Miami Art Basel +20 Overview Report –Galleries Connecting Us with the World’s Art

Art Basel Opens its 15th Year in Miami

With a muffled construction din in the background from workers revamping the Miami Beach Convention Center, hundreds of journalists and show VIPs—some sitting and some in SRO gaggles—assembled in a conference room to hear the town fathers and notables of Art Basel Miami launch the show.   They had much to say that truly impressed.

Spawning Miami Art Week

Truth to tell, however, anyone arriving in Miami Beach a day or so earlier in search of art and/or art as a window to the zeitgeist of our times, would likely already be in awe. That’s largely because Miami’s Art Basel has spawned 20 or so satellite art fairs during the same week. The exact number is somewhat hard to nail down because you find yourself getting leafleted for new ones not on the reported lists such as Conception Art Fair, the world’s first women owned and produced art fair featuring art by women and other underrepresented minorities. You may also find yourself stumbling into some art expos or fairs in Miami that week that are so petite you realize they have far less than the typical art gallery in a city like ChicagoOn the other hand, some of these satellite shows are quite sizeable in their own right.

Art Basel Miami
Mayor Philip Levine presents the keys to the city to Norman Braman, the man widely credited with being the driving force for Art Basel Miami's creation

It’s the addition of these satellite shows that has transformed Miami Art Basel into a happening that some Europeans we chatted up report now dwarfs its European parent show. This quasi-official satellite show list includes: Aqua Art Miami; Design Miami; Ink Miami Art Fair; NADA Art Fair Miami Beach; Pulse Miami Beach; Scope Miami Beach; Untitled Art Fair; Miami Project; Fridge Art Fair; Satellite; X Contemporary; Art Miami; Art Beat Miami Art Fair; Context; ArtSpot Miami; Spectrum Miami; Red Dot Miami; Conception Art Fair; Superfine Fair - The Fairest Fair; Pinta Miami; Miami River Art Fair; Prizm Art Fair; Art of Black Miami; HIVE Pop-up Art Village & Lounge.

 With little time to do an exhaustive exploration of the satellite shows, we did stumble upon the cut-above feeling of the show called “Untitled”. Make no mistake though, the big show, and the one that the sails of all these other shows need winds from, is Miami Art Basel.

Untitled Art Fair
Untitled Art Fair, in a tent along the beach

Impact of Art Basel on Miami

Norman Braman, a man credited with being the spark and first driving force behind Art Basel Miami’s launch 15 years ago, briefed the crowd of journalists in the pre-opening event with a string of anecdotal facts that spoke to how much Art Basel Miami and Miami Beach have changed since he convinced the town fathers that being a center of global culture was a worthy add-on to being the world’s capital of sun and fun.

Some examples—Today over 1000 members of the press came to cover the show, compared to less than 125 in 2002.   More than 150 museum directors and curators from around the world were attending Art Basel Miami, compared to only 30 in its first year. In 2002 there were 6 art galleries in the city, compared to more than 130 today. New art museums have opened, and existing museums are expanding.   The number of hotels in the city has doubled during this time, and during the show week these hotels report an 80% occupancy compared to the 56% occupancy rate the first year.

Braman, recounting these facts with his enthused but modest manner, seems very likeable.   How nice that Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine then gave him the keys to the city and read the city’s proclamation that it was “Norman Braman Day”.  


Political Themes, As In The Past

This was less than a month after the US election and politics was in the air. It was noted in the opening festivities. It was reported that many artists had scurried to make new works in response to roiling political waters worldwide. This too was the buzz in several quarters after the show. If this was true, it certainly was more subtle than how it is described. Yes, there were exhibits about deforestation, moving portraits of Obama, many a theme on climate change and racism, etc. However, by this reviewer’s lights, political currents in the art were not particularly new or more concentrated than in years’ past.

It’s always been ironic that as you stroll the aisles after taking in such artworks with rebellious political intents, there is a high probability you will be overhearing snippets of conversations that include mentions of stock tips, investment opportunities and similar. The crowd at Art Basel Miami seems to range from those who love art to those who love making money from art, and all the gradients in between.

Art Basel Miami
Karl Haendel's "Unfinished Obama (mirrored), 2016 in Wentrup Gallery Exhibit

A Truly Global Art Fair

By other metrics, the diversity of the crowd at Art Basel Miami is also striking. We met Europeans who are show regulars who have never ventured beyond Miami in their many trips to the States. You hear French, Russian, German, Chinese and other tongues harder to pin down. Dress styles range from glorified beach wear to the latest couture—some garbed with artistic shout-outs ,and others seeming to try to fade conservatively into invisibility.

The galleries are certainly global. The 269 galleries exhibiting at Art Basel Miami come from 29 countries. Many are exhibiting works that are clearly targeting the curators from most of the world’s leading museums who come to the show.

While the 20+ satellite shows might have more of the art fringe goldmine finds that many art collectors travel worldwide to discover, it struck us that this year Art Basel Miami’s offerings ramped up yet another quality peg. True, you will find art here, as in any art expo, that is a big yawn, at best. In prior shows we thought that many pieces on display were more sensational than substantive. Similarly, nudity and erotica for the sake of shocking was in noticeably shorter supply in this year’s Art Basel Miami’s halls, and perhaps more the stuff of some of the satellite shows.


Art Basel Miami
Reporters and VIPs at the opening ceremonies came from all around the world

Museum Quality Art Works

Most of what you see at Art Basel Miami though, feels like it will land in a world-class museum within the hour. For example, as the 77,000 visitors first enter the show they see the Landau Gallery’s collections of Picasso, Dubuffet, Arp, Chagall and similar and might think they had somehow passed the turnstile into the Louvre.

This was especially the feeling in the show sector called “Survey”, in which 14 galleries put a historical or cultural focus on their stand’s exhibit. Other special sectors of the show included Nova (35 galleries showing works from the past three years from a few of their artists), Positions (16 galleries spotlighting a single artist), Edition (11 pubishers of editioned works showcased their collaborations with artists), Kabinett (curated spaces within booths), Film, Magazines, and Public.


Art Basel Miami
As you enter Art Basel Miami, for many years, Louvre worthy works of the Landau Gallery greet you

Public Show

Unfortunately, the Public part of the show, which is Art Basel Miami’s most obvious free gift to the locals, strikes as the least inspiring aspect of the show. Admittedly, this is a prejudice of someone who hails from Chicago where the locals take pubic art so much for granted that a Picasso is nicknamed “the horse”, a Dubuffet is nicknamed by city workers “the tooth decay”, an Anish Kapoor is referenced as “the bean” and where the Magdelena Abakanowicz torso sculptures are more than twice the size and maybe ten times the number than were show in the Public part of Art Basel Miami.

Big Business Happens

The show is dense with conceptual pieces that might be museum-worthy but one can’t picture anyone buying for their home or corporate center. More marketable pieces are perhaps commonly sequestered in back rooms, brought out by gallery owners and staff for serious buyers. It’s reported that fewer attended this year but sales were quite strong nonetheless, especially in the very opening hours when the serious VIP collectors, most scheduled by galleries in advance, rushed in to buy the prime pickings.

Look on these Picture this Post pages in the coming months for recaps of discussions with Art Basel Miami’s gallery owners and managers and find pictures of the art they choose to share with the world—and sell.

Read our first one here---"Sun Xun’s RECONSTRUCTION OF THE UNIVERSE – High Precision Showcase at Art Basel in Miami"


Photos:  Peter Kachergis

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