Putting Art Basel on South Florida’s map

06/04/2013 7:00 PM

06/04/2013 7:01 PM

For the art cognizetti, Switzerland’s Art Basel fair has long been the world’s most prestigious marketplace for modern and contemporary art. But a dozen years ago, relatively few South Floridians had heard of the fair or its namesake city; those who had still debated whether to pronounce it like the herb or the British actor.

To get a sense of the fair and its planned Miami Beach expansion, in 2001 then-Herald art critic Elisa Turner and I traveled to the cozy medieval city on the Rhine. If the high-profile collectors — leveraged-buyout meister Henry Kravis, megabroker Charles Schwab, pardoned financier Marc Rich, Prince Andrew of England — weren’t enough to explain Art Basel’s importance, the museum-quality artworks by Stella, Chagall, Kandinsky, Matisse — and all for sale! — helped us convey to Miami Herald readers that this new fair had the potential to truly transform Miami’s burgeoning cultural scene.

The unthinkable events of 9/11 led Art Basel organizers to delay the original launch date of December 2001. When Art Basel Miami Beach debuted the following year, the Miami Herald deployed a squad of reporters and photographers who splashed the latest fair details across the front page, day after day. Galleries, artists and museum groups from Latin America, Europe and the U.S. filled the halls of Miami Beach Convention Center. Local collectors opened their homes to the visitors. The Miami Art Museum announced a capital campaign to build a new bayfront facility.

Fair organizers predicted 10,000 to 15,000 attendees that first year; the number actually hit 30,000.

The following years have brought as many as two dozen “satellite’’ fairs during the December days now called Art Week Miami. Once called a “cultural wasteland,’’ Miami has become a magnet for an uncountable number of blue-chip collectors throughout the year. Many purchase works by local artists, patronize the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, contribute local institutions and deposit their cash in Miami real estate.

The Miami Herald continues to chronicle it all.

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