Art Basel Miami Beach Sales Threatened by Zika, Construction, and an Art Market Crash

A wave of issues could flatten Basel.
A wave of issues could flatten Basel.
Courtesy of Art Basel

America's greatest art fair is entering its 15th year with a host of challenges.

The Miami Beach Convention Center is still undergoing renovations. The CDC labeled Miami Beach a Zika hot spot. And perhaps most devastating, prices in the art market plummeted this summer, leaving many analysts to question the health of the industry. It's a perfect storm of poor luck — one that could make persuading art buyers to attend and spend at Art Basel Miami Beach a difficult task.

"We're contending with all these external elements," Miami-based gallerist and Miami Art Dealers Association member Mindy Solomon tells New Times.

The art market started sobering up well before this year's Basel preparations began. For the past few years, collectors have been betting big on young contemporary artists, hoping to flip big investments into even greater gains. But in May, auction houses saw staggering drops in sales as investments slowed and speculators scrambled to minimize their losses. Stratospheric sales for emerging artists met sudden and sheer descents — with some prices down 90 percent from their peak in 2014, according to a Bloomberg report.

Optimists are calling the market drop a correction. More dire rhetoric paints it as a crash.

But a downtick in auction sales could mean an uptick elsewhere. While the auction market sobers up and speculators retreat, the market for genuine collectors and dealers might get that much more agreeable.

"I'm not playing in the investment realm," Solomon says. "Of course, helping someone understand process and narrative context within a work is my duty as a representative of the artist, but trying to substantiate an investment in terms of what it could generate in the future? Well, that's not my role, and I won't do that."

That sentiment was shared by Basel exhibitors, who say their clients purchase pieces for the beauty to behold, not the money to be made. Basel buyers are careful, intuitive, and appreciative of art as art, they say. Where auction houses lose, gallerists may gain.

"I personally only have clients who are cautious buyers," David Castillo, one of Basel's two Miami-based exhibitors, says. "My audience is serious collectors — those people will always buy, but buy carefully."

The most recent crash isn't the first economic obstacle Basel has faced since its Miami edition launched in 2002. It might not even be the worst. It took years for the art market to recover from the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession, yet Basel endured.

"The fair has survived very difficult economic times and even did well in the past," says Fred Snitzer, a longtime Basel exhibitor and selection committee member who will show in the competitive Gallery section this year. "Regardless of whether people buy for investment or not, there are collectors with money who believe in collecting art, not necessarily to flip and make money with it, but they appreciate the cultural influence on their lives. I think people will collect and continue to collect. And, as far as I'm concerned, speculators out of the market is a good thing."

Art Basel Miami Beach Sales Threatened by Zika, Construction, and an Art Market Crash
Courtesy of Art Basel

This seems to be the consensus: Collectors will still shop and still buy but might be more selective. Exhibitors, meanwhile, will try to spy shoppers with genuine interest in the art over investment.

"On some level, the drop in attendance could be a benefit because these people would be more focused on the art and not necessarily on the party aspect," Solomon says. "And my feeling is the attendance is going to be potentially less because some people are concerned about Zika."

Next to the crash, Zika is Art Basel's biggest obstacle this year. South Florida is a throughway for disease to enter and leave the States, so it was hardly a surprise when the CDC labeled Miami a Zika zone, first in Wynwood and later in Art Basel's home of Miami Beach. Castillo, whose gallery is located in South Beach, brushes off concerns about the virus' effects on travel. "I grew up here," Castillo says. "I'm familiar with people all around Miami and haven't had one person mention Zika. It doesn't seem to be something on people's minds. At Expo [a recent art fair] in Chicago, maybe a couple people asked about it, but just in passing."

That perspective doesn't necessarily echo what's being said by would-be travelers, though. One of Solomon's artists who's pregnant decided not to visit Miami for her opening at the gallery last month. Businesses in the usually lively Wynwood reported a drop in business during the neighborhood's Zika scare, and Miami Beach hotels — the most convenient places for Basel tourists to stay — began reporting cancellations. The biggest question at Art Basel this year might not be how much buyers spend, but how many of them will show up.

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"I will tell you, I was a bit nervous," admits Anne Posschelle, director of sales at the Freehand Miami. "Usually at this time of year, I'm already in Basel craziness, and I'm not there just yet."

Freehand felt the effects of Zika this summer. The hotel had at least a few booking and catering event cancellations that Posschelle thinks were due to the announcement.

"We were definitely not picking up the same number of reservations that we would normally have," she says. "I think people were just opting for other destinations."

Data from Harrell Associates shows as much. In July, leisure fare to Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports dropped by 9 and 14 percent, respectively, compared to last year. By August, fares were down by 16 and 18 percent. During this same time, fares on other top routes across the nation rose by 4 percent.

For Basel's part, a fair spokesperson tells New Times: "We remain confident that the city is taking precautionary steps to confront the virus and ensure Miami is a safe environment for visitors to the show in December and for its residents year-round."

Another looming challenge might emerge from the ongoing renovations at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

"Maybe the convention center construction has spooked people into thinking it's a total mess," Posschelle suggests. "I don't think people are properly versed that it's business as usual, just with a different setup."

That different setup has already driven away one major annual event this year: Florida Supercon moved to Fort Lauderdale because of lost space, blocked exits, and decreased capacity.

An Art Basel Miami Beach spokesperson rejected the notion of construction-related disruption to this year's events, saying in an email, "Art Basel is working closely with the MBCC and City [of Miami Beach] to ensure that the show will proceed as usual this year and next." Next year's convention will take place within a new floor plan, Basel says, and construction is due to be finished by the 2018 event.

In a statement, City of Miami Beach public relations manager Melissa Berthier said, "The city's construction team has been working closely with Art Basel staff in preparation for the building turnover on November 17, which has been the same as past years. All four convention center halls will be available for the show, and patrons will be able to enter from the east and west sides of the building as in previous years."

One thing is sure, though: Those involved in Basel are unabashedly enthusiastic. The fair boasts a 98 percent reapplication rate for exhibitors this year. At a recent fair in Houston, Solomon heard only positive words. Castillo recalls people in Chicago buzzing about Basel.

"Art Basel always has a great turnout no matter what," Castillo says. "No matter the weather or the mosquitoes, people come."

Art Basel Miami Beach
Thursday, December 1, through Sunday, December 4, at the Miami Beach Convention Center, 1901 Convention Center Dr., Miami Beach. Admission costs $50 to $115. Call 786-276-2611 or visit artbasel.com/miami-beach.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Art Basel Miami Beach declined to comment for this story.

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