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

With art auction houses in New York reporting recent sales of contemporary work far exceeding estimated prices, calculating the investment return on art becomes a risky but potentially lucrative endeavor. Lisa Austin, a Miami-based corporate art consultant with clients in Washington and New York, assessed accurately that an expanding collector base over the past twenty years competes aggressively for works by a small pool of fashionable artists, driving up prices.

Should you have a small bundle of disposable income with which to start your own contemporary art collection, and should you lack the expertise of a personal curator or a hired-gun art consultant, here's some unsolicited advice: Look for the visionary, don't be afraid of the unpopular, avoid the formulaic, and buy something you would love to live with. You'll never find a greater selection than right now, right here. -- Michelle Weinberg

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

Basel has been a boost to Miami's thriving art scene, but didn't create it -- that happened all by itself

What some are calling the Miami arts explosion may have begun around 1999, pulled together by the gravitation of events during the mid-Nineties, when several local museums (the Lowe, FIU, MoCA, and MAM) underwent expansions. Added to that was a rising visibility of the formidable Miami-based art collections of Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz, the Rubell family, Martin Margulies, and Norman Braman -- among others.

By 2000 Eugenia Vargas was rocking the town with her home shows. Genaro Ambrosino and Fred Snitzer had already moved their galleries off-Gables, and Brook Dorsch had bought a huge space in Wynwood. These three galleries represented artists from different ages, ethnic backgrounds, and art styles, a true Miami mix. Among them were Florencio Gelabert, William Cordova, Hernan Bas, Naomi Fisher, Bert Rodriguez, Purvis Young, José Bedia, Lynne Golob Gelfman, Jordan Massengale, Kyle Trowbridge, and Kerry Ware.

Locust Projects and Bernice Steinbaum Gallery were only blocks apart, their contrasting programs reflecting a more diverse and complex scene. Steinbaum went for intensity of labor, gender, and social issues with established figures. Locust understood experimental and risky programming that emphasized locals.

Our museums were in tune with the street. Miami Art Museum curators Lori Mertes and Amy Rosenblum picked up on the burgeoning scene and in 1999 began planning the "New Work Miami" series at MAM, which ran in four installments during 2001 and exhibited many of today's stars. Also in 2001 Bonnie Clearwater curated "Making Art in Miami: Travels in Hyperreality," which presented many of these artists together (for the first time) in a museum setting. These had been preceded by "Departing Perspectives," a seminal show curated in 2000 by Fred Snitzer in which 44 local artists created site-specific work in the Espirito Santo Building on Brickell Avenue, shortly before it was demolished. "Departing Perspectives" was a definite turning point.

When the Swiss, known for their business acumen and prudence, decided to bring Art Basel to the Miami area in 2001, they had already observed this activity. Then the terrorist attacks of September 11 caused the fair to be postponed for a year. But "non-Basel" helped galvanize the local arts scene around the stunning group show "globe>miami>island," organized by artist Robert Chambers at the Bass Museum. On the show's opening night in December 2001, it dawned on many of us that Miami had unquestionably changed. Two installments of Art Basel Miami Beach later, Miami is now perceived as one of the most exciting art cities in America.

Art Basel 2002 and 2003 brought together tens of thousands of visitors, thousands of collectors, and hundreds of galleries exhibiting world-class contemporary art inside and outside the Miami Beach Convention Center. "An unprecedented critical mass for the consumption of culture," according to Cathy Leff, director of the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum. But even with the momentum created by Basel, local contemporary art remains a risky and very difficult enterprise. After the fair's high has dissipated, museums and galleries must keep strategizing and programming. Some are more successful than others, and yes, at times nasty politics are involved.

"Call it passion, a calling, or something. The dealer just has to do whatever it takes," says gallerist Leonard Tachmes.

Brook Dorsch agrees: "It's tough, but you have to go on. There's just too much at stake. But our art base has expanded because of the fair. Two years ago we didn't have a Marina Kessler Gallery, Karpio-Facchini Gallery, Ingalls & Associates."

"It's a great four-day test for Miami's arts," says Snitzer, also an art teacher at the New World School of the Arts. He has a point. Exhibiting is what moves the work, develops the style, and initiates the criticism. Then he adds, "Miami has become a fertile ground for artists' shows, and Basel has to do with it."

A review of this past year's thriving art scene helps to put in perspective Basel's "critical mass." At the Dorsch Gallery I recall two great sculpture shows, one by Robin Griffiths (who is featured this month in Art in America) and the other by Ralph Provisero (a superior Miami sculptor).

Rocket Projects put up a flurry of shows featuring Emilio Perez, Odalis Valdivieso, Pepe Mar, Cristina Lei Rodriguez, and Diego Singh, whose works brought glam and a youthful sharpness. Under Nina Arias, the venue injected energy into the art scene.

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