Art Basel Miami Beach: the « miamification» of Art, written by Aïda Lorrain

Art Basel Miami Beach : la « miamification » de l’art, “Art Basel Miami Beach: the « miamification» of Art”

Written by Aïda Lorrain

Montreal, 12/15/11

A look on Art Basel’s history of existence, along with the consequences related to the decisions that have marked the evolution of its own fate and its impact on contemporary art.

Art Basel is an international contemporary art fair, founded in 1970 by Ernst Beyeler, in Basel, Switzerland. Beyeler, deceased two years ago, was one of the most important art collectors of his time. He created the fair in order to diffuse and sell his personal collection, but with time his enterprise became much more ambitious. In the early 1990’s, and later in 2000, two new directors were appointed as head of the fair, respectively Lorenzo Rudolf and Samuel Keller. These nominations have surprised the contemporary art scene, because Rudolf and Keller’s main preoccupation was clearly – possibly solely – the economic potential of the fair.  These two directors have played a key role in the fair’s international soar: they have created a second art fair in Miami Beach, in order to expand their market. Art Basel is now the most important contemporary art fair in the world, which expects around 100 000 people, of which a large portion is composed of the international elite. Since the creation of Art Basel, the public has evolved. The interests in a visit to the fair and in acquiring pieces no longer rely on the same pretences. Furthermore, the popularity of Art Basel has driven many small galleries and collectors to join in on the fair’s potential, but is it really the best place for them to diffuse emerging artists and their work?

It all started with a man: Ernst Beyeler, born in 1921 in Basel, son of a railroad worker. He studied Economics and Art History at the University of Basel. His first ambition was to travel and work as an economist, but the war stopped his project. Beyeler started working for Oscar Schloss, owner of a rare book, antique and art boutique in Basel. It is then that his interest in art collection arose. Upon Schloss’s death, Beyeler took over the little boutique-gallery and became once and for all an art dealer. He had a knack of detecting rare gems and with time he built a remarkable collection, accumulating paintings by renowned European artists, such as Kandinsky, Picasso, Cézanne and Monet. He greatly contributed to the introduction of American art in Europe, by acquiring works of Rauschenberg for example. He would buy on credit complete and monumental collections, belonging to rich American industrials or old European families. At times Beyeler would also deal directly with the artists themselves. They could give him dozens of paintings at once, occasionally letting him chose the ones he wanted, which proves the trust the artists had in his talent as an art merchant. Beyeler established himself at a time of blooming and glory for the market of modern and post-modern Art, and his fortune grew, slowly. Much respect can be attributed to his career, although some believe the origin of certain pieces he managed were conveniently handed to him after the war. In fact, a particular Kandinsky painting was reclaimed by a German-Jewish family, which he had to make a settlement with, as he claimed his innocence in knowing the connection between the piece and the Nazis. The estimated value of Ernst Beyeler’s collection, toward the end of his life, surpassed 2 billion US dollars.

Beyeler founded the Art Basel fair in 1970, in partnership with a few local gallery owners. At its beginnings, it focused on the diffusion of European art, giving international visibility to the high-level artists it represented. Beyeler did not believe in the traditional exhibition of collections in museums, preferring an unimpeded method of diffusion and trade, where a direct contact can be established between buyers, dealers and artists. Art Basel had immediate success and invited more and more galleries to participate every year, reaching out to foreign and American galleries, and thus attracting a larger and more diverse public. The creation of the fair also contributed to improve Basel’s local economy and to set it definitively as a chic cultural destination for high-end tourism.

In 1991, Lorenzo Rudolf succeeded to Beyeler as director of his growing empire. His mission was to enlarge the fair’s horizons, to take advantage of the American art boom of the 80’s and of the prosperity of American economy. It was time to create an Art Basel related art fair in the US. After social and economical research of American territory, the location for a new fair was set on Miami Beach. The privileged situation of a large portion of its inhabitants, the art-deco neighborhoods, the emerging art scene, the glittering nightlife, the favorable climate and its key neutral geographic location, offering a door to Central and South American collectors, where all factors making Miami Beach the perfect place for a profitable art fair.  Furthermore, Wynwood, a neighbourhood west of South Beach, on the opposite side of Bicasyn Bay, is an industrial area filled with empty ship containers and unoccupied warehouses, offering great possibilities for temporary installations, such as pop-up gallery spaces, boutiques, clubs, restaurants, shows, etc.

The idea was introduced by the CEO of Goldman Properties, Tony Goldman, reputed for revamping completely wrecked neighbourhoods into hot real estate zones, such as Soho in New York City. It goes without questioning that Goldman’s interest in a Miami art fair was substantial, owning himself several tourism-related companies and real estate in South Beach. The fair would give a breath of refinement to a city that had close to nothing to offer besides beach culture, and attract a panoply of hipsters and investors.

Rudolf’s intention was to give Art Basel its full economic potential, which is why he accepted Goldman’s proposition. At first, the Art Basel council was reluctant to enlarge its market abroad, wanting to sustain its cultivated European elite image, but Rudolf, with the support of MHC group (a Swiss company specialized in large scale event production and important shareholder of Art Basel) had the final say: money. This direction, in dissonance with Beyeler’s appearance of integrity, but not without his approval, was decisive for Art Basel, and engendered big consequences for the art world in general.

So was born, in 2000, the monster of all fairs, Art Basel Miami Beach. A rogue phenomenon arose in the contemporary art scene – what is called the «miamification» of art – which possibly inspired people like Nicholas Bourriaud, and his relational aesthetics theories. In effect, the Miami Beach fair started attracting celebrities and nouveaux-riches of all sorts and backgrounds. This new crowd of people imitates European bourgeoisie and the remnants of old European aristocracy in its spending habits. However, there is no history of tradition for art collecting in this novel form of public, and many ancient rules of savoir-vivre, such as discreteness, have disappeared. High erudition and art knowledge are no longer necessarily associated with large fortunes. Buying art confers a prestigious, altruistic, cultivated image, and for those who can afford it, it is an interesting investment. Yet, without the proper education on the part of the buyer, a painting becomes a mere piece of furniture and artist names nothing more than brands, trademarks, stocks, that gain or lose every change of season. According to Rudolf: «To buy contemporary art is the summum, “summit,” of lifestyle. (…)  At the present time, the worldwide elite is not constituted of people ken of knowledge, but of the wealthy. Their money is associated to a certain taste that is expressed by art.»[1]

The new scene related to the acquiring and selling of art attracts everything else it needs for complete, successful and aesthetic living: designer furniture, fashion, luxury items, fine dining, glamorous parties can all be found around Art Basel Miami Beach. If one is lucky, one can be photographed with P. Diddy, Damian Hurst, or perhaps Larry Gagosian in an overcrowded pop-up club. Everyone is there, and nobody wants to miss on this occasion. The conductor of this social phenomenon is Samuel Keller, director of Art Basel Miami Beach. Keller behaves as an irreproachable socialite during the numerous and overcrowded soirées organized around the fair. He admirably weaves the threads of its social tissue and keeps tactful relationships with key individuals. According to him, the difference between the Basel fair and the Miami fair is that the last is more ‘contemporary’. A Miami influence is definitely rubbing off to the Basel fair, conducted every June. As London Sprüth Magers gallery director Andreas Gegner, an exhibitor at the Art Basel 42 show in 2011, says: «We had some significant collectors who had to wait 45 minutes while we were talking to other people. The quantity of people doesn’t matter, you need the right people to be here. […] It’s a continuation of [the] Venice [biennale] in that the art has been hijacked by celebrity culture. It’s too crowded and parties are prevailing. There’s been a Miami-fication of the art business.»[2]. Many critiques say that Art Basel’s popularity has made it the ‘supermarket’ of Art. About 100 000 visitors are expected to attend each fair. Some believe these shows allow art to be more accessible to the grand public, but skyrocketing prices of art pieces make this statement debatable. What is certain is that there is a phenomenon of devaluation of art; it is more and more objectified and loses its importance versus the power of the people that consume it.

Art Basel has reached the goals its inceptors were aiming for. It is now the most successful art fair in the world, and attracts over 300 galleries representing about 2500 artists at every fair, and this excludes the number of exhibitors at the simultaneous connected fairs, that are twice as many. In effect, the buzz around it attracts many small galleries, collectives and artist themselves to rent spaces, to get a shot at the game too. A space at the main fair can reach 100 000$, a space at the surrounding Pulse, Scope, NADA, RED – which are medium level fairs – ranges between 10,000$ and 45,000$, and a space at lower level fairs like Fountain costs around 3000 $. Acqua, which should be situated between medium and low level, was creative with its allowance in 2011: the show was set in a motel and each of its rooms was used by a different gallery, giving them distinct personalities because every room felt like a different universe. The installations and resources offered at the lower range fairs can be very limited, the wall spaces are often scarce, and the sales relatively low. Small collectors can be found there looking for more affordable pieces, as well as a few heavyweights in search of the next big thing, or younger fresher work. Alternative ways of showing art at Miami Basel have been to take over walls with graffiti or to organize an underground exhibits in abandoned warehouses. The quality versus expense value makes the choice of going to Art Basel remain questionable for people with limited material means, and it implies that mainly established galleries and artists show at the fair, that diversity is limited. Lately it has been remarked that participant galleries opt for safe values, artists they know they can sell, rather than innovative, original choices.

The Miami Beach fair takes place during the formerly low period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The local economy is booming at the start of December, and it betters year after year. What most people don’t notice when they are there, is that the rest of the time, the spaces used by the fairs are deserted. Apart from homeless people or junkies in need of shelter, you won’t find much roaming around Wynwood. Once the crowd of people, the scooters, the limos and trucks of art pieces have left, Miami goes back to normal: a city almost devoid of art culture, taste and intellectualism.

A new director, Pierre Huber, is now attacking the Asian market, with Art Basel Shanghai. Rudolf has seemingly prepared the terrain in the last few years by helping develop the Far East contemporary art scene. The Art Basel board manifested a few hesitations about creating this third event, but the fair’s commercial interest quickly dismissed any doubt, as someone else would have taken advantage of Asia’s flourishing economic and artistic climate sooner or later. Despite an emphasis on Asian art, Art Basel Shanghai promises roughly the same content as its sister fairs. Shanghai is very influenced by American culture and the venue of the fair will contribute in the westernization of the city. Nonetheless, it will profit to China and the Tigre countries, because their industries need the rich around the world to consume more, in order to sustain their development and production.

Where is this globalization of Art leading? How will it affect artists in the upcoming years? A worldwide paradigm is being created, which can be interesting because the individual becomes universal, and a larger audience can be reached by a single piece, but it may have an effect of homogenization of creation, which is not desirable.

Is the monetary value of art taking over its intrinsic worth? Art Basel is definitely going in that direction; it is up to artists to avoid – or not – this catastrophe.


Translated from French by Aïda Lorrain 04/17/12

Aïda Lorrain

[1] Cited in Catherine Cochard’s article Art Basel, hypermarché de l’art et ses mondanités, published in Le Temps, december 2011 issue.

[2] Cited in Georgina Adam, Melanie Gerlis and Toby Skeggs’ article Sales Forecast : fair, published in The Art Newspaper, 17 June 2011

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About Megan M. Garwood

Megan M. Garwood is a New York City-based editor, art critic, commentator and aesthetician, as well as the Associate Director at Leslie Feely Gallery on 68th and Madison. Her guilty pleasures include metaethics, morality, conceptual art, and Coney Island side shows. Feel free to contact her via email at
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2 Responses to Art Basel Miami Beach: the « miamification» of Art, written by Aïda Lorrain

  1. Mandana Salehi says:

    A very informative article. It gives a clear picture of the purpose of these fairs. I like the author’s style of writing which is direct and very pleasant to read. MS.

  2. Pingback: Art Basel 2015

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