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As Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB), considered by many the monster truck of contemporary art fairs, rounds the bend on its varsity season, South Florida finds itself frozen in the international art community's headlights and quivering over the dynamic transformation the event has effected on the local scene since blazing into town in 2002.
"If you think of the fair in terms of the car show here recently, the public appeal is a chance to look at the Bentleys, Porsches, and Ferraris you don't come across everywhere," explains Kevin Bruk, whose eponymous Wynwood gallery makes its Basel debut at the Art Nova section of the fair inside the Miami Beach Convention Center.
"For a young gallery, exposure at Art Basel is amazing," Bruk says. "Our artists will be seen by superstar collectors and major museum people from all over the world. What we need to remember is that when the cultural elite and the biggest philanthropists from all the world's major cities attend, many end up investing around town, and that's what's most important."
Lining up 195 of the world's top-ranked galleries at the convention center and an additional 20 up-and-coming talents for the nearby Art Positions container show at Collins Park, ABMB also ignites a barrage of megawattage events during the week's festivities that turn our landscape into a virtual art Mardi Gras.
Since its premiere, ABMB has drawn thousands of art dealers, architects, museum directors, collectors, curators, artists, and locals eager to engage the spellbinding assembly of contemporary art and the opportunity to party around the clock in an environment where the complimentary cocktail is the medium of choice.
"People come here to enjoy the world's finest art and the great parties and end up falling in love with and investing in the area," says the fair's local spokesman, Bob Goodman. "Without a doubt, Art Basel has been a spark that has led to a forest fire of interest in art here and positively impacted our economy."
More than 700 media credentials were doled out at ABMB's press office last year, making it one of the most profiled events of the international art season. "We even had National Public Radio, mainstream glossies like W magazine, and television stations from Germany and the Far East," Goodman says. "The press has really fueled a wildfire of interest in art and culture in the general public."
Although ABMB may boast herding the most prestigious galleries on the planet under its roof, one can likely encounter those who didn't make the grade at the handful of satellite fairs simmering in its wake.
"Art Basel's Swiss organizers are of the mind that the more the merrier," Goodman adds. "All of these events contribute toward elevating the sense of excitement."
If ABMB is compared to a tiger shark, the NADA, scopeMiami, and new-to-the-block Pulse, Aqua, and design.05 fairs might be described as hungry remoras comfortably feeding on the convention center's bloated belly. Miami dealers claim that these fairs, cumulatively featuring hundreds of local and visiting art dealers poised to profit during what participants hope becomes a frenetic sales marathon, can be hit or miss. However, the NADA fair, a favorite with collectors and participant local galleries, was wildly successful in 2004.
Aware of the frantic competition, local galleries have trotted out their stables' show ponies, jockeying to attract visiting VIPs and deep-pocketed collectors or hoping museum curators discover the homegrown talent at their spaces.
With the major auction houses and European art fairs posting record sales in recent months, and the contemporary art industry topping $30 billion in revenue last year, the stakes are huge, drawing unprecedented legions of art dealers here for the buyer bonanza.
Undisputedly the biggest boon for locals is a remarkable opportunity to experience some of the most extraordinary modern and contemporary work representing every aspect of the art market, from Modernist masterpieces to quirky, cutting-edge installations.
The sensory-jarring excess bubbling around ABMB and ancillary events can seem a daunting challenge for the public to navigate. The best bet is to schedule a full day's trip to the convention center to absorb works one would otherwise spend a fortune traveling to encounter, before being whisked off by the whirlwind.
Many Miami artists, gallerists, and curators share the consensus that this year's sweep of activities promises to be the most far-flung yet, attracting hordes of industry types and revelers whose appetites might surpass those of locusts.
"I've gotten calls from curators and galleries in New York and Europe asking if I knew of spaces that might be available during the fair," local independent curator Nina Arias says. "Everyone in the art world is trying to make it here for Basel."
An eruption of new gallery spaces has boiled up as a direct result of ABMB's presence here, credit locals, reflecting what they say is the fair's role in South Florida's burgeoning art scene.
"You can attribute that directly to Art Basel," affirms David Castillo, who inaugurated his gallery in Wynwood last month. "Major galleries from Paris, Madrid, and Mexico City have also recently opened spaces in Wynwood, and I can assure you that the fair was a factor in them entering the market here."