Art Basel descends onto Miami Beach, turning roads into parking lots and natives housebound. Still, the fair gives the city a patina of culture. That patina is pentimento for those of us born here. Many remember Art Basel’s expanded Convention Center from the Jackie Gleason Show; the hotels that house ancillary fairs, from Frank Sinatra, Goldfinger, Miami Vice. Certain waterfront homes hosting exclusive parties? They were midnight ports for drug runner boats and command centers for refugees hoping to take back their country. And that was just on our block!
Now, people talk about our museums.
“There is no question that Art Basel gave our city the opportunity to see the best version of itself,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber told the press prior to opening. To keep crowds sparse, there were many VIP hours to follow. Day one was so hard to get into, many scoffed, “we’re going later to skip the crowds.” Even the VIP lounge was restricted. Too bad, there was some kickin’ Casa Dragones tequila there. Upstairs, a pop up Joe’s Stone Crab filled the void.
This was the first large art fair since COVID. There were lots and lots of safety protocols, “despite,” as Gelber put it, “the inexplicable pronouncements from the state capitol. Yes, I said that.” Florida: you wild and crazy state!
Art Basel has spawn so many ancillary art fairs, galleries and events, the aggregate is now called Miami Art Week. There were about 250 galleries at Basel, more than 20 other shows around the city and an influx of about 80,000 art lovers and party animals. I was happy just to browse Blue Chip Basel and Design Miami across the street. Sorry Art Miami, the 90-minute Uber to go a few miles felt overwhelming.
Many who hit the ground running at 11 AM still didn’t get the goods. “Everything I wanted to buy is already sold out,” Nicole Salmasi fretted. “There must have been a lot of pre-buys.”
She commiserated with Liliana Cavendish, also finding her picks taken. A huge chrome spaceman sold for more than a million the first minutes of the show. “Where do you put it?” Nicole wondered.
No matter, everyone felt happy. “Looking at art raises your serotonin levels,” Nicole told me. It can also increase brain function.
Basel is Norman Braman’s brainchild. “Art is a blessing,” is the way he puts it. His love affair with it, as love affairs should, began in the South of France, where, in 1975, he and wife Irma bought a home. The magical Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul-de-Vence (where Joan Miró himself placed his sculptures in a labyrinth and Georges Braque created the stain glass chapel windows) practically became their second home. They’ve been collecting ever since.
Advice for beginners? “Go and look and learn,” Irma told me. “Go to museums, to galleries. Keep going and your eye will get accustomed to beautiful things. The journey is almost as good as owning the piece. Everyone has different views about what is beautiful and what they want to live with. Just get what you really love.”
In those days, they were buying a lot at Art Basel, Switzerland. Norman got to know Director Lorenzo Rudolf, and somehow, eventually, convinced him to launch a Basel by the beach.
It’s 2001 opening year was cancelled due to 9/11. Last year’s, due to the pandemic. And much of the art market was driven online. Still, it soared. “There’s no substitute for discovering art in person,” proclaimed Art Basel Global Director Mark Speigler.
Ironically, this week, online images, Non Fungible Tokens or NFT’s, were the buzz of Basel. “The concept is,” Miami art dealer Kate Shanley explained, “a work of art will be associated with a unique token on the blockchain and it becomes a non fungible token. You buy the exclusive right to it. The tech people that have moved to Miami since Covid last year created a huge influx of technology being associated with art.” They threw parties too, causing even more traffic crossing Biscayne Bay.
Diversity was also trending. “We saw, suddenly, great galleries being opened by people of color that technically wouldn’t be allowed to apply in the past,” Speigler said, referring to a gallery age prerequisite. “So, we took that hurdle away.”
After that long day, I went home, to avoid traffic, like a real native. As locals do, I closed the week at the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum private party. The museum is the art deco jewel created to house the art and design collection of Founder Micky Wolfson. Director Casey Steadman fills the shoes of Tim Rodgers, now at MAD. Jacqueline Weld Drake and Kevin Gray | Kevin Gray Designs are on the Board. Michael Hughes is Development Director. It’s a hub for new ideas and “Old Miami.”
This evening had an International perspective. The museum’s Italian curator, Sylvia Barisione, had convinced and nurtured Rotterdam Artist Bas van Beek to take over its main floor. A Dutch-American architect, Winka Dubbeldam, of Archi-Tectonics, gave a slide show lecture about her projects, including one in China where a city main plumbing pipe was miraculously moved.
Van Beek appropriates and reinterprets well-known artists. Thus, the show was dubbed Shameless. “My idea was that I would adjust and fuse my previous exhibitions of the last three years in the Netherlands with the architecture of the Wolfsonian,” he told me.
Also chatting with van Beek was Aric Chen, Design Miami’s first Curatorial Director, who left the post a few weeks earlier to to become Director of the Het Hieuew Instute in Rotterdam. Born in the US to Taiwanese parents, before Miami, he was a curator and critic based in Shanghai. His second in command, Wava Carpenter, takes over the Miami post.
“Design Miami really managed to pull off a roaring comeback this year,” he told me, “which is a real accomplishment, because, despite appearances, we are still in a pandemic. Wava has been there since the very beginning, so it’s great to see that kind of continuity. In fact, that there even is a curatorial director says a lot. When the fair started 16 years ago, there was no real design market. You had to spend a lot of time explaining what it was about. This shows a commitment that design is not only functional, it’s cultural. This is more than just expensive furniture.” “It’s VERY Expensive Furniture,” I laughed, thinking of the couch I coveted, selling for $150,000.
My beach apartment would have to do without it. And my hometown: what did Bas think of his first visit? Was he feeling, as Mom calls it, “sand in his shoes?” Nope, he was feeling Old World meets nouveau. “I feel confronted with being a European here,” he answered. “Because, there are some constraints from the old continent that you don’t have. It was the director’s idea from another museum to name this exhibition Shameless. But, I think Miami in itself is quite Shameless.”
Ha! His artist’s eye had seen past the patina.