Art Basel Miami Beach is not just an art fair, it is an experience like no other! Basel Miami, as it is better known, has become a phenomena, a celestial body upon which many smaller fairs orbit around. These satellite fairs now number at 20 and are growing in number each year. They feed off the proximity of Basel Miami and location costs are priced accordingly. Hotel prices are also based on this proximity as jet-setters and art-world glitterati from across the globe will pay a premium to be within walking distance to "the sun". Not to be confused with Miami proper, Miami Beach, or to be exact, South Beach, also known coloquially as SoBe, is the place to be in during the first week of December.
The original Art Basel is based at it's namesake, Basel, Switzerland and is held annually each June. As the European art market sought to bridge the gap with the American Market, they established Art Basel in Miami Beach. Reaching further still into the global market, their most recent establishment is Art Basel Hong Kong. What makes this fair different is that it is so much more than just another fair. Every nearby museum director, hotelier, restauranteur, retailer and professional driver prepares and braces themselves for the massive influx of this special breed of tourists that descend upon them at this time each year. If these are your people, this is our heaven.
What could be better for an art lover than leaving your daily routine, whether it be bustling city life, frozen temperatures or both, to arrive at this mecca of contemporary art world insiders. Under the intoxicating sunshine of South Beach, the transformation of the island is evident every where. Installations are strategically placed in nearly every purposed or non-purposed space. While the days are filled with aisle upon aisle of gallery booths, the evenings are a must "see and be seen", with countless VIP previews, parties, happenings, museum openings, and if you're lucky and can squeeze it in, fabulous dinners. Art Basel Miami is a marathon - rest for a moment, and you will surely miss something spectacular.
The main attraction is of course Art Basel Miami Beach - the fair itself for which the entirity of the spectacle is often referred as. The better integrated you are in the industry, the earlier you can get in to experience the fair. The gates are first opened by invitation only on a Wednesday throughout the day to the top collectors - this is the first buying opportunity given only to those who are proven as the most serious blue-chip art collectors. Anyone else is simply in the way, and understandably unwelcome. That same evening, the VIP Preview opens and the second sector is allowed in - press, collectors, consultants, and other VIP guests. In 2011, I was fortunate enough to receive a coveted pair of VIP tickets.
Once inside the hierarchy is evident in another form. Those galleries with the the most powerful names in the art world and the most investment capital will be the first that you encounter - Gagosian Gallery, Marion Goodman, Hauser + Wirth, Lisson Gallery, Emmanuel Perrotin, Thaddeus Ropac, Matthew Marks, Yvon Lambert - they have paid top dollar to get the prime booth locations. Rest assured, each and every gallery there has earned their position. There are a limited number of 247 booths and no matter how much money you are willing to spend, if your gallery has not been approved by their selection committee, no amount of money will get you a booth inside those walls. Fail to live up to the high expectations of the fair one year, and you will not be invited back the next. In essence, we have at our disposal a very carefully curated selection of the world's most influential galleries, representing the world's best artists of the moment, all under one roof. Years of traveling from exhibition to exhibition could not afford you this same opportunity that is carefully designed and presented to you on a golden platter, complete with champagne carts circulating the fair.
At Basel Miami you will find each and every contemporary blue chip artist that you can name. Their works have popped off the pages the top art magazines and museum catalogues and have come out to awe you with their tactile presence. Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin, Marina Abramavich, Cindy Sherman, Ai Wei Wei...they are all here, some of them, even in the flesh. For those who want to delve deeper into the current threads in contemporary art, Art Basel curates a series of panel discussions with leading artists, critics other industry experts.
While there is a sense of comfort with the familiarity of seeing the work of acclaimed artists, the greatest experience, in my opinion, is to discover the work of artists whom I have not yet encountered before. With row upon row of bright colours and iconic, eye-catching styles, if one caves to the temptation, or races through the aisles with the attention span of an ADD kid in a candy shop, you are bound to miss something great. As an artist it is a sad realization to see the majority of works receive little more than 2 seconds to capture each viewers attention before they are on to the next. If you take the time to lend yourself to the work, explore the imagery, read the titles and explore the details, you will often be pleasantly surprised. If you only visit the artists with whose work you are already familiar with, you will learn nothing from the experience. The most enriching experiences will be found where you least expect them.
Admittedly, it is tough spending the day inside a windowless convention centre, no matter how fantastic the art. All sense of time is lost as we wonder why our feet hurt and our stomachs are growling. To hold our attention for as long as possible, creatively designed rest spots and over-priced nourishment are available. Eventually fatigue sets in and even a $20 glass of champagne can no longer hold my attention as we begin to clamor for a breath of outside life.
Rest assured, your appetite for art will not be left unfilled by your desire for fresh air and sunshine. The nearby Bass Museum collaborates with Art Basel to hosts an outdoor sculpture garden. The site specific and public art installations are free for all to enjoy and engage with. Each year a selection of about a dozen artists are curated by Art Basel's "Public" sector. Weary collectors take a break in the cool shade of a palm tree while resting on the furniture of Thomas Houseago's outdoor living room. Children cool off in Jeppe Hein's installation where walls of water playfully appear and disappear, intermittently enclosing and freeing those who enter while Scott Reader's installation ironically calls out the elephant in the metaphorical room. While the work is different each year, Collins Park remains as one of my favourite Basel Miami destinations.
Don't be afraid to get out of the central area of activity. Wandering Westward will take you into the Art Deco district through miles of small boutique Art Deco style hotels, each painted in vibrant candy-coloured hues with vintage automobiles parked outside popular restaurants. Many of the side fairs temporarily take over these hotels, providing more affordable spaces for younger galleries. Beds and other furnishing are removed, walls are painted, and doors are left open as each room is inhabited by a different gallery. Aqua Art Miami has become one of my favourite examples of this fair model. As DJ's play in the open air motel courtyard, cheap drinks flow into plastic cups, and nude performance artists brush past us, we feel like we are in the midst of a Fellini film set. The work is affordable and the artists approachable. While not every space offers something spectacular, there are definitely pleasant surprises of artists who deserve more recognition. I was delighted to encounter once again, the work of Korean pop artist Mari Kim, whose work I had seen in at "Shine Artists: London" that summer. She was there and we were able to meet to discuss her work.
No experience of Basel Miami is complete without mention of the hotels. I'm not just referring to the hotels and motels that become makeshift fair grounds - I'm referring to the Hotels who are a living work of art in themselves. In recent years a new aesthetic has taken over the world of 5-star hotels - fun has become the new chic! International superstar designers like Paris's Phillipe Starck and Amsterdam's Marcel Wanders bring their uniquely playful styles to South Beach. With a sophisticated fusion of international influences, contemporary art and design these hotels are as glamorous as their guests. At the Mondrian, Basel Miami-goers can continue to chill outdoors under the warm night air in Wanders outdoor living room as they watch the sun rise. Shortly after falling asleep late one night, around 3:30 am we were suddenly awoken by the sound of a woman screaming. As the screaming continued as she were being murdered, hotel guests jumped out of of bed and flocked to their balconies. It was only after the rhythmic screams crescendoed after what felt like an eternity, that we were all able to get back to sleep.
In the mornings as the bustle begins again, tables full of gallery staff congregate with intensity as they plan their sales strategies for the day. Familiar faces begin to appear as my first Americano of the day starts to take affect. To the left a certain highly influential NY dealer has brunch with his wife and baby, to the right, a familiar crazy haired artist frantically waves down his server for the bill. As we leave the breakfast dining room of the Fountainbleau one morning, we recognize the familiar face of Tracey Emin, separated from the press by a velvet rope. We are just in time for the official unveiling of her new work, and of course my professional camera is still upstairs in our room; my I-Phone will have to do. Emin was commissioned by the Fountainbleau Hotel to produce a new neon work, specific to Miami. And for those who find her work, shall we say "out of reach", they have collaborated with her to produce a limited edition of flip flops that leave text-based impressions behind in the sand and a special edition beach towel - a steal at only $100 each. Emin has recently bought a place in Miami and they have returned her love by granting her first solo American museum show at the MOCA NOMI (Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami) in conjunction with Basel Miami 2013.
The Fountainbleau, once a location for a James Bond scene, doesn't just cater to the art market, it supports it. The moment we entered I was impressed with the hotel my partner had chosen. With three grandiose Ai Wei Wei chandeliers hanging from the lobby ceiling and six impressive 4 x 7' James Turrell installations behind the reception and concierge desks, I just had to pause for a lavender, lemon gin and tonic to enjoy them. Other notable artists work found in the hotel include Doug Aitken and John Baldessari. Equally stunning hotels that make up my list of favourites include the Delano by the aforementioned French interior designer Phillipe Starck, and his more recent magnum opus, the SLS, both part of an uber chic hotel group named SBE. Even if you are not staying at any of these hotels, make time to check them out. There is generally a vibrant night life at the back of the building, away from the prying eyes of Collins Ave. The best outdoor lounges, with sophisticated cocktails and cozy cabanas can be enjoyed under the starlight. The SLS boasts a fabulous restaurant and lounge scene in their exquisitely designed hotel.
Plan to get an early start each day if you are going to get through all 20 art fairs. (Not a chance in hell!) As the fairs only run for a period of 4 days, chose a couple per day. If you're up early enough, get some time in to chill by the pool. Trust me, with a perverse amount of choice and content, your will reach your art saturation point long before you've digested each booth in any given fair. To mix it up try the Design District on the mainland for a combination of shopping for Koons tableware or a pair of Maison Martin Margiela hightop sneakers between perusing a couple of different nearby fairs. This past year, in 2013 two of the longer standing fairs, Scope and Untitled, took to the sands of South Beach in massive tents. After all, what's the point of being in South Beach if you never experience the beach itself? There is quality work to be found at the side fairs, and less mediated by the slick marketing and presence of the blue-chip galleries. Artists names are sometimes scrawled on the walls instead of carefully typed on adhesive labels, but it doesn't matter, the focus is on the work. And when you tire of exploring the work, they provide outdoor lounges adjacent to the tent, looking out towards the sea, where you can enjoy a mid-day margarita as the sun sets.
When Basel Miami draws to an end and the exodus of art crowds head to the airport to return to their corresponding international places of residence, there is a sadness in the air. By the next day, their is no longer the familiarity of having "my people" around. No longer is anyone speaking French at the table next to me. Business conventions begin filtering in and we are left alone to enjoy the beach before we say goodbye to South Beach. But, we promise to be back!
- Holly Marie Armishaw (November 26, 2014)
Holly Marie Armishaw
Based in Vancouver, Canada, Holly Marie Armishaw is a contemporary artist, art writer, francophile, and world traveler. Through rigorous exploration of inspiration from international sources of art and culture, she infuses her insights with a critical eye as she discusses global trends. Both her art and writing are informed by attending a continuous array of art exhibitions, lectures, fairs and biennales, both at home and abroad.