The War of Art

Competing fairs are locked in a battle for collectors

"There are five different art fairs in South Florida now!" laughed Manhattan gallery owner Claire Oliver as a well-heeled crowd streamed past her exhibition space at last week's Art Miami show. "That's a lot of art for anyone to stay on top of."

Actually there are only three sprawling art fairs in our back yard, but with Art Miami's 120 galleries at the Miami Beach Convention Center and palmbeachcontemporary's 67 galleries at that county's convention center unfolding simultaneously -- and all just a few weeks after the frenzy of Art Basel(195 galleries as well as another 97 setting up shop "unofficially" in nearby buildings) -- Oliver can be forgiven for losing count.

Indeed a community that just a few years ago wondered if it would ever develop a commercial art market now finds itself grappling with the possibility that it may be saddled with too much of a good thing. After all, these waves of art dealers winging into town aren't coming simply to enrich our cultural lives, as welcome as that may be. They're coming to ring up sales. And one has to wonder if there are enough art-hungry customers to go around.

"It's a big competition, yes," agreed palmbeachcontemporary director Lorenzo Rudolf. "Every collector living here or spending the winter here went to Art Basel." Referring to his previous tenure as Basel's director from 1990 to 2000, he added pointedly: "I developed the whole concept; I know whereof I am speaking." The key to survival, Rudolf argued, is carving out a well-defined stylistic niche. He continued bluntly in his charmingly mangled, Swiss-accented English: "If you look at the demographics of South Florida, most classical things live north of Miami.

"Miami has an incredible, interesting collectors' scene," Rudolf said. "But how many collectors of classical modern stuff do you have? There is Norman Braman, perhaps [Debra and Dennis] Scholl, and then it's finished." Palm Beach, he countered, is full of classical-art enthusiasts -- snowbirds from Chicago and New York dying to snag a Kandinsky or a Picasso, few of whom are interested in the kind of after-hours party-hopping that defined much of Basel. "It's a different lifestyle.... So Art Basel will be dominated more and more by younger, cutting-edge artists doing contemporary work, and palmbeachcontemporary will have a focus on classical modern art."

That formulation, however self-serving, would seem to leave Art Miami stuck awkwardly in the middle. Or middlebrow, as evidenced by Kulchur's stroll through its aisles. In that spirit, there were thankfully few of the Emperor's New Clothes moments evinced by so many of Art Basel's galleries: a graffiti-sprayed minifridge masquerading as a "sculpture" with a five-figure price tag, a karaoke bar refitted as an "installation," or Jeff Koons's asinine tribute to Muhammad Ali in the form of an inflatable dolphin poised atop a tire -- the kind of "statements" that leave befuddled parents smacking their hands against their foreheads and muttering, "Forthis we paid $40,000 to send our precious to art school?"

Of course, retreating into aesthetic safety also meant Art Miami had few wow!moments, such as Terry Rodgers's lush paintings of the pretty vacant set decked out in Prada and in various states of dishabille -- the highlight of Basel adjunct Scope Miami (and the best portrayal yet of South Beach on canvas). Or Anthony Goicolea's digitally altered photographs, chock-full of homoerotic prep-school musings given a delicious new twist.

Instead at Art Miami one was confronted with competence, including a half-dozen different Latin knockoffs of Jean-Michel Basquiat. "There's a lot less Eurotrash here," offered Wynwood gallery owner Brook Dorsch, searching for a few supportive words. "It's definitely a stronger fair than last year." Still he remained uninspired on the whole. Pointing to the convention center's sickly colored carpeted floor, he noted: "A lot of the galleries at Basel pulled up these carpets to expose the concrete underneath. It gives it a raw, warehouse feel instead of a mall."

Not that you'd hear any complaints from Claire Oliver. By the end of Art Miami's opening night, her Claire Oliver Fine Art had already sold out the entire twelve-print edition of The King of the Forest, a large photograph of 150 white-clad children posed in the heart of Times Square's neon, and snapped by the Moscow collective AES+F. The shot itself may have been a bit hackneyed (a burst of innocence in a media-debased world!), but at $12,000 each, its sales were proof that Art Basel had yet to suck the market dry.

The total gross for Art Miami hadn't been tallied at press time. And with most gallery owners playing a receipts game of I'll show you mine if you show me yours, it's doubtful any definite figures will emerge soon. Nonetheless it was clear Art Miami director Ilana Vardy had dodged an economic bullet. "It was my challenge in getting exhibitors to sign up," she said, "but it turns out there is enough money to go around."

That may be the understatement of the season. With interest rates remaining rock-bottom low and affluent consumer confidence spiking, money that traditionally flowed into stocks is now pouring into the art world with an intensity not seen since the boom of the Eighties.

"It's like a gun went off in the market," quipped Sotheby's president William Ruprecht to the Wall Street Journal after November's annual art auctions raised $491 million. Accordingly, Miami's Craig Robins now finds his name cited in print as much for his art purchases as for his real estate projects, with trend spotters parsing his new acquisition list the way brokerage firms monitor Warren Buffett's portfolio.

Bubble or not, it's a development both Vardy and Rudolf are quite literally banking on, hoping to feed off Basel's energy and tap into the freshly expanded pool of art buyers. For Vardy's part, she bristled at Rudolf's claim to be the torchbearer for the classics -- "He changed his show's name from Art Palm Beach to palmbeachcontemporary, not palmbeachclassical" -- and she was quick to cite the overlap of a half-dozen or so exhibiting galleries with her competitor. Moreover she suspects Rudolf's insistence on holding his fair the same weekend as hers is a deliberate attempt to siphon away patrons.

But Vardy chose to -- mostly -- hold her tongue, preferring to rely on the sound of pens meeting checkbooks. "Whichever fair's galleries sell the most will determine where this all ends up," she predicted confidently.

So follow the money?

"That's what this is all about -- for everybody."

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