries in 2019 at its three main fairs.
How that change will play into galleries’ decisions to continue spending anywhere from $40,000 (for small operations) to $400,000 (for big ones) in booth rental, shipping, insurance, installation, travel, staff, and entertainment remains to be seen. Those costs exacerbate a growing inequality in the art world that mirrors that in the larger economy. Big international galleries like Gagosian and Hauser and Wirth (whose $7.5 million sale of the Philip Guston painting Shoe Head was the week’s biggest) can stay in the game, reaping sales that perpetuate their dominance. But smaller or mid-sized galleries, who foster new artists, are increasingly forced out – or forced into increasingly difficult calculations.
“It’s so expensive I can’t even talk about it,” said Lisa Spellman, owner of New York’s 303 Gallery, who nonetheless does a major fair almost every month. “It’s not just the financial return – it’s the dialogue with curators, setting up museum shows, meeting new artists. It’s essential.” The opportunities can also be considerable for artists. “It’ll never be too much because it helps people go places,” said Miami sculptor and teacher Robert Chambers, greeting friends at the main fair.
Enthusiasts tout being able to see such an international variety of art in one place. But others say the system’s relentless commercialism and dizzying mix of work distorts the unique value and meaning of art. Walking through an art fair quickly goes from a wondrous to a numbing experience. “They become like a shopping mall,” said Leyden Rodriguez, a Miami artist who co-directs non-profit space Dimensions Variable. “It further commodifies something that is other than a commodity.”
Ironically, MCH ignited the art fair explosion when it launched Art Basel Miami Beach in 2002, expanding from their original namesake event in Switzerland to cater to a growing market in the Americas – now imperiled by economic and political turmoil in Latin America. However, Miami’s seductive appeal and affinity for parties and glamour transformed the art fair model from insider occasion to cultural and commercial vortex, drawing marketing-hungry corporations and attention-seeking stars. The 2018 constellation included Kanye West, Pharrell and Cardi B; regular attendee Leonardo DiCaprio; Bono, hosting an auction for his AIDS charity; and Serena Williams, launching her new fashion line. “It was a real turning point,” said Harris. “All the other fairs had to compete. At the Armory we were always looking at Art Basel Miami Beach. It’s not just an art fair – the whole city becomes a special event.”
Others rushed to follow. In 2000, there were approximately 55 art fairs around the world, according to the latest Art Basel and UBS Art Market report. Now there are over 260.
How any emerging backlash will affect the Miami Beach fair and the surrounding empire remains to be seen. It might be too big to fail. “This is still a monster,” said Fred Snitzer, a longtime Miami gallerist who is one of only two local gallery owners to pass ABMB’s exacting exhibition requirements. “If this goes, the whole system goes.”
As the tens of thousands of eager fair-goers attest, there is still plenty of enthusiasm for the cultural riches and opportunities on tap. At the main fair, gallery staff vibrated with tension on opening day, the crucial time for sales – though many sold works over the phone the day before, so installers kept taking down pieces they’d just put up. (One major Miami collector requested immediate delivery to his waterfront mansion, for his VIP private brunch.) Sightseers goggled at works by popular names: Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons. The scene was repeated at satellite fairs: Art Miami – the second-largest showcase – whose showy new site on Biscayne Bay drew 84,000 people; cutting-edge havens like N.A.D.A. (New Art Dealers Alliance) on the gritty outskirts of downtown, where galleries included Howl Happenings, a haven for 70s and 80s punk-inspired artists; and Pinta, a Latin American platform where attendance soared from 30,000 to 42,000.
There was the usual jarring mix of commercial, popular, experimental and political. Crowds lined up to pay up to $50 (T-shirt included) to see The Art of Banksy, an unauthorized show of work by the mysterious street artist. Hundreds cheered wildly unconventional models in designer Patricia Fields’ outdoor fashion show in Wynwood. African-American and African diaspora art was highlighted in some half-dozen shows, from the Museum of Contemporary Art’s acclaimed AfriCOBRA exhibit, to Black Lives Matter booths at Prizm, a black art fair, and N.A.D.A. “We understand how art changes culture, and culture changes the world,” said Kailee Scales, the group’s strategic partnerships director. “Our goal is to amplify the connection between art and civil rights.”
The week is peculiarly exhilarating for locals like Cuban-American artist Carlos Betancourt, who celebrated his first show at home in a decade, of glimmering pieces made from vintage Christmas lights and decorations, held at Design District gallery Primary with a vibrant opening for hundreds of friends and fans, including local icons Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Nearby, Swampspace, run by irreverent cultural instigators Min and Oliver Sanchez, hosted a show by daughter Lulu Sanchez and friends. The young artist showed an enormous, bold collage of condo advertising banners with plants, shells and the slogan “For less rent yes sure I’d die” – a pungent comment on Miami’s clash of development and nature.
How this creative exuberance might weather a diminished fair scene is another question. A significant benefit of Art Basel’s success is the way it persuaded civic and business leaders that art was good for the city. It also raised up an elite group of modern Miami Medicis: collector/developer/patrons like billionaire Jorge Pérez, who has donated $55 million to the county-funded Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) named for him, and Craig Robins, who transformed the Design District into a luxury shopping area. Most crucially, in 2005, the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation launched a transformative $165 million arts funding program. Knight’s yearly party to announce grant recipients is an unofficial kick-off to Art Week; this year, they announced $37 million in new funding.
Developer patronage has a negative side, as cultural groups are pushed out of neighborhoods they inadvertently helped gentrify. Artists, and those who love art as much for what it is as for the money it can make, appreciate the Art Week hullabaloo. But they long for more. “My wish is that more emphasis be placed on longevity and long-term support rather than spectacle,” said Miami artist Naomi Fisher, director of non-profit Bas Fisher Invitational. “Art fairs don’t do that.”
They do not. On the other hand, a backlash could offer a solution. “Perhaps we think art fairs should be something they’re not,” said L.A.N.D.’s Keating. “They’re commercial enterprises. Maybe what we should do is go to more museums.”