As Art Basel executives prepare for the 20th anniversary of their Miami Beach fair this year, they can look back on two decades punctuated with drama. Marc Spiegler, outgoing director of Art Basel for 15 years, and his replacement, Noah Horowitz, acknowledge that the road to this pivotal year has not always been easy.
From the start, this fair was rocked by events beyond management’s control. It was scheduled to open in 2001 but was canceled after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which meant people weren’t keen on travelling, let alone buying art, and there was also an economic downturn. There were already huge doubts about whether the Swiss fair, then run by Sam Keller, had made the right decision to take its heavy Swiss brand to an unlikely American city. “I thought it was a crazy idea. I had never been there, other than via Grand Theft Auto Vice Citysays Spiegler, referring to the video game taking place in a fictionalized version of Miami.
Others shared his caution – Miami was seen by many as a cultural and criminal wasteland, a sunny retirement city at best and a far cry from the real American art market action of New York and Chicago.
Like many of us, Spiegler admits he was wrong. He remembers visiting the first Art Basel Miami Beach in 2002 while working as an arts journalist in Zurich. Introduced at a party in the garden of collector couple Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz, he says he was struck by two things that defined the fair’s success: the unrecognized sophistication of the city’s highly committed collectors and the appeal of events. which now seem intrinsic not just to Art Basel Miami Beach (where they do a pretty good pool party) but to the contemporary art market as a whole. “It wasn’t the right thing to do back then,” Spiegler said.
Miami’s other advantage, Spiegler realized, was its proximity to Brazil, a large collector base, and a booming economy in the fair’s early years. And, of course, the weather helps. “These first biting days of winter [in New York and Europe] make Miami attractive,” he says.
At the time of Miami’s launch, it was unusual for a fair to export its brand overseas, which has become strictly for the biggest companies over the next 20 years. “Art Basel Miami Beach proved that there was something about the success of Art Basel that could be exported,” says Spiegler.
This laid the groundwork for Art Basel in Hong Kong, a fair he opened in 2013, and more recently in Paris – two launches among his highlights of his career at Art Basel, which began in 2007. in both cases, the fairs have rather replaced existing events. than to venture into the complete unknown, as Keller had done in Miami. Art Basel bought out ArtHK, which launched in 2008, while in Paris the group of fairs ruffled some feathers by taking over the niche of the Fiac fair which had been running for almost 50 years. Increased institutionalization is not to everyone’s taste in the nuanced art world, but has been an inevitable trend as the market grows in popularity, accompanied by soaring art prices.
“I started at a company that had two events and an office in Switzerland with a staff of 22. I’m leaving a company that runs four shows, has over 100 people in offices around the world and an online presence important,” Spiegler said. Art Basel’s growing international stature under Spiegler’s reign attracted media scion James Murdoch, whose company Lupa Systems bought a majority stake in Art Basel’s parent company, MCH Group, in 2020.
While Miami has helped Art Basel grow, the fair is certainly credited with helping propel Miami’s cultural scene — and giving its hotels, restaurants and Uber drivers a post-Thanksgiving boost. “The city was ready for it, but the fair brought more major collectors, more major galleries to town. He delivered an audience, it was showtime,” Spiegler says, with characteristic zeal.
The more low-key Horowitz, who worked for Spiegler as Art Basel’s Americas director between 2015 and 2021 and now joins the fair’s group after a year at Sotheby’s, has also seen the city change. “There were a handful of galleries in 2001 and over 100 in 2019, but what I find most amazing is what’s happened since then,” he says.
The Covid pandemic has brought more people and businesses to sunny, libertarian, low-tax Miami, as real estate moguls and sun-seeking snowbirds have given way to crypto bros and to high-flying financiers. The art scene jumped at the chance. “It’s not just the absolute numbers that have increased, but the depth and ambition of the galleries that are now here,” says Horowitz. He cites this year’s new entrants, Jupiter and Central Fine galleries, both in North Beach, as well as the growing influence of longtime locals such as Nina Johnson. The evolution has not only been commercial: Horowitz notes avant-garde and influential exhibitions at institutions such as the ICA Miami and the Bass Museum.
Horowitz and Spiegler presided over eventful editions. At Horowitz’s first show in 2015, there was a violent, albeit non-fatal, stabbing during the fair (many of us at first thought it was performance art ). The following year, the Zika virus threatened to ruin the fair, then the Convention Center, which has always housed the event, underwent a complex renovation, which nicked the exhibition space and was finally completed for the 2018 edition.
Just when everything seemed to be on track, the Covid-19 pandemic hit and forced the cancellation of the 2020 fair. Like other Art Basel fairs that year, Miami had an online edition – which benefited from Horowitz’s experience at the ahead of its time, digital-only VIP Art Fair – and kept the pace of business going. Just before last year’s in-person return, when Horowitz left Art Basel, the Omicron variant began to rage. “It was up to me to make Floridians wear a mask,” jokes Spiegler.
This year, Spiegler – who hasn’t said what he’s doing after a six-month transition – is handing over the reins, just as an economic recession seems to bite. Horowitz has a bigger business to run than his predecessor inherited in 2007 and becomes the group’s first chief executive. There is a management structure to be finalized – while the plan is for each of the fairs to have an artistic director and general manager, the Miami and Basel events still lack direct management. Vincenzo de Bellis, until now curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and former artistic director of miart (the International Fair of Modern and Contemporary Art in Milan), has been appointed to oversee the four fairs and open new avenues for develop the brand.
Horowitz has what he describes as a “big picture” and sees several opportunities to develop the “powerhouse that is Art Basel”, especially in Asia. His year at Sotheby’s helped him better understand some of the business facets of the art industry, he says. Today, his priority at Art Basel is to maintain Spiegler’s legacy of an “exceptionally strong base” of fairs, he says. As the Miami fair opens its largest edition to date, in an inexorably international and fragile market, the role is – adds Horowitz – “a high threshold to cross, at all levels”.
November 29-December 3, artbasel.com