Art Basel too aloof from the community

An artist paints a piece, Wynwood Shark, on a wall in Wynwood in preparation for Miami Art Week.
An artist paints a piece, Wynwood Shark, on a wall in Wynwood in preparation for Miami Art Week. AP

Two years ago, the fair known formerly known as Art Basel Miami Beach made a perplexing name change. The fair would now be known as Art Basel in Miami Beach. The decision was ridiculed by many, even self-serious art publications, in part because the larger branding effort resulted in the original being called Art Basel in Basel.

That almost comically small name change was made in part to reflect the fair’s now global nature, which includes its original Switzerland edition and a newer Hong Kong iteration. But unintentionally, it also it hinted to the aloof nature of the fair within the cities it takes place. It’s less a fair that’s a part of the cities they are hosted in, but rather a jet-setting brand that parks itself in cosmopolitan epicenters.

While Art Basel in Miami Beach has always had an air of exclusivity, its earliest incarnations were more embracing of the local art community. Back in the early to mid-aughts, when there was little more than Art Basel, a handful of satellite fairs and not much else, collectors were keen to visit local galleries and institutions, soaking in the local character and characters that inhabited the city.

Over the years, while the fair has stayed roughly the same size, its stature has grown, its attendance ballooned and everything surrounding the Basel supernova has exploded. The number of satellite fairs and events has grown exponentially to a degree that is truly stupefying.

While the satellite events have made the fair more palatable for a mass audience (for better or for worse), the most exclusive events have become more exclusive, with many of the most prized invites going to the one-percenters of the art world elite with intimate dinners and cozy cocktail receptions where they honor each other in a week-long series of self-congratulatory fetes.

As Miami Art Week has grown, the effect that the fair has on the local community has diminished over the years in part because of this increasingly insularity but also because of the maturing of the arts scene locally over the same period.

The major arts institutions benefit greatly from Art Basel’s presence, particularly the Bass Museum of Art and the Perez Art Museum Miami, the former because its proximity to the convention center and the latter due its stature as the largest contemporary art museum in Miami. Both are able to attract and court thousands of the art world elite, particularly at their major private events where their popularity during the week has practically become a liability (the opening for last year’s Peter Marino show at the Bass was so crowded the fire chief was forced to intervene and PAMM’s event was so frenzied that a work was destroyed).

Smaller arts institutions, however, don’t benefit as greatly. After speaking with several arts organizations about how Art Basel affects them, most said that while they’re able to connect with international artists, curators, collectors and press who are in town for the week, they don’t see a substantial uptick in attendance.

While one would think that the fair would have a trickle-down effect on the local galleries that have spaces here, that is far from the reality. For a number of reasons, visiting collectors often keep to the fairs themselves with only a few side trips, rarely making time to venture off the beaten path to a gallery. Of the galleries I spoke with, most said the number of guests they saw pass through their gallery space was often no more than a hundred guests, rather than the thousands that will pass by their booth during the fair itself.

For Miami galleries to get in front of the crowds, they often have to invest in booth space at the fairs, an investment that easily runs tens of thousands of dollars. The expenses for a booth at a fair in many cases can equal or exceed the cost that a gallery pays to rent their gallery space.

Comparatively, local artists tend to have the most substantial benefit from Art Basel’s presence, but not in the ways one would think. These artists are often able to secure well-paid odd jobs in the art industry, such as art handling, installation and fabrication during this week, and it can be a sizable boost to their incomes. They’re also often able to present their work in front of the most desirable audience possible, although only the most visible works by the upper echelon of local artists tend to get noticed due to the fact they are competing with a veritable tsunami of works on display.

This is not to deny the effect Art Basel has had on the Miami arts community; many consider it to be the moment that helped catapult the Miami arts scene to a higher rung on the art world ladder, which is undoubtedly true. But whereas before some felt Art Basel was the Miami arts scene for a time, the city has matured beyond that to the point where Miami Art Week is now just the tip of the iceberg.