ArtBasel: Where Did It Come From? What Does It Want?

In only its third year, Art Basel is rapidly becoming the art festival of America. With events spoking out from its official hub at the Miami Beach Convention Center across Miami-Dade County and going on from noon to dawn for nearly a week, it is also one of most daunting to experience as a visitor or even as a full-time Magic City resident. The exhibits on hand are stunning, challenging, and important, and they span such a range of mediums, meanings, and backgrounds that several passes are required even to begin to appreciate them.

Staged in the city that has become the coolness catch-all for Latin America (and much of the rest of the world), Art Basel offers high art (in every sense of the word: some works will fetch upward of a million dollars), but also cocktail parties on the beach, soundscapes in historic hotels, excursions to Little Haiti and Coral Gables, interactive audio-visual theater, and more.

Design District gallery owner Kevin Bruk: "When our major collectors fight over who has the best cookies, how can we take the next step?"
Design District gallery owner Kevin Bruk: "When our major collectors fight over who has the best cookies, how can we take the next step?"
Wynwood gallery owner Fred Snitzer: He made the Art Basel cut, he's on the selection committee, and he's become a magnet for criticism
Wynwood gallery owner Fred Snitzer: He made the Art Basel cut, he's on the selection committee, and he's become a magnet for criticism

What Is Art Basel? Art Basel Miami Beach is a sibling of the enormous and prestigious festival that takes place each June in Basel, Switzerland. Like the European original, the festival attracts exclusive art galleries whose owners rent space at the MBCC and parts surrounding, subsequently attracting wealthy art collectors, museum curators, and about 25,000 other lovers of modern art who also like to party. So, Art Basel is really an art sale, not just an exhibit, and its product is work of the 20th and 21st centuries.

But, like meteors passing through the tail of a comet, newer, local galleries and emerging international artists also get a chance to blaze bright during Art Basel. Some extra-avant work is shown in cargo containers lined up on the beach, while Miami's stalwarts use the high-voltage event to call attention to their presence in the Design District, North Miami, and Wynwood neighborhoods. Some galleries are in Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, and there are even a sprinkling of activities in Homestead and in Broward County.

Who and What is Here? the exhibits offer established artists and artworks as well as pinpointing trends in new media. Art stars such as conceptualist Jenny Holzer and painter Kenny Scharf both have works showing, but local notables including Pepe Mar and Jiae Hwang are also represented. Further, two significant Miami collections, owned respectively by the Rubell and Margulies families, will open their private museum warehouses to the public.

Getting a Handle Apart from the sheer magnitude of Art Basel, one of its challenges is finding your way around from beach to warehouse to wine tasting and knowing what's happening when. We hope our listing of shows and events and collection of maps simplifies the effort.

Basel may not benefit every gallery in town, but it has put Miami on the map and the parties are excellent

Anyone who doesn't know about Art Basel Miami Beach must have been in a coma the past two years. Samuel Keller, director of the celebrated trade fair, has given more interviews than Bush and Kerry on election day, part of a public-relations juggernaut that has pushed Miami into the spotlight of the international art community.

Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB), now in its third year, brings nearly 175 of the world's leading galleries to town this week and unleashes a storm of parties and ancillary events that will churn Miami's art scene into a froth.

From its debut, the fair has attracted throngs of art dealers, collectors, curators, museum directors, artists, designers, architects, and academics -- some famous, some not -- and tens of thousands of locals, all eager to enjoy what has quickly become the most extraordinary exhibition of contemporary art in the Western Hemisphere.

ABMB has achieved this stature in large part by applying the rigorous jurying process long used by its venerable Swiss progenitor, Art Basel. More than 500 galleries from all around the globe competed for the privilege of paying up to $50,000 for a booth at the Miami Beach Convention Center where they can shop their wares for a few days. It's a high-stakes game for those who play in the billion-dollar art market, and dealers who didn't get invited to the prom have resorted to what Gean Moreno, of Miami's Locust Projects, terms "Kafkaesque machinations" to catch the eyes of the deep-pocketed cognoscenti gathered in town this week.

Gary Nader, of Gary Nader Fine Arts in Coral Gables, boasts of owning "the largest gallery south of New York, an inventory of 1000 blue chip works of contemporary Latin masters and $27 million in sales last year." He applied for a booth at ABMB this year and got a rejection letter.With 25 years experience in a business he calls "cutthroat," Nader sees art-dealing in martial terms. "People go to war for oil," he intones, "and they go to war for art."

Nader may be one of the few gallery owners in town who could actually afford a booth at ABMB, where $30,000 will buy you about 540 square feet of space, as expensive as Tokyo real estate. "Art Basel is great for the city," he says. "It promotes cultural tourism, fills hotel rooms and restaurants, and generates enthusiasm. My problem is that when no one from the fair has been in my gallery, how can they decide what's good or bad? The selection committee is playing judge and hangman. The whole process is arrogant and unfair. They can't just come to our city and insult us like the Mafia." Nader's response? He's rented a large space in the Design District to showcase the work of Nicolas Leiva, is sinking a small fortune into promotions, and waits for that elusive sit-down with Samuel Keller.

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