Expert Eye

Art Basel Americas Director Noah Horowitz on the Fair Empire's Big Data Play, and Plans for the New World

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Art Basel Americas Director Noah Horowitz on the Fair Empire's Big Data Play, and Plans for the New World
Art Basel Americas director Noah Horowitz

Nomenclature is a funny thing. For the longest time, there was Art Basel in Switzerland and Art Basel Miami Beach. Then, in 2013, Art Basel HK was born, and Art Basel’s flagship became “Art Basel in Basel” and the fair journos call ABMB became “Art Basel in Miami Beach”—suggesting that Art Basel was not an event specific to a city but rather a transferable condition, kind of like how any plane in which the President of the United States flies becomes “Air Force One.” This year Art Basel reached a new evolutionary stage, with the website proclaiming “Art Basel in Europe,” “Art Basel in Asia,” and “Art Basel in America," and that last fair gained a new supreme commander with the recruitment of Noah Horowitz as the fair’s new “Director of the Americas.” His new role was announced this fall, and this will be his first edition at the helm of the fair. 

A quick look at Wikipedia defines the Americas as interchangeable with “the Western Hemisphere,” but if there’s anyone capable of excelling with such a charge it is Horowitz. A PhD-holding pragmatist who helped launch the VIP Art Fair, he took over New York’s Armory Show in 2011 and engineered an against-the-odds turnaround of that marquee art fair, infusing it with new ideas, can-do energy, a crack staff, and robust sales.  

So what does he have in store for Art Basel in America, and what does Art Basel have in store for him? Artspace Magazine editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to the incoming director on the eve of his Miami debut.

 

Four years ago you came to the Armory Show at a point when the fair was struggling and had to compete with expansion of the New York fair ecosystem, with the entry of Frieze New York in particular. You really managed to turn the Armory around, to the point where it has some new momentum and relevance. Now, instead of coming on board at a new fixer-upper, you have been handed the keys to what might be the most famous and successful fair property in history. What is the big challenge ahead of you now?

There are quite a number of challenges, actually. But I think your assessment of the Armory is generally correct—at the moment that I joined the organization, in fall of 2011, Frieze New York had just been announced and there was a big management shift internally at the Armory Show. I joined a very small team, and we worked tirelessly to convince our galleries to come to the fair and build upward from there. I’m now stepping now into a situation with Art Basel that is totally different. It’s a very fluidly running show with a very strong position as the leading fair within the Americas, located in Miami Beach.

In many ways, the biggest challenge for me, personally, is practical and pragmatic—it’s about being part of a larger organization, capping at 70 full-time staff members across three continents. There are 27 regional VIP representatives, and all the other people working with us and representing us on a part-time basis. The organization is a lot larger by comparison with the Armory Show’s office, which is about a half-dozen people. 

The expectations for Art Basel within the art-fair landscape are fundamentally larger, as well. One of the biggest challenges is for me to just get up and running as part of the team, and to understand fully what the mindset of our organization is and how we can best serve our community.

If you look at the Miami Beach context, I know that when Art Basel launched in Miami in 2002 there were about 50 fairs in existence worldwide, according to Clare McAndrew’s report. Now that number is well above 200. There are new fairs all the time. Basel in Miami Beach could be further integrated within the local community of collectors and institutions that we serve in South Florida, but above all we need to ensure that we really stay ahead of the curve—that, in terms of all three of the Basel shows, we remain the ultimate standard for art fairs internationally.

In the case of Miami Beach, we are certainly the leading fair for the foreseeable future in the Americas. The U.S. market, the Latin American market, and a very large and far-reaching international audience come to Miami Beach for the fair each December.

Your title is Director of Art Basel in the Americas, which has a more expansive scope than simply “Director of Art Basel Miami Beach.” What exactly does your job consist of in terms of managing these three giant landmasses that make up the Americas? What are your responsibilities?

The idea behind the title is not to be just the director of Art Basel Miami Beach, which would refer specifically to this show, but of the Americas as a region in a broader sense.  So I’m stepping into a directorship role in a very similar capacity to the Armory, where I’m responsible for delivering the show and all aspects of its production, including the gallery selection and cultivation process. That responsibility is core and is absolutely fundamental to what I’m doing.

But the role extends beyond that as well, in a practical sense. I’m now Art Basel’s official ambassador for this part of the world, and I sit on a committee alongside Marc Spiegler, our global director; Adeline Ooi, our Director Asia in Hong Kong; Patrick Foret, who oversees our corporate partnerships; and Marco Fazzone, who is in charge of resources and finance. We serve as the executives of the show, representing all of our interests around the world and looking at what decisions are being made across all of the show’s platforms. It’s really exciting. 

The creation of the role is a direct response to the competitiveness of the industry, and the size and scale of the Americas as a region. As you know, Marc is on the road seemingly nonstop, and you can only be in so many places at the same time. For me, I’ll be on the ground a lot throughout the U.S. and into Canada, Mexico, Central and South America on a more regular basis—really just to build relationships with collectors, to get to know the museums and institutional committees, and most importantly to get to know the galleries and have a finger on the ball first, because we want to develop them within the gallery sectors. 

So, what interesting younger galleries are coming onto the scene? What artists are getting added to programs? What are the interesting galleries that are a bit more established? We really want to try to guide and direct that process for galleries on their way to Miami Beach and, where relevant, to our other shows in Hong Kong and Basel itself.

So, in a way you’re not only building the Miami fair but also helping to build three fairs, sending galleries to Hong Kong and Basel as well. How do the other fairs feed into Miami?

I think you can see that quite specifically. Hong Kong has had an impact, absolutely. There are a number of new galleries that are doing a show in Miami Beach for the first time this year—White Space and Beijing Art Now Gallery in the Survey sector for example. Those galleries are in Miami Beach now in large part because they understand the importance and the global niche that we have, and they feel they're ready to come here.

In an ideal world, one fair feeds into the next, and Latin American or American galleries will show interest in selling to Hong Kong. Going in that direction, I would be the first point of contact and would encourage the galleries to speak to Adeline in regard to the fair sectors, or make an introduction to Marc, if he doesn’t already know them, for Basel itself. The idea is that it all feeds into each other, and can create more fluid and stronger and deeper relationships with galleries, collectors, and museums.

How does the audience for Art Basel Miami Beach, with its huge international footprint, compare to the audience for the Armory show, which is an international fair but also very specifically a New York fair?

It’s a more international audience, firstly. Obviously the Latin American component is significantly larger in Miami Beach than it is in New York. Even though New York is a city where people from Latin America spend a lot of time and have homes, there are certainly far more connections from that part of the world to Miami Beach than to New York City. There’s also a regional American component, which the Armory touches upon, but that is considerably deeper in Miami Beach. We have a list of at least a dozen regional U.S. institutions, from the Midwest to the West Coast, that are all bringing their groups to Miami this week.

So, overall, we have a far more global attendance, given the connection to Latin America, given Basel’s own deep and longstanding relationship with its European collector base, given the fact that our show in Hong Kong is sending way more people from Asia to Miami than ever before, and given our inroads into regional America.

One of your signal achievements at the Armory Show was the Focus section, where you did expertly curated surveys of new art from emergent regions, from China to the Nordic countries to MENAM countries this year. Do you think such a curatorial overlay can be imported to Art Basel Miami Beach? There’s no Unlimited there.

For the time being, there is no immediate need to change or do anything in Miami Beach. I’m really excited to just get through this edition, to see what works, what functions well, and what else needs to be done over and above that. Obviously there are different fair factors that we can look at in the future, but right now we are very happy with the factors that currently exist. The one thing I’ll say in terms of geographic focus is that Art Basel is already a truly global fair, so I don’t think the idea of going out and finding a specific international theme as we did at the Armory makes sense. 

Art Basel Miami has a great advantage because it’s so famous, and because people enjoy the temperate location so much that they come from around the world to enjoy it. But it does have some challenges as well—one of them being that its very success has conjured a sprawling luxury-sector convention around it, with every watch, fashion, car, and booze company throwing events to angle for Basel’s rich audience and celebrities zooming in to feed on the flashbulbs and suck out the oxygen. As a result, the week has become a very distracting context for seeing art, if a tremendously lively one—a kind of Cannes on the tip of Florida. Do you see the celebrification and luxury-fication of Miami as a good thing or a bad thing?

The important thing is that that’s a good problem to have. I’d rather have an issue where you have a surfeit of people coming to the show. The challenge for us is ensuring that the right collectors—serious, museum-level collectors, trustees, et cetera—are also coming. And I think they are, by the way. So our response to that is to really focus first and foremost on the quality of galleries and the core product that we put out on the level of presentation, and our focus is going to remain on that.

Looking forward a few years, meanwhile, I think the unveiling of the new convention center renovation in two years' time will be a really big draw for people, and will help separate what we are producing from the rest of the field. Obviously our context is something we are acutely aware of, so we want to make sure that what’s happening inside of our halls is happening at the highest level possible and that our audiences are buying art and are interested in collecting.

I couldn’t help but notice that Art Basel Miami Beach is now rebranded as Art Basel in America on your site. Is there a possibility that the fair might not be entirely wedded to Miami for its foreseeable future?

No, I think we are absolutely in Miami Beach for the foreseeable future. Marc has said publicly, on more than one occasion, that we aren’t looking to open any new fairs. That’s not on the agenda. But last year we initiated a crowdfunding project with Kickstarter that successfully funded 27 projects. A lot of the focus of our non-show-related initiatives is to try to leverage that kind of work, to direct funds and resources to institutions in places where we don’t necessarily operate shows. All of these things are really important to us, and I think help point toward what our intentions are in the Americas. 

When it comes to that kind of digital layer, you have an unusually germane background from your time at the VIP Art Fair. There you helmed a pioneering platform devoted to creating a new, entirely virtual art-fair format that was visionary for its time—even if the technology did not prove quite up to the challenge. Do you see your experience at the VIP Art Fair as being relevant to what you are going to be doing at Basel?

It’s absolutely 100 percent relevant. I’m uniquely qualified in having worked on an online-only fair at a time when online art sales were just taking root, and the fair will certainly keep on top of developments in the online arena. In fact, we just launched a new online catalogue on our website for all the galleries that participate in Art Basel shows, and we also launched new iPhone and Android apps that have significantly more robust search parameters, mapping features, et cetera. The idea in all of this is to try to leverage what’s available digitally nowadays to give our galleries an additional tool to open up new channels for collectors, curators, and the broader public to learn about their artists and their programs at all of our shows.

An extraordinary amount of data comes through the Basel fairs, and years and years of your catalogues detail the works that the galleries brought to these fairs for sale. This provides a pretty good cross-section of whatever the best art is at a particular moment. Meanwhile, in a recent talk at Barcelona’s Talking Galleries symposium, Spiegler mentioned that Basel is working on a project aimed at bringing more transparency to the art market in a way that counters the monopoly that auction houses, with their published sales results, have on making pricing publicly available. Right now, he explained, galleries and their artists are essentially at the mercy of the auction houses when it comes to setting prices, in part because they’re so committed to rarely revealing those prices themselves. Art Basel seems to have the opportunity to use its data on the art passing through its fairs to create a kind of bulwark against the auction houses—that is, if it added pricing. Is anything like this in the works?

The focus of this new digital initiative is to give our audiences a very specific understanding of what’s being presented at Art Basel’s shows. For example, the app limits galleries to presenting only the artworks in their booths at our shows and does not give a more generalized presentation of what galleries are offering outside of the fair context. As this process plays itself out, you can start to get a very top-down sense of what galleries are bringing to different places. But I think that is our first move in that direction. Over time, it can serve as a powerful tool for collectors, curators and our wide-reaching audiences to learn more about the artists and exhibitors in Art Basel shows and, in turn, to facilitate new contacts, connections and in-depth research in its widest sense.  

Is price data something that will be part of the catalogue?

As of right now there is no price added in the catalogue.

When it comes to the digital vanguard, it’s no secret that the tech titans who are building the technology of the future are also amassing the era’s great fortunes. The art market has been concertedly attempting to tap into this  lately, with initiatives like the new Seattle Art Fair and Art Silicon Valley trying to put contemporary art on the walls of these new kinds of billionaires. Last year, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom—a kind of Prometheus for smartphone-addicted art lovers—attended the fair. What can Art Basel Miami do to create a more welcoming atmosphere for these new overlords?

With our show we serve multiple audiences, and clearly part of my role is to cultivate relationships within different communities throughout the region. Silicon Valley is a very important part of that, and a place I can imagine myself spending more time in the future. But while we do our best to make certain inroads there, at a certain level having art fairs in San Francisco, Seattle, and in other tech hubs on the West Coast all helps to put contemporary art on the map in a substantive way.

Since we have the leading show within this part of the world, I would like to think that serious collectors who are coming into contact with contemporary art as a result of some of these other fairs are ultimately also going to become aware of and interested in coming to see the broadest, most extensive, highest-level work from international galleries in Miami Beach. 

Last year, you found time in your busy schedule to publish a fascinating book on the art market and its relation to the financial market. The book was informed by both your experience in the fair world and by your PhD in art history from the Courtauld Institute. It is a very rigorous and sober-minded book, which you titled Art of the Deal. That also happens to be very similar to the title of a bestseller by a certain headline-grabbing presidential hopeful. Was this an accident?

Without going into depth, there is a lot of books that are titled slightly similarly. I thought it was a good title to deal with the overt themes of my book, and Mr. Trump’s book had used that title a few years previously, so we slightly tweaked our title to differentiate it from that. I was also was advised by my publisher that one can’t copyright a title. It was a slightly coincidental decision several years ago that, in recent months, lead to a surge in my book’s Amazon sales, much to my amusement.

Does that mean that people are buying your book thinking that they are buying the Trump book and simply not returning it?

Either that, or they’re people who are trying to buy Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal and are also curious about contemporary art, so when all of a sudden they see Art of the Deal by Noah Horowitz they click on that and buy that. But I’m sure if you talked to Amazon you’d find that there have probably been a few accidental purchases, too.

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