By Michael E. Miller
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As the art industrial complex storms the Magic City full force for the onslaught of Art Basel this week, some local dealers sound like characters in Francis Ford Coppola's classic Vietnam War epic while strategizing their defense against an economy gone rogue.
Basel propagandists have touted the tent-pole extravaganza as the Super Bowl and the Olympics of the art world wrapped into a single handy package, and that's not accounting for the piggyback fairs, private gallery openings, all-night cocktail soirees, and guerrilla carpet bombings across town. For the next five days, there's art everywhere — from the sweltering climes of the beach to the sprawling mainland bush.
You can find every conceivable genre of visual expression on display from inside the cavernous Miami Beach Convention Center to the 100,000-square-foot tent pavilions housing the smaller fairs in midtown. Wynwood's warehouses and every hole-in-the-wall in town, it seems, have hung exhibits or will host all-night cocktail parties, art breakfasts, or live performances.
You might encounter zombies crawling out of graffiti murals, palm tree huts bobbing in the ocean, art emblazoned on parasails, and artistic fireworks bursting in the skies as Miami is transformed into one sprawling art installation, at times resembling some hyped-up vision of the end of times.
But for some grunts new to the killing fields and on a budget, it seems more like Saigon or a no-limits debauch. In Wynwood, rickshaw drivers will rest beneath neon-lit billboards. Streets will swarm with life as art lovers buy and sell wares, while in an alley nearby, the daily denizens will sleep off a binge as the wealthy speed by in their Basel-sponsored limos, living a life of indulgence and pampering.
Carpetbagger galleries have shot up and then will disappear after the fair; extra rooms in modest homes have been leased out weekly for the price of a month's rent; and on the Beach, visiting businessmen will jam the strip joints or troll the convention center for glamorous girls in gaudy evening gowns.
It's a binge of titanic dimensions, where you can stroll down a sidewalk and find yourself entangled in a ball of yarn-turned-art, watch a drunken collector fall face-first into a $15,000 sculpture at a gallery, or stumble across a performance artist fingering porn star Bridgette the Midget inside a bar while a crowd cheers them on. In other words, everything goes in the Felliniesque bacchanal, and the whole shebang will be lubricated sunrise to sunset with plenty of complimentary booze to keep people spending and the cops busy at DUI checkpoints.
"In these times of cutbacks, resignations, gallery closings, and reduced programming by arts organizations, everyone is retrenching," says Barry Fellman, director of Wynwood's Center for Visual Communication. "We need to step up, make a statement, and buck the trends."
Fellman is one of hundreds of local and visiting gallerists who have marshaled forces to draw the attention of the art world brass in town for what has become the biggest arts confab in the hemisphere.
Local dealer Gary Nader agrees that everyone must step up their game. "I expect business during Basel to be better than last year, but it's crazy to think we can sustain 50 fairs during a collapsed economy anymore," says Nader, who in past years has couched his comments about Basel in martial terms. "People go to war for oil and they go to war for art," he once said.
Nick Korniloff, director and co-owner of Art Miami, calls this a "wildcard year" for local galleries and visiting dealers. "We have achieved a critical mass this week, and I can't think of another metropolitan gathering worldwide where art lovers can access such high-quality works in such a broad array of genres and styles," he says. "Also, the market has been rectifying itself, and serious collectors are back to invest."
At a time when national and international museum honchos, curators, critics, and collectors are setting up base camp in Miami to review the greatest arsenal of talent arrayed in a single theater of operations, the stakes are high indeed. The rules of engagement are clear. Many who are in town will skirmish for a slice of the half-billion dollars in projected sales.
Not unlike Coppola's Apocalypse Now, though, some dealers might find themselves on a metaphorical PT boat navigating up a winding river and confronting perils at every bend. They are hoping collectors will open their wallets during a recession as menacing as the malevolent Colonel Kurtz.
Sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids.
Now in its eighth edition, Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) has become the Western Hemisphere's greatest art-world clambake and, at heart, a superinflated commercial venture. The high-wattage expo fuels the art world's enthusiasms, passion, and angst like no other affair. Admission is pricey — $35 for a one-day pass or $75 for a permanent pass. You can also purchase an evening pass for $20 beginning at 4 p.m., chug an energy drink, strap on some skates, and zip through the labyrinthine spectacle.