Art Basel

World’s largest art scene pops up in Miami — for 1 week only

How big is the art scene in Miami this week? Quite possibly larger than anywhere else in the world.

As the temporary circuit of art festivals known collectively as “Art Basel” enters the peak of activity this weekend, the numbers suggest the global gathering of galleries has outgrown every other major art fair in New York, Europe, and elsewhere.

“Without a doubt, it’s the biggest in the world,” said Dan Fear, who runs the website from his office in Tacoma, Wash. “I’m here for six days, and I’ll be lucky to see two-thirds of everything.”

There is no official scorecard for art fairs, and the cultural elite generally frown on measuring such things by volume. “Let’s be clear: Being the biggest doesn’t mean being the best,” said Sara Fitzmaurice, a New York publicist for Art Basel.

But a review of exhibitor lists, fair websites and interviews shows at least 1,100 galleries renting space this week inside Art Basel itself and the nearly two dozen lesser fairs being held in Miami and Miami Beach. That’s almost triple the roughly 400 galleries listed for the week of events surrounding New York’s Armory fair in March, and double the 500 galleries attached to Basel’s namesake fair in Basel, Switzerland, in June.

Even adding the roughly 600 art dealers the Census Bureau says operate in New York year-round, and Miami-Dade would still have a narrow edge on galleries this week. And that’s not counting the nearly 200 Miami-Dade galleries listed in the 2011 Census survey of business establishments.

With only 260 galleries, Art Basel itself doesn’t put Miami over the top in terms of volume. Eleven years after the Swiss-based fair made its U.S. debut in the Miami Beach Convention Center, Basel remains the primary draw for celebrities (Will Ferrell walked the aisles at the VIP preview Wednesday) and major collectors (a 2004 acrylic painting by Richard Prince titled Nurse on Horseback sold for close to $6.5 million, reported). But far more art is sold outside the convention hall walls this week, thanks to what experts have long considered the world’s largest circuit of “satellite” fairs.

While not affiliated with Basel, the 21 satellite fairs listed by Miami Beach’s events office dwarf anything found revolving other major fairs in New York, Berlin, Paris or Switzerland. Experts credit Miami’s fair boom to both the heavy influx of Latin American and European collectors this week, and the relatively low cost of putting on a small fair — thanks to the ample supply of vacant lots for tent shows and the lack of unionized hotels and event facilities.

David O’Donoghue recreated his Irish art gallery inside a hotel in South Beach this week, part of the Ink Miami fair at the Dorchester off Collins Avenue. The hotel takes out the beds, televisions and other extras to make way for about a dozen galleries to sell their works in empty rooms a few blocks from the convention center.

On a recent afternoon, vodka Sprites were selling for $1 at the Dorchester bar and admission was free as visitors crisscrossed the hotel courtyard to see the makeshift galleries.

“We’ve had a fantastic fair so far,” said O’Donoghue, of the Stoney Road Press gallery in Dublin. “I get the opportunity to show among all the major galleries.”

While a boon to the economy, Basel’s sprawling footprint has its detractors. The crush of gallery workers and art buyers helps drive up hotel rates, one of the top complaints of exhibitors inside the actual Basel showroom. Hotels show no sign of pulling back: the cheapest room at South Beach’s luxury Setai was renting for $1,400 a night this weekend. And there is a larger concern that wrapping lesser fairs into the same week as Basel, one of the world’s top fair brands, can detract from the main event’s allure.

“A lot of people are concerned about too much going on. But I’m not,” Norman Braman, the wealthy Miami auto dealer who helped bring Basel to Miami Beach in 2002, said during an interview on the Basel floor. “The key to the whole thing is what’s in this building. This building offers the crème de la crème.”

For all the bustle of the satellite scene, some of the art world’s elite can’t be bothered with the second-billing events. Casino mogul Steve Wynn is one of the wealthiest art collectors in the United States and said he visits Art Basel Miami Beach each year. But Wynn seemed puzzled this week on the Basel floor when asked if Miami had too many competing art events this week.

“They have other fairs in Miami?” Wynn asked.

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