When Art Basel Miami Beach opened on Wednesday morning to the very VIPS invited to the fair for an early look-see, there was no mad crush at the door, no unseemly Black Friday-like rush to the booths as in former years.
It was instead a measured procession of the affluent, well-connected and nattily attired that sauntered into the 17th edition of the largest contemporary art fair in the country, thanks to a gleamingly rebuilt and enlarged Miami Beach Convention Center. The facility now affords fair-goers expansive lobby spaces and, for the first time, four entry points to the vast exhibition floor, in place of the single funnel on each side of the old convention center that could at times back up like the lines for a new iPhone.
The reigning serenity, though, did not mean that gallery owners weren’t ready to sell and collectors eager to buy. Early evidence was that neither a slowing global economy nor two days of stomach-churning plunges on Wall Street spoiled collectors’ and museum curators’ appetites to acquire some of the finest, and costliest, works of visual arts the world has to offer.
While collectors might have been more inclined to ponder — and in some cases, haggle — before opening their checkbooks this year, some were definitely buying.
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Within a few hours of opening, Brett Gorvy of Levy Gorvy Gallery said his booth, the walls of which were covered in wallpaper with Keith Haring’s signature figures to complement works by Haring and Warhol on offer, had sold several pieces for under $1 million each. He also had holds on several other works.
“Yesterday there was doom and gloom among some dealers who said their top collectors were not coming,” Gorvy said. “But today the buzz is huge. I’m seeing very serious people.”
Market drops, Gorvy said, can turn into a good buying time. “People are moving from the stock market into something they can see and hang on the wall,” he said.
At Pace Prints’ booth, 30 people were in line to sign up for the chance to pay five figures for prints of three works by hot graffiti artist Kaws (Brian Donnelly). The gallery was selling 100 prints, and the line quickly formed to get on a lottery list. Gallery owners wouldn’t say how much the pieces were going for, but gave a window of $60,000 to $75,000.
Art Basel’s global director, Marc Spiegler, said Miami Beach gallerist David Castillo — who joined the top-tier “Galleries” sector of the fair for the first time — had nearly sold out his stand by the afternoon. Selma Feriani, whose gallery in Tunisia focuses on North African and Middle Eastern art, sold her stand out entirely, Spiegler said. New York gallery Metro Pictures also reported doing well.
“It really is too early to say, but we have been speaking to a number of very happy galleries today,” Spiegler said by text message.
The strong start to the five-day fair, which opens to the general public on Thursday, could help allay concerns raised over the financial health of the Art Basel fairs by recently revealed losses at their Swiss parent company, MCH Group. Amid deepening financial woes, MCH cancelled plans announced earlier this year for a luxury-automobile fair at the Beach convention center. But Spiegler said the fairs on the Beach, at Basel in Switzerland and Hong Kong remain “financially strong.”
“MCH Group is, indeed, facing major challenges,” Spiegler said. “Art Basel, however, has a particularly strong market position and is also financially strong. It is one of the most important pillars in the portfolio of MCH Group, which plans to strengthen it further.”
The completion of the convention center makeover spurred a surprise announcement by collector and auto dealer Norman Braman on Wednesday. After chairing the Miami Basel committee since its inception, he said he is stepping down.
“The circle is complete now that the building is finished,” Braman said. “It’s time for someone new.”
The morning also brought out some well-known faces in the Basel crowd. Collector and Art Basel Miami Beach regular Leo DiCaprio was spotted.
So was Princess Eugenie, the granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. The princess, perched on a bench facing one of the galleries, was surrounded by an entourage of young women assistants busy on their computers and cellphones. Her new husband, Jack Brooksbank, popped in and out of the booths, greeting art-world acquaintances.
There was work by a newly minted celebrity artist, as well.
Within the first 30 minutes of Wednesday’s fair, Amy Sherald’s latest portrait, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be,” sold for $175,000 to a private collector who promised to gift the piece to a prominent American art museum, said vice president of the Hauser & Wirth gallery, Marc Payot.
Sherald raised her profile earlier this year when Michelle Obama selected her to paint the former first lady’s official portrait. She was the first African American female artist to paint an official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
Sherald was only one of several African American and African artists and artists of color featured prominently at the fair with works that raise questions of identity, otherness and discrimination.
African American artist Derek Fordjour made his Miami Basel debut with the entire Josh Lilley booth featuring his work in the Nova sector. Gallery director William Pyn said it was Fordjour’s idea to have a gravel floor and reused metal walls at the stand. It worked: By noon, all of his pieces had sold for between $20,000 and $50,000.
Castillo, who made his Basel debut in the Nova section for new work, said he was delighted to rise to the top this year. The only other Miami gallerist at the fair is veteran Fred Snitzer.
Castillo said he plans to use the greater freedom and attention to rotate works in his booth. His focus as the son of Cuban exiles is on identity of the “other,” he said. The stand features a slew of Miami artists, including Glexis Novoa, Quisqueya Henriquez and Adler Guerrier.
“So, that’s amazing to be in this format with the most important galleries in the world,” he said. “It’s also a validation of the gallery’s efforts for many years. I remain true to the vision that each artist deals with identity, which is something that is very important to me. Perhaps 14 years ago there wasn’t this interest by institutions or other galleries to fill those historical gaps, to find great artists who were considered ‘the other..’”
Art is all around the booth, from the inner and outer walls to the floor. The 28-foot-square linoleum floor features a lemon yellow, gray and white geometric pattern. It’s by Sanford Biggers and sells for $120,000.
“So that’s what it feels like to have $120,000 on my feet,” Castillo said, smiling. “Cozy. It feels kind of good. It’s meant for people to walk on it, to dance on it.”
The 268 galleries at this year’s fair, hailing from 35 countries, were not shy about hauling a convention center’s worth of blue-chip and new art to Miami Beach: A 1955 Rothko at Helly Nahmad ($50 million); a monumental, 258-inch-long James Rosenquist at Landau ($2 million), and an eye-popping, $9.5 million be-ribboned Jeff Koons egg at Edward Tyler Nahem.
At times the asking prices seemed steep even to some collectors and Basel veterans.
Miami collector and art dealer Marvin Ross Friedman said private conversations with several gallerists indicated that sales “are very strong.”
“Some of the prices are beyond extravagant, but there’s a lot to look at and enjoy,” he said.
And for those not looking to buy, the improved and expanded floor layout introduced last year could be fully appreciated on Wednesday with the bright new lobby spaces open for the first time. The space allows galleries plenty of space to exhibit their wares with no hint of a bazaar.
“It’s a big improvement,” agreed Miami collector Laurens Mendelson, who praised the quality of the fair. “You would have to spend three weeks running around New York, Paris and London to see all the art that’s here under one roof.”
Some galleries chose to mount museum-like exhibitions, like the life-size sculpture installations by George Segal at Galerie Templon.
Miami collector Barry Fellman called the Segal works the best sculptures by a single artist at the fair. One of the most effective presentations, he said: A red-lit room at Barbara Gladstone Gallery dedicated to unusual works by Haring, including a paper lamp, a vase and folding screens decorated with his characteristic graffiti squiggles.
The presentation “addresses how playful Haring was and how he loved to explore and use other objects as a canvas for his iconography,” Fellman said in an email.
And among Fellman’s top picks for collectors: “Seminal and quintessential” drawings by influential 20th Century artists from the private collection of esteemed gallerist Richard Gray, who died earlier this year. A wall at the back of the booth at the Richard Gray gallery is covered with works by Picasso, deKooning, Franz Kline, Claes Oldenburg, Jackson Pollock and others.
Not everything was selling for prices only a millionaire could afford. The Alan Cristea Gallery booth offered some of the most reasonably priced high-end art by a highly recognized contemporary artist, Georg Baselitz, who was born Hans-Georg Kern but was so enamored of Basel that he adapted that for his artistic surname.
The gallery devoted a separate room or Kabinett to a series of nine prints the artist made of his wife, Elke. The prints come in an edition of 12 and sell unframed for a low of $6,000 to a high of $9,000, depending on which edition is available. Baselitz is an octogenarian who sought out Alan Cristea to produce the prints, said gallery director Helen Water.
“He was looking for a new print publisher and asked if we’d take that on,” Waters said. “It’s really neat to start working with an artist at age 80.” Baselitz is hands-on with his prints, working on the images rather than handing the details off to an assistant, she observed. “He’s a proper print-maker,” she added.
If at times it all seems too much, the Beyeler Foundation has relief for the visual overload. Its gilded booth is home to a single crimson-clad occupant dressed as a monk. Guests are invited to sit on a facing bench; the “monk” asks a question: “When did you stop believing you could get wiser, or do you believe?”
Answer, and he places a communion wafer in your mouth — after first spraying it with a Negroni cocktail mist.