Q&A

Art Basel's Marc Spiegler on Why "There's a Higher Expectation" for the Fair

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Art Basel's Marc Spiegler on Why "There's a Higher Expectation" for the Fair
Art Basel's Marc Spiegler

When the legions of international art collectors, dealers, artists, fashionistas, and assorted thrill-seekers converge on Art Basel Miami Beach this week, what they will encounter is not merely an art fair but a strange, ever-evolving hybrid event that's part cutting-edge art souk, part city-spanning exhibition, and part postmodern cultural carnival. That the fair has grown into such an electromagnetic force in the arts is in large part due to Marc Spiegler, a longtime art journalist who joined Art Basel in 2007 as a co-director alongside Annette Schönholzer.

This year, in addition to the 257 exhibitors filling the Miami Convention Center, the fair will offer a sprawling public exhibition of sculpture and other work outside the Bass Museum of Art (as part of its Art Public sector), a nightly screening of art films on a state-of-the-art projector outside the Frank Gehry-designed New World Symphony building, and even trio of soccer matches in which the French art collective Kolkoz will pit members of the art world against each other—on a sandy field on the beach that the artists sculpted into a replica of the Apollo 11's lunar landing site on the Sea of Tranquility.

"Art Basel has for the last 20 years tried to expand the notion of what an art fair is," Spiegler said of the wealth of the fair's programming. "There's a higher expectation now, and I think that expectation carries over not only to Art Basel but every other fair that's trying to be at this level." To mark this year's Miami Beach edition, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to the fair director about what to expect this year, the effects of Hurricane Sandy on the event, and what Art Basel has in store for the future.

At right, see works from Artspace's own Art Basel Miami Beach collection.

There are going to be at least 22 art fairs in Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach. To what do you ascribe the enormous success of the week?

The success of the week is definitely mostly due to the quality of galleries and the quality of art they bring to Miami Beach. That’s the sine qua non. Another factor is the dynamism of Miami itself. It is a city on the rise in a number of ways beyond the art world. Many luxury brands are moving in to the Design District. Architecturally speaking, you have new buildings like the new Herzog & de Meuron building for the Miami Art Museum and 1111 Lincoln Road and Frank Gehry’s New World Center. Plus, it's surging gastronomically, due to many great new restaurants. So many art-world people—including myself—came to the city for the first time because of Art Basel Miami Beach. Yet it has become a familiar place to us over the last decade, and during the frenzy that marks the fall art season, as the weather gets worse in the more northern climates, the art world looks forward to these days by the beach with their friends from all over the globe.

Why are such enormous crowds of people suddenly interested in contemporary art?

The intensity of the week reflects the popularity of contemporary art. For example, so many fashion and luxury brands do events during the week that have nothing to do with Art Basel—and we often don't even know about the events until afterwards. And that's totally fine. To keep things in perspective, the Cannes film festival has a lot of parallel activities that have nothing to do with the film festival itself—which is, at its base, a distribution platform for film rights. The fact that all of these other events do not actually hurt the Cannes film festival, and in the same way, as long as the artwork is great and the best collectors and galleries keep coming, whatever is going on around Art Basel Miami Beach doesn't really detract from us. This was a real concern within the art world and among gallerists about five years ago when it came to Art Basel, but it's not something that people worry about that much any more.

Do you feel that this week could be getting close to its saturation point?

It's not like there are three times as many people coming into the same city as before—the Miami area’s offerings have exploded. Compared to when Art Basel started here in Miami Beach, there are so many more hotels and restaurants, and so there are many more interesting places on the mainland to visit, like in the Design District and Midtown.

In his new book "Back to Blood," Tom Wolfe giddily portrays Art Basel Miami Beach as a grotesque spectacle where "countless nine-digit millionaires" are "squirming like maggots" to get their hands on art. Wolfe, of course, has never had too much fondness for contemporary art, but this seemed even more bilious a screed than usual. What did you make of that section?

I haven’t written a book review since 2004, and it's certainly not my role now to critique literary fiction.

On a divergent note, after Hurricane Sandy laid waste to stretches of Chelsea and other New York art districts, you took the extraordinary measure of personally touring the galleries and offering any of your affected exhibitors all manner of assistance, from helping them redesign their booths to make up for destroyed art to offering long-term payment plans. What kind of effect do you think the storm will have on this year's fair?

Our greatest fear at first was that people would be forced to cancel their participation at the show—not because we were afraid of empty booths, but because we knew that the only reason people would bail on the show was if they were actually going out of business. Fortunately, none of our exhibitors have cancelled, and all of the galleries affected by Hurricane Sandy are battling onwards. We knew how much our exhibitors were going through and we didn't want them to worry about anything beyond getting their galleries moving again, and then being able to have the best show possible in Miami Beach. So we said, “If you need a payment plan, you can have a payment plan. If you need to change your project, you can change it. If you need to reconfigure your booth because you're bringing different art than you expected no problem.” And all of the penalties for late changes that would normally apply were waived.

The thing we ended up doing the most was to extend payment plans for galleries, because a lot of people have invested so much money upfront to rebuild their galleries, and often they're still waiting for their insurance check to arrive—or even worse they're battling with their insurance company to find out what they're going to get. We know how much this show means to them. They've missed the November season—which is traditionally a very strong sales season for galleries—so this is for many galleries their last chance to make sales to the international art world until well into the new year. The stakes are high, and I hope the international art world understands what these people have been going through.

How many galleries had to entirely change their displays?

We had a couple that had to change their projects, and a few who had to change their booth configurations, but no totally new displays. At CRG, which was very hard hit, the art they planned bring was either in the artist's studio or stored offsite or already en route to Miami Beach. What I found when I started talking to people on the ground was that the impact on the fair itself wasn't extreme—we were prepared for much worse. That said, you can’t underestimate the long-term costs of rebuilding a gallery, especially if it lost storage, archives, computers, et cetera. The impact will be felt for years.

Just a few weeks after the art market suffered a blow from Sandy, it got borne aloft by the most successful contemporary art auctions of all time. What was your takeaway from the auctions?

There are two ways to see it. On the one hand, very little of the art that's in our show—and that's 10,000 works or so by 2,500-plus artists—is the kind of work that goes to an evening sale. At any given moment maybe 20 artists are primed for those kinds of skyrocketing prices, and it has to be a work that is recognized as being part of the most valuable sections of that artist's oeuvre, and you have to have a lot of money chasing after that particular artist. On the other hand, even though it doesn't have a one-to-one correspondence with our market, the art market is an interconnected and highly sensitive ecosystem. And often someone who has just sold an artwork at auction for a lot of money is going to go out buy a lot more artwork—it creates a lot of liquidity for collectors. But it also encourages people to buy art, because it makes other collectors feel that many people are buying art, and that this is not a bubble that's about to burst.

Here’s a concrete example of that: Just as you cannot say there’s a lot overlap between the art in the evening sales and the art that's at Art Basel Miami Beach, you also can't say that there's a lot of overlap between Art Basel and the street-art market. Almost none, in fact. But I was talking to someone who is very involved with Banksy's market, and he told me that after Art Basel did so well in June 2010—which was an economically volatile time—it created a strong surge in the market for street art. Clearly, collectors follow what is going on in other segments of the market closely, so strong results in one part of the market make collectors across the board optimistic.

But there sometimes is a one-to-one correspondence between Art Basel and the auctions. During Basel this year Pace Gallery reportedly sold a Richter painting for between $20 and $25 million, far more than the $15 million Richter that sold during the Christie's sale. Can we expect to see more extremely high-priced works being offered—and selling—at art fairs as they compete with the auction houses?

That’s not really our vision of Art Basel’s evolution. Let's face it: It's always the same 20 to 30 names we see in the star slots of the evening sales. And the galleries at Art Basel Miami Beach and Art Basel in general are doing a much broader kind of work in much closer partnership with artists. There are only a handful of galleries whose artists and inventory correspond strongly with the evening sales, but the overwhelming majority doesn’t correspond to them at all. These galleries have work that requires a longer conversation to understand, but once they've done that they have a collector who is going to buy deeply into an artist’s career, not flit away when a new name sails across their horizon.

So you see auction houses and art fairs as coexisting harmoniously in the art market—that they aren't in competition?

Art fairs are a platform for galleries. Without the work that galleries do, the auction houses would be nowhere. It's the galleries that bring up the artists. It's the galleries that invest in the production costs. It's the galleries that sustain the artists through those one, two, three, four early shows that don't sell so well. And we do for our galleries what the auction houses do for their consignors, which is to create a global platform to sell work to international buyers.

Next year you're going to be assuming a newly expanded role at the fair as the director of all Art Basel fairs, including Switzerland, Miami, and Hong Kong. What will that entail? What will that change effectively?

It's too early to say, honestly, because I'm not fully even in this position yet. What happened is that Annette Schonholzer and I looked at what Art Basel is and what it can be, and how it's going to get there. And we felt we needed to be able to focus more on developing new initiatives that tie the fairs and the galleries and the collectors closer together between the shows. That spoke to having one person focused on the initiatives and another person focused on the decisions that drive the whole organization forward.

What kind of initiatives will these be?

Watch the skies. But we can say this very clearly: We're not talking about a fourth fair and we're not talking about an online fair.

It sounds to me a little bit like what the VIP Art Fair went through when the transitioned from being a periodic online fair event to being a year-round online platform for that kind of interchange.

In 2013, anything new that we do create will have to have an online component, and it won't be tied to a specific event or a specific time of year. But, as usual, Art Basel doesn't copy other people. And we've always embraced the digital—we were the first fair to have an app, and that app had more artworks in it than any of the online art fairs ever did. We were also the first fair to be on Twitter and the first on Facebook, and we have upwards of 200,000 Facebook fans and 66,600 Twitter followers, while our biggest fair has 65,000 people coming to it.

Last year Art Basel acquired the Art HK fair, and next May you are planning to roll out your new Art Basel show in Hong Kong. How have you adapted your fair to meet the demands and mores of that city?

An art fair has to be grounded in a market, and that means that you have to have galleries from that region. Otherwise you're just a circus that parachutes in with a bunch of foreign galleries and tries to sell stuff. If you really want to be a part of a region's cultural landscape you need to be dealing with the people from that region—you can't bring the same curators, the same galleries, the same VIPs. When we started studying this question of how you maintain local character, we realized that the Swiss show is historically more than 50 percent European galleries, while the Miami Beach show is more than 50 percent North American and Latin American galleries. That had developed organically, but it seemed a clear success factor, so our decision was to continue this as a matter of policy. That means that more than 50 percent of the galleries in the Hong Kong show will have come from the Asia and Asia Pacific region, which stretches from Australia to the Middle East

Do you think that because you're dealing with so many Middle Eastern and Asian galleries there might be issues of censorship?

Hong Kong has the British legal system, meaning freedom of expression is strongly protected. For example, the biggest protests against Ai Weiwei's imprisonment took place in Hong Kong. So a Middle Eastern gallery might get censored at home, but you can certainly show that same work in Hong Kong.

While Miami becomes the art world's capital for a week every December, New York fills that role for most of the rest of the year. Last year Frieze opened a New York fair. Would you ever open a fair in New York? The Armory Show is reportedly on the market, for instance.

We believe in the model that started with Art Basel and continued in Miami Beach and will continue in Hong Kong, which is to not do a show in an existing art-world capital but rather at the crossroads for the region. So our challenge is to bring people to the show’s host city. That's something that we've succeeded at quite well in Basel and Miami Beach, and we hope we will replicate in Hong Kong. But once the art world is there, we don't have so much trouble keeping them focused on the show because while there are many cultural activities going on in Basel, in Miami Beach, and in Hong Kong, there isn't so much going on that it can't be covered in the mornings before the show and in the evenings afterwards. When people come to our shows, they come for more than one day. That’s crucial, because the people paying for the shows are the galleries, and they need several chances to see those clients and curators. As a show organizer, you have to focus the art world’s attention on the galleries. So, we prefer to do a show in a place with fewer distractions.

And New York is the place with the most distractions possible, I guess.

Your words, not mine.

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