Art Basel has been cancelled for 2020. The blockbuster art fair which takes place in Switzerland each June will this year be available only in online viewing rooms. As a practicing artist I have visited Art Basel many times, mainly for the excitement, the spectacle, the diversity and the surprises.
How it works
Contemporary galleries are increasingly using art fairs to establish their profile and as fairs go Art Basel is generally regarded as holding the top slot in the rankings, it is the one at which all serious galleries wish to be represented. Over a four-day period in mid June, the fair takes place in Basel, Switzerland, with additional iterations in Miami Beach and more recently Hong Kong. Occasionally a gallery will use the fair to promote the work of a single artist, though it is more usual for them to show a selection of the artists they represent. Alphabetical zoning throughout makes it easy to navigate the maze of booths in the exhibition halls. Edgy young galleries rub shoulders with well-established ones, such as White Cube, Marion Goodman, Gagosian and Sadie Coles HQ, from London. New York is represented by Peter Blum, Gladstone, Paula Cooper, Gallery 303 etc, Berlin and Paris by Max Hetzler and Air de Paris Galleries, among many many others. The most contemporary galleries occupy the upper hall while the lower hall is given over to a mix which includes modern galleries, featured newcomers are sometimes located here. So where does Ireland fit in the context of Art Basel? To date The Kerlin Gallery is the only Irish gallery to be represented annually at the main fair. Mother’s Tankstation has been featured in the special newcomers category, while The Kevin Kavanagh and Green on Red Galleries have shown at the fringe fairs of Liste and Volta. As a showcase specifically for new ideas in contemporary art it could be argued that Documenta and The Venice Biennale are of greater significance, artworks shown at Art Basel have to some extent been digested by the gallery system.
The venue is located at Messeplatz; a purpose built trade centre of immense capacity in the heart of Basel, its large exhibition halls can accommodate 286 gallery booths. Added to this is a vast annexed space for large installations and moving image works. This section, known as Art Unlimited, has been greatly extended in recent years offering galleries a space to show works unsuitable for standard booths. The Messeplatz Centre was designed with human needs in mind: bars, eateries (indoor and out) bag deposit, drinking water fountains, seating, rest rooms, all easily accessible from any point in the venue. These small practicalities may seem trivial, but six consecutive hours at the fair is guaranteed to make such facilities matter more than the art at certain moments in the day. It is also useful to know that the main halls are built around open space, making it possible to come up for air at regular intervals without having to leave the complex.
Art Basel is big business. At last year’s fair an anonymous collector paid $20 million for Gerhard Richter’s Versammlung (1966). The work was sold by David Zwirner Gallery who also sold a Sigmar Polke for $10 million. Mark Bradfords’s Rat Catcher of Hamelin II (2011) was sold by White Cube for $7.8 million and Cristopher Wool’s Untitled (2009) fetched $6 million at the Lévy Gorvy booth. These 2019 prices make anything less than a million begin to look like small change. Art Basel’s long list of sponsors and partners are drawn mainly from the banking, automobile and technology sectors, testament to the fact that this fair attracts big spenders and generates very large amounts of money.
Should artists attend art fairs?
Many artists shun the market place – the arena which reduces their work to its exchange value. So why then would an artist go to Art Basel? Is there a case to be made for us practitioners visiting the fair? My first answer is yes, go for the fun, however there are other and more practical reasons for attending. We need to know what is out there, what is being made, what is being shown and how it is being shown. We are often willing to travel to foreign cities and trudge pavements, maps in hand, searching out particular venues, yet there are hundreds of galleries here under one roof, all available in a two-day blitz. The fair makes it possible to see how artworks work; unexpected pieces can generate excitement or confusion, or both. Juxtaposition is part of the experience, it allows work to be more fully understood through contrast and difference, and there is also the impact of scale, be it large or tiny – scale can be fully appreciated in this context. The fair can also offer something to artists seeking to make changes in their practice; old filters slip away and reappraisal takes place at various levels of consciousness. Ideas relating to presentation can also be useful – technical solutions of all kinds, hanging methods, possible approaches to grouping multiple pieces, construction of basic hardware such as tables, vitrines and display shelving can be appraised here. Ultimately each individual artist will mine their own ideas and find their own way forward but getting outside of ourselves can assist in reaching deeper within.
There is also something more casual about viewing art at the fair as opposed to the regular gallery exhibition. It is possible to get close, to take photographs, to have a snoop in the storage area or a rummage through high quality monographs – guaranteed to generate pleasure and envy in equal measure. A delightful part of the fair experience is turning a corner to suddenly glimpse a stunning work, and then there are those encounters with masterpieces by old heroes – Fred Sandback or Robert Ryman in my case. Catching sight of known artists can provide a degree of pleasure – John Armleder was my last sighting. The fair offers many possibilities including introductions and making contacts.
Switzerland is expensive at the best of times and vested interests exploit opportunities created by events such as the art fair – hard cash and steadfast commitment are essential. If you are lucky enough to know an invitee you can get free entrance as their guest. Some time ago I had the good fortune to be given a collector’s VIP card, passed on by an old contact. The response to this magic piece of plastic was amazing – security staff were suddenly deferential, metal barriers swung open before me, my status acknowledged by discreet nods. Sensing the experience would come only once, I decided to make the most of it and headed for the VIP collector’s lounge on the third floor. I glided up the special escalator into acres of luxuriously carpeted space, champagne, sophisticated nibbles and large comfortable couches offering respite from the thronged aisles below. Surprisingly my card raised no questions, no second looks or queries despite its very obvious male name of Trevor S……. , was it my androgyny or did the mere flash of the special VIP coloured card render close inspection unnecessary? I smiled and enjoyed my temporary privilege, as well as the nibbles.
With the cancellation of Art Basel 2020 there will be no milling crowds around the entrance gate between 9 30 and 10 am, no throng watching the large clock count down the minutes to opening time. That so many come here each year to see contemporary art as well as to buy it is remarkable; to me as an artist it is affirming, affecting and of no small consequence – art has a significance beyond big business, art is important, art actually matters.
Viewing rooms for Art Basel 2020 will open Friday, June 19 at 1 p.m.