First came Zika. Then Donald Trump.
It’s been an exhausting run-up to Art Basel in Miami Beach, one of the world’s premier contemporary art fairs, which starts Dec. 1. Between the vexing mosquito-borne virus and the upset victory of a brash new president, a more subdued mood is expected at this year’s Miami art week.
Art lovers might find themselves pondering Cabinet picks over performance pieces and Picassos. Party people will be reaching for the bug spray before the bubbly.
Michael Miraflor, who works in marketing in New York City, says power players in his industry circle Art Basel on their calendars every year. He’s attended the last four iterations. But he’s passing on 2016.
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“Usually, it’s not difficult to get a crew of friends and colleagues to go down there with me,” Miraflor said. “Everyone wants to get away from the cold in New York City. But this year it’s been different, because of several factors, one of them being Zika, another being the election. It distracted everyone from making plans.”
Miraflor has a serious girlfriend, and she wasn’t crazy about him being exposed to a virus that potentially causes birth and other defects in children, although this week a Zika warning was lifted for much of the Beach.
For South Florida tourism — already stung by a strong dollar — Basel offers a crucial experiment during its winter high season: How bruised will the industry emerge from its first major bout with Zika?
It’s a question with big implications for the local economy, which Basel boosts every December. An art week slump could mean Zika will take a bite out of tourism until a vaccine is developed. Concerted scientific efforts could produce an effective vaccine in as little as two years, a process that often takes 10.
While Noah Horowitz, Art Basel’s Americas director, declined an interview regarding Zika, a spokeswoman for the fair released a statement saying organizers had been in regular contact with city of Miami Beach officials.
“We are confident that we will be able to deliver a world-class edition of the fair,” the statement read. “None of our galleries or partners have pulled out as a result of this issue, and our VIP pre-registration numbers are in line with previous years. While some guests may inevitably choose not to attend because of their personal situation, we remain confident that significant numbers of international collectors, museum groups and art professionals will be in attendance come December.”
And Basel boosters say a potential one-year blip won’t change the big picture: The art fair, now in its 15th year, has brought a wave of high-quality visual art to Miami that didn’t exist two decades ago, allowing locals to immerse themselves year-round. School children are granted free admission to many fairs. Out-of-town visitors fill up restaurants, hotels, shops and nightclubs, creating jobs. Some buy luxury condos, a major economic driver for the region.
For hotels, art week is one of the busiest times of the year along with the winter holidays, Miami International Boat Show and Ultra Music Festival.
“Art Basel truly is the Super Bowl of art. and it happens every year in Miami Beach,” Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine said. “The art world has tentacles above and beyond art into all kinds of industries and creative endeavors, whether it’s finance, luxury products or architecture. It’s a creative magnet attracting folks from all over the world to Miami Beach.”
Levine said residents can thank Basel for sparking improvements such as the ongoing renovation of the Miami Beach Convention Center, the decision by Argentine developer and collector Alan Faena to rejuvenate a quiet strip of Middle Beach with condos, cultural offerings and a hotel, and the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s version of the Nobel, choosing to host its 2015 award ceremony at the New World Center, the first time the event was held in Florida.
And while Levine, a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton, is no Trump fan, he acknowledges the businessman’s election has boosted investor confidence, a good sign for art sales, which slumped earlier in the year.
“We may all be very surprised by how much spending is going to be done at Basel,” Levine said.
(In other ways, Basel and Trump won’t mix: An artist who re-purposed a Trump campaign bus into a traveling anti-Donald billboard found his invitation this year to a satellite fair revoked. The fair owner called the snub a business decision.)
Ellen Salpeter, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami in the Design District, said Basel has amplified Miami’s local art scene and increased interest in galleries.
“There’s a real hunger for art year-round now,” Salpeter said. “There’s a growing appetite every time we offer an artist talk, a panel discussion or a new show.”
Prominent collector Mera Rubell said the public has to keep pushing cultural momentum forward.
“It’s one of the great miracles that Miami has become a cultural destination,” she said. “We can’t take that for granted. ... We’ve learned from Art Basel that culture makes for good economics. When you look around at all these condos and the people who buy them, if they’re not collectors yet, they will be when they have to decorate.”
Rubell said Miami needs more arts high schools like New World School of Arts and Design & Architecture Senior High School, both in Miami, and more universities offering graduate degrees in visual arts.
“The reason Los Angeles is exploding is because they have a huge university structure that supports art,” she said. “Miami has a very good base, but it needs to go the next level.”
In an op-ed for the Miami Herald earlier this year, three prominent businesspeople argued Miami-Dade County needs to do more to support the arts.
“The impact of the arts on our local economy each year is $1.1 billion,” wrote developer Armando Codina, banker Adolfo Henriques and Knight Foundation CEO Alberto Ibarguen, quoting figures from the Beacon Council and the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs. “For [every] dollar of public support, $31 of private support is generated. Almost 30,000 full-time jobs are created. More than 13.5 million people enjoy our museums, theaters and festivals annually.”
Entrepreneurs are benefiting, too.
Kith, a New York City-based apparel brand, is opening its first South Florida store in Miami Beach during Basel week. The timing is no coincidence.
“Last year, Kith hosted a gallery for Basel, which once again showed me how strong our audience is in Miami,” CEO Ronnie Fieg told the Miami Herald in an email.
Here’s the bad news for Basel 2016: the Miami Beach Convention Center, where the main art fair is held, sits squarely in an official Zika zone, meaning mosquitoes in the area are spreading the virus to humans.
Although Gov. Rick Scott last week lifted a Zika warning for Middle Beach in time for the festivities, as he earlier did for the infection zone in Miami’s Wynwood art district, South Beach remains an area of Zika transmission from Eighth Street to 28th Street. (Baselites usually arrange their trips months in advance so the news likely won’t have a major impact on bookings.)
One good sign: a recent cold spell — cold by Miami standards, at least — wiped out some of the bugs that survived extensive insecticide spraying by Miami-Dade County.
“This time of year, there are fewer mosquitoes, so there’s less risk,” said Matthew DeGennaro, a mosquito researcher at Florida International University. “At the height of the summer, I was wearing DEET all the time. Now I only use it if I’m going to be outside for extended periods.”
Globally, anti-Zika measures seem to be working. Last week, the World Health Organization declared Zika was no longer a global emergency while cautioning that it remains “a significant enduring public health challenge.”
If this quarter’s weak hotel bookings carry into December, last year’s strangest satellite event, an honest-to-goodness orgy held in Little Haiti, could be more of a threesome in 2016.
Last year, 77,000 people showed up to Basel’s main event, up from 73,000 in 2014 and 75,000 in 2013.
It would be a victory for organizers if those numbers hold steady in 2016, said Manuel Lasaga, an economist who teaches at Florida International University.
“I would certainly be cautious in predicting any significant increases,” he said.
South Florida’s economy lagged behind the rest of the state in 2016, thanks to Zika and a slowdown in Latin America. Basel could follow the same pattern.
“The key markets — Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina — are still trying to get out of recession,” Lasaga said. “That is holding back spending and tourism.”
The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau is expecting Basel visitor totals to be on par with last year, said chief marketing officer Rolando Aedo.
“Earlier in the year, the pacing for bookings for Art Basel was slower than in the past, but over the past couple of weeks the pacing has picked up,” Aedo said.
Scott Berman, a hotel industry analyst, said he isn’t as worried about Basel as he is about the first quarter of 2017.
“The hoteliers are feeling pretty good about the next couple of weeks, but the [pace of bookings] after that is not as optimistic,” Berman said.
The early numbers from the hotel industry don’t look good.
Miami Beach hotel numbers went negative in late September for the first time since Zika was detected in South Florida, after Gov. Scott tripled the size of Miami Beach’s Zika zone on Sept. 16.
While struggling foreign economies, a swell in the number of hotel rooms and competition from short-term rental companies also hurt bookings, Zika is clearly taking a toll. By October, major indicators for Miami Beach hotels had fallen sharply, according to data from analytics firm STR. Occupancy? Down 11 percent compared with the same month last year. Revenue? Down 14 percent. Demand? A 7.5 percent drop. Hurricane Matthew’s scrape past South Florida in early October also played a role.
Among the nation’s top 25 hotel markets, only Houston, struggling with a dismal oil market, had a worse October than Miami-Dade.
The first two weeks of November look equally grim for Miami Beach, STR found.
Following the same trend, leisure airfares to Miami International Airport and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport fell 7 percent year-over-year over the most recent two weeks of November, according to Harrell Associates. Nationally, fares at other major airports rose 3 percent over the same time period.
Intense media coverage hasn’t helped South Florida’s image.
On the Beach, the city battled angry residents to spray insecticide between high-rise condos. The big hotels suffered lost bookings and cancellations. And the meeting business for 2017 got hit the most because meeting planners scheduling events months ahead of time pulled out because of Zika, Aedo said.
“We have heard [about cancellations at hotels] consistently enough to say that, yes, there has been an impact,” he said.
The efforts have paid off, according to Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola.
“Zika has some effects on tourism, but it’s not going to crater the week or the art market the way a currency fluctuation might,” Arriola said. “Now we’re out of mosquito season, and we’re hoping to be [completely] out of the Zika zone right after Basel.”
Arriola said the the South Beach warning could be lifted as soon as Dec. 8, although federal guidelines will still advise pregnant women and their partners concerned about the virus to “consider postponing nonessential travel to all parts of Miami-Dade County.”
As always, a strong sales showing is expected at Basel.
But the market for art, like other luxury goods including condos, has been mixed in 2016, said Mali Parkerson, owner of the Hue gallery and president of the Miami Art Dealers Association.
“2016 has been so, so slow,” Parkerson said. “Everyone knows the summer is slow. But you come into the fall season thinking things will start picking up, and they really haven’t yet. People have been sitting back on larger purchases like art until the elections have passed and we know who will become the president.”
Even so, Parkerson said all of her collectors are planning to attend the show (in spite of Zika), and she pointed to strong auctions by Sotheby’s and Christie’s that sold nearly $554 million of contemporary art in New York City earlier this month.
“It might be that some of the more touristic visitors may not come down,” she said. “But we’re expecting all the regulars.”
Fewer elbows to jostle with will no doubt please some locals.
“If there’s a little bit of an editing process to the crowds and fewer people coming just to party, I don’t think any native Miamian is going to be bothered,” said Mindy Solomon, a Little River gallerist. “Maybe it will help with some of the traffic issues.”
Miami Herald staff writers Chabeli Herrera and Joey Flechas contributed to this report