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Expert Eye

Art Basel Director Marc Spiegler on How the World's Premier Fair Continues to Evolve

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Art Basel Director Marc Spiegler on How the World's Premier Fair Continues to Evolve
Art Basel director Marc Spiegler

As the director of the globally dominant Art Basel organization, at a moment in which such events play an increasingly central role in the world art market, Marc Spiegler has an intensely privileged vantage point from which to view the transformations currently sweeping the field. As a former art journalist for New York magazine, Artnews, and other publications, he also has a superb knack for breaking down and expressing what he sees. In other words, if you're off to see the wizard, you might want to set your coordinates for Spiegler's office in Switzerland.

To find out how galleries are faring in a superheated art market, and how Art Basel itself is adapting to the surge, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to the fair's director to find out what's new and whether everything is truly trending up, up, up.

READ PART TWO OF THE INTERVIEW:
Art Basel’s Marc Spiegler on Why the Superheated Art Market Isn’t a Bubble

In a moment of unprecedented growth in the art world, Art Basel stands as perhaps the biggest and strongest brand in contemporary art. With the fair about to return for its 46th year, how would you describe the atmosphere in the art market?

There are many different levels of the market. I think the frothiest and fastest moving level—the one that gets the most publicity—is of course what’s happening with the auctions. But we should keep in mind that, based on the TEFAF study from last year, less than 1,530 pieces represent 48 percent of the volume of the entire auction market globally. Among those pieces there’s a lot of overlap in terms of artists, so there may be only a few dozen artists who are really driving the auction market, whereas a fair like Art Basel has over 4,000 artists that are represented, and nearly 300 galleries. 

In other words, a lot of what you’re reading about the art market is very focused on what is ultimately a very small phenomenon within the market. And there’s a much wider, more global market in which you have all different levels of galleries. Some are doing very well, expanding into new spaces in new cities, and others are struggling and thinking hard about where they want to focus their attention. There are some galleries that are doing 15 fairs a year, and there are some that are deciding to cut themselves back to four or five.

I don’t want to generalize about what’s going on in the art world. You can’t say that every gallery is doing well, and you certainly can’t say that every artist is a millionaire. In fact, there are very few of them. Likewise, there are some gallerists who have done very, very well and others who are, frankly, going from month to month out of their passion for the art.

Are there any interesting metrics that you’re using as barometers to assess the health of the market overall?

The art world is not very good for metrics. The most visible metric we have is the auction results, and as anybody who studies auctions knows that even those are hardly transparent in terms of what’s going on. The metric we watch, personally, is how many people re-apply to do our shows. In Hong Kong for next year it was 95 percent, in Basel it was 99 percent, and in Miami Beach it was 98 percent. Clearly, our fairs are working well for the galleries that do them.

One thing that we see is that the fairs are taking on an ever more important role for galleries, especially the galleries that are not in the major wealth centers like New York and London. I’m not sure that it’s a good thing. It hands those of us who run fairs a huge responsibility for the success of our galleries and their artists. But I think it’s tied into a broader socioeconomic reality: wealth is being concentrated not in the hands of a leisure class but in the hands of people who are quite actively working and who just don’t make the time—especially at the beginning of their collecting career—to go around to every gallery in Chelsea or in the West End.  

For people at the beginning of their careers as collectors, the fairs are a way to get what the French would call a tour d’horizon—an overview of which artists and which galleries they really want to focus their attention on. In our ideal world, the fairs are a gateway to galleries through which collectors step—and after which they then will go see gallery shows and travel to see artists’ openings at museums, go to biennials, and so forth. 

We think of ourselves as working for our galleries not three weeks a year but the whole year round. I’m always happy to hear from a collector, “Oh, I discovered this artist at the fair, I’ve been following them, and I’ve bought a lot of work from the gallery.” Likewise, I always like to hear from a gallery, “We met this amazing collector from the other side of the world, and now we’re going to see him, or he’s coming to see us.” This is what we’re trying achieve—to open up as many opportunities as possible for our galleries and our artists. 

Within a global market, things are much more possible than they used to be. It used to be that you had to be successful at home before you could even think of going abroad. Now, an artist who’s living in Mexico City might not even have a gallery in Mexico City—because they have a gallery in Berlin and New York and Tokyo. And those galleries are able to generate the patronage necessary to continue their practices. 

In terms of a venue for this kind of global art-buying audience, Art Basel is the absolute pinnacle. Dealers save their best work over the course of the year so they can bring it to the fair. What would you say is the ballpark figure on the overall dollar value of the art that you expect to see in this year’s fair?

This is not something that we can track. Occasionally people have put out numbers and they’re usually well over $2 billion, but who knows? It’s not something that’s really a relevant part of our business, because we’re not involved in the sales in any way. What’s critical to us is that the galleries do well enough that they want to come back the next year.

What’s most important to us is the range and quality of the material you see. What I think people like about the Art Basel show, especially in Basel, is that you can trace 12 decades of art history through the halls—the trajectory through all the major movements, often represented by their major artists with major pieces. 

One of the things that we’ve done this year—and this is a response to what’s going on in the markets—is that we’ve significantly reconfigured the ground floor downstairs. Fifty-seven out of 93 galleries have moved positions, with the goal of bringing the focus onto the galleries that deal exclusively or partially with art from before circa 1970. They’re all on the right hand side as you enter now. 

What we wanted to do was to remedy something that had happened organically over the years. Ten years ago, it was very clear: Contemporary was upstairs, historical was downstairs. But, a decade later, there is a lot less historical material and there are fewer galleries that are focused purely on it. But as more contemporary galleries came downstairs, there was never a re-jiggering of the show floor to organize it by movements or decades. So over time we lost the coherence on the floor that you have in Miami Beach, where at the northwest corner of the floor plan you have secondary-market galleries and the galleries that are focused on historical material. Likewise, in Hong Kong, upstairs next to the VIP room you have all of these types of galleries, both Asian and Western. 

In Basel, we just didn’t have that coherence anymore. There are two very clear examples where you could see that. Galerie 1900-2000 in Paris and Galerie Berinson from Berlin, which always have some of the greatest Surrealist material in the show, were separated by the Editions sector last year. The other example was that Richard Nagy and Galerie St. Etienne, from London and New York respectively, were on opposite ends of the halls, and yet those are the two galleries that have the best German Expressionist material every year. Those galleries are all now in close proximity to each other, which makes sense, because now someone who’s focused on prewar material isn’t going to have to see such a booth and then see another six booths of work that are irrelevant to what they’re interested in. It creates, we would hope, a much more coherent experience.  

One interesting statistic that was released in Skate’s art fair report last year was that Art Basel, in the sleepy landlocked town of Basel, Switzerland, is actually a bigger draw for crowds than Art Basel Miami Beach, that massive free-for-all in the sun with collectors, celebrities, and brands streaming in from all over the world. What does that signify? 

It’s not that much bigger—maybe 10,000 more. And keep in mind that Basel has one more day of public ticket sales, which adds significantly. Skate’s also cited the fact that the Hong Kong fair’s attendance dropped by 7 percent this year without citing the fact that we had one less day of public ticket sales and only a three-hour opening on the first day. So it’s an apples-and-oranges approach to statistics. 

To be honest with you, total attendance is not a metric that we follow very closely, nor is it a big part of our revenues. The fact is, on most of our public days, we are at or near capacity most of the time. If the halls were bigger, there would be more people in them, but we don’t fill them more than we want to.

So that statistic doesn’t tell us anything about the size of the audience that is interested in this absolute top-level blue-chip work and is willing to fly to a very expensive and rather remote destination in order to view it?

Well, the bulk of our attendance is not made up of people flying in. It’s people driving or coming by train from nearby countries with long long histories of cultural appreciation. Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium—these are all places where there’s a long and deep history of people either collecting or just being very interested in contemporary art. I don’t have statistics on it, but I’m guessing not more than 10 to 15 percent of any fair’s total attendance actually flies in.

I imagined it was a much more of a global draw.

It is a global draw, it’s just that most of those people arrive from places where you can arrive by train or by car. 

This is a Venice Biennale year, which means that many of the attendees venturing in from abroad will also be using their trip as a chance to see Okwui Enwezor’s show. Over the years, the Basel fair has committed to a number of curatorial gestures that seem to play into that parallel, for instance the cavernous Art Unlimited show, which feels a little bit like the Arsenale. 

It’s bigger, actually. Unlimited is 15,000 square meters, so it’s certainly bigger than the part of the Arsenale that the director of the Biennale has control over. The Arsenale is not very wide compared to Hall 1.

You were talking about rearranging the ground floor of the fair in order to create more of a coherent structure to it, which seems like a curatorial move. How much of a role does curation play in the overall fair? 

If you want to talk about curatorial structure, I would talk about the fact that we’ve expanded Feature from 20 booths when it originated a few years ago to 24 booths more recently and now to 30 booths. That’s much more directly curatorial, because there the committee responsible is actually choosing specific projects from galleries that are not otherwise in the fair. Likewise, Unlimited is of course highly curatorial, although it’s drawn strictly from the galleries in the fair, as is Parcours. Those have actual curators, Gianni Jetzer for Unlimited and Florence Derieux for Parcours. They’re working with our galleries to put together programs based on their artists and artworks

What we’ve done on the ground floor is more about creating neighborhoods. We still don’t know what those galleries are going to bring specifically. What I was talking about is creating a more coherent organization of the galleries. Of course, that organization is bound to create amazing juxtapositions and clashes across the aisle. 

Isn’t that crafting of contexts a form of curation?

I think of it not as curating, but as urbanism. Any art fair is an exercise in ephemeral urbanism—what we’re doing with the floor plan is like being a city planner. The other metaphor that people use is doing a seating order at a dinner, but whether your using a seating-order or an urbanism metaphor, what you’re talking about is understanding what a gallery has to bring and understanding which neighbors will create the best resonances across the aisle. What you want to do is create a situation where you have interesting juxtapositions, where you have similar work in the same area, so that someone who’s looking for that kind of work or wants to learn more about that part of art history can do it in a very easy way without having to hop around floors so much.

What did you think of the Venice Biennale this year? 

It’s very hard to draw a single judgment around dozens of national pavilions and the show that the director of the Biennial does, but I thought it was really interesting. There’s been a lot of criticism of the Biennial, and the main complaints seem to be that it’s not pretty enough, that there are "too many ideas" or that it’s too much about politics. I feel like there’s a lot of work in the art world these days that don’t really seem to have any ideas at all, and the biennial was a nice juxtaposition to that. For me, it’s a call to arms for people who want art that is driven by ideas and concepts. 

In other words, it’s not a biennial that you can sight read—you actually have to think about things, pay attention to current events, read the descriptions of what’s going on. I’ve been to biennials where I felt like I was looking through an academic research archive, and that’s not the case at all with this one. There’s still a lot of passion and a lot of emotion, but it’s passion that is based more around ideas than around aesthetics. For me, it felt like a counterbalance to the more speculative end of the market that you see surrounding a lot of young artists.

The central theme of the Biennale seems to be that there are harsh realities in the wider world outside the walls of the art world, with sweeping economic inequality being one of them. Basel, being a thinking person’s art fair, addressed the issue of inequality in a way in its 2013 programming by placing an ersatz favela [Tadashi Kawamata and Christophe Scheidigger's Favela Café] outside of the main entrance to the fair. Protestors gathered, however, to oppose what they felt was the trivialization of the plight of Brazil’s slums, and in the end police used tear gas to eject the demonstrators. What did you make of that situation? 

To be honest with you, I think what happened in 2013 with Kawamata’s piece had much more to do with the local political situation in Basel than with the piece itself. The reality is that people will take advantage of any prominent platform to put forward whatever views or opinions are important to them. So any large-scale event has the potential to become a platform for whatever local or international politics people want to bring attention to.

This year a subtler but equally political installation by Rirkrit Tiravanija will greet visitors outside the entrance. Titled Do We Dream Under the Same Sky, it's a communal restaurant where people can pay whatever and however they want for their meals—from handing over money to pitching in by bussing tables. The overtones of socialism are unmistakable. Can a fair like Art Basel, the Davos of the art world, plausibly address issues like income inequality through its programming? 

There was no political thinking about the decision. The first thing was, “Who is an artist that we think could do something really interesting on Messeplatz?” In the same way we thought Kawamara would do something interesting, we thought Rikrit would do something interesting. I think in both cases we were right.

Art Basel is not a curator. Art Basel is a platform for galleries and artists. Every year, there are artists and galleries who bring forward all kinds of work advancing different concepts, including income inequality, gender issues, and political oppression—and of course that’s the kind of work that we want there. But the goal of Art Basel is not to support or promote certain aesthetics or certain political ideas. What you want is great art, and you can make great art that has no political impact and great art that has an incredible political impact. From that perspective, as long as artists are making great work about politics, it will be present at the show. We’ve certainly never shied away from it in any way.

One way that Basel has been redistributing funding in the art world has been through its Kickstarter partnership, in which you use the Basel brand to promote crowdfunding campaigns for nonprofit causes, from bringing Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s first U.S. survey to SculptureCenter (for $12,574) to helping expand the programing at a photography festival in Nigeria (for £12,942). How did the program come about, and how does it fit into the overall Basel identity?

This was an experiment. Although some people like to think of Art Basel as this kind of juggernaut that always succeeds just by virtue of its size, the reality is that we’ve tried a lot of things. Some have failed, some have succeeded. But one of the reasons that Art Basel has maintained its position as such a strong fair organizer over the years is that willingness to take risks. The Kickstarter program was a risk because it is far, far afield from anything we’d ever done.  

The first step was realizing that we had built up a huge online community of people following us on social media—nearly 400,000 people on Facebook, nearly 150,000 on Twitter and Instagram. The number of people who follow us on social media channels is far more than the number of people who attend our shows, and the question was what to do with that. We don’t want to sell hats and t-shirts, which is a very easy way to monetize an audience but doesn’t make any sense for us.  

So we were thinking about what to do, and then I happened to meet Perry Chen from Kickstarter. We said, “What can we do together?” because he was an artist and a gallerist in his past life—and he’s actually gone back to being an artist now. Someone from our team came and said, “Maybe we should do a crowdfunding platform.” I said that was crazy, because a crowdfunding platform is so complicated from a legal and regulatory standpoint, but I said maybe we could do something with Kickstarter. 

We started pushing ideas back and forth, and what we realized was that the people who could benefit the most from a collaboration with Kickstarter would be the nonprofits in the visual arts. Because these are people who don’t benefit as much from the hot market as gallerists and artists, and yet they’re so so important. We took a long time to set up the right kind of jury with the right kind of rules to set up the right environment for this to happen, and Kickstarter became increasingly supportive of it as we went along. They gave us a very privileged position within their ecosystem. 

How do you judge the success of this program so far?

It was clear that one of the ways to judge the success of this would be the fact that projects would succeed, and I must say I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of projects that have succeeded: 19 out of 21. In all fairness, projects never succeed if the people themselves aren’t working hard to make it happen. But obviously the Kickstarter and Art Basel networks in fact helped a lot. And another thing we hadn’t really thought about was the fact that, thanks to the campaigns, even people who don’t give to a particular project suddenly become aware of nonprofits that are either in their backyards or halfway around the world. 

So the promotional boost for these individual nonprofits has been tremendous. And most of these were nonprofits and organizations that I’d never heard anything about before we started researching and working with them. The nonprofit world is a dense environment—there are a lot of them, and they’re not so good at generating visibility for themselves outside of their home environment.

On a larger level, the program has also brought into focus for a lot of people the fact that nonprofits and galleries are separate things. I think if you’re new to the art world you don’t realize that places like Participant Inc. or the Drawing Center are not galleries, because you think of them as places you walk into and see shows. If you’re not buying at a gallery anyway, you don’t distinguish between places that are galleries and places that are exhibition spaces. So I think it has brought a lot of attention to the nonprofit sector in general, and the fact that nonprofits play an important role for a lot of the newer people in the art world. 

It seems like right now the funding targets top off around $60,000.Is there any intention of raising the target to really get into some ambitious projects?

Perhaps over time we’ll test it, but I think it’s better to have a lot of projects benefit from this rather than soaking up all the attention with one project. We’re trying to keep this balanced and spread the love, so to speak. 

How do you see the Kickstarter project as fitting into Art Basel's overall evoution?

If you look at the larger Art Basel equation we’re really entering this kind of third stage of Art Basel’s development. The first stage was from 1970 to roughly 1995, and that was the stage during which the fair was primarily a sales platform. It was a place where buyers and sellers met to exchange objects. Somewhere in the mid-‘90s—and certainly picking up speed with the launch of the show in Miami Beach—Art Basel became an organization that also staged an entire week’s worth of events, before, during, and after the fair. In a sense, the mission changed from simply creating a sales platform to actually being the impresarios of an entire week’s worth of activities. 

This included working much more closely with local organizations and private collectors to make sure that people walked away from that week feeling like it was really worth their time. Part of that, of course, ties into the fact that people are coming from much further away and therefore it had to be worth it for them to come. You wanted them to go back home to their faraway country and convince more of their friends to come. I think that was especially successful for Art Basel Miami Beach. The Latin American collecting scene for non-Latin American contemporary art was relatively small at the time, and it rippled out every year to the point that now it’s become incredibly significant. 

Then, roughly five years ago—because of the growing importance of the Internet in our lives and because of the fact that we went to Asia—Art Basel took on a broader role in the art world. I think we recognized that as a platform for galleries we had to do things more than just three weeks a year. We started doing a lot of social media promotion on behalf of galleries at our shows. The Kickstarter project is just the beginning of us thinking about the broader role we must play in the art world. 

READ PART TWO OF THE INTERVIEW:
Art Basel’s Marc Spiegler on Why the Superheated Art Market Isn’t a Bubble

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