Art Basel Miami: Day Four
After a trip to the fresh-out-the-plastic Peres Art Museum, I did a final lap at Basel late this afternoon. Those two hours ended up raising a fundamental question: What good is a major contemporary art fair? Who does it really benefit? Who extracts the most value from it?
The obvious part of the answer is that it enriches the gallerists above all. Let’s look beyond that. What other types of people should really be encouraged to attend?
The first is tourists, plain and simple. For all its overvaluations and illusions, a major fair like Art Basel Miami packs an overwhelming amount of worthwhile art into a concentrated space. Not everything there is blue chip quality, of course, but on a per square foot basis you’re generally only going to see that much work at that high a level in a large-scale museum. If pure visual appeal entices you on its own merits, by all means dive in.
The second class of art world denizens I’d advise to buy a fair ticket would be those people looking to start collecting seriously. Not only will you see an array of stylistic and financial options, but you can learn a tremendous amount about your taste. And counterintuitive as it may sound, you can learn it precisely because the fair is so overpowering and demanding of your mental energy.
While still sprawling from an objective standpoint, to me, today was the first day that the booths felt like they had an actual layout, as opposed to being little more than individual droplets in a raging typhoon of visual stimuli. I signed onto my friends’ game plan, which every nascent collector and her advisors should have compiled by now: hit a targeted list of specific booths and, within most of them, focus on specific artists while there. Siphon the work into a digestible “final review.” And absolutely leave your wallet at home.
What we found was that even 12-15 stops exhausted us. I’m convinced that the human brain can only process so much visual artwork on a weekly basis, and four days of near total immersion (and reflection) will spike the scales.
However, we were hardly special in this regard. The same fatigue was visible on the faces of every assistant and gallerist throughout the convention center. It made sense. Saturday is far and away the most tourist-heavy to date on the fair’s annual calendar. This also means that very little actual business gets done. By this point, the important collectors have all either left the city, acquired or refused every piece in which they took a serious interest, or both. The same is true of the gallerists themselves and their most high-ranking employees. By Saturday, the fair is simply no longer worth their time.
The result is an almost “last schoolday before summer vacation” atmosphere among the remaining gallery staff. Primarily, everyone is just spending the day tightly smiling and hoping that a dazed visitor doesn’t swipe her elbow into an exposed artwork still on exhibition - especially not one that’s already been sold.
However, there’s value in the exhaustion. Skimming your own targeted list can mean that you only have time to make an emotional, snap judgment on what you see. But provided that you aren’t actually buying any work, you’ll also have the benefit of hindsight in the coming week. It’s amazing to find what works circle back to you, stay with you, pull you away at unexpected times. Those, to me, are the ones on which an emerging collector should focus her attention - and on which she should actually consider spending. (Assuming, of course, that she’s looking to buy and hold rather than buying strictly to flip, since aesthetics in the latter case would be irrelevant.)
This may seem slightly sentimental coming from me. But the reality is that art is a rare type of investment - one which provides value to its owner on an intangible level. Even if you’re buying solely as a long term investment, you might as well like what you’re looking at for the next 20-50 years. A fair is still a great place to find that out. Just don’t fall into the trap of trying to buy there.