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Marc Spiegler, the director of Art Basel, did one of his regular pre-fair interviews with Art Media Agency discussing his decade at the fair, the changes he’s seen and the challenges facing the fair in the future. The interview flags some of the key features of Art Basel’s phenomenal growth and unrivaled presence.
The combination of Art Basel’s apotheosis as the one of the most recognized brands in art—it rivals the two tenured auction houses for public mindshare—with the sea change in the way retail is conducted around the world is both a tremendous opportunity for the art fair and an enormous challenge to become something more than what it has been, a producer of trade fairs.
There is no question that Spiegler knows this. He’s a trenchant observer of trends in modern economic life, the social customs and tribal habits of the world’s wealthiest persons and the day-to-day pressures of running a small business, which is what most galleries are.
In the AMA interview, he synopsizes the fast pace of change in the primary and secondary art markets:
10 years before I arrived, fairs were exclusively trading platforms. Now the international fairs are required to be events in the art world calendar. That means talks, panels, special exhibition platforms, working with local public and private institutions, etc. More recently, in the last five years, the shift has been towards having a strong online presence and being able to educate and reach people before, during and after each event. We’ve moved from being open for five days in a convention hall to being a year-long support structure and catalyst for galleries and their artists.
Spiegler doesn’t point out that in the same period of time as Art Basel grew from one extraordinary fair in a remote Swiss city to three fairs connecting continents and hemispheres two other fairs have begun to create broader global presences. Frieze art fair, now somewhat paralyzed under new ownership by IMG, and TEFAF have begun to increase their wingspan but both of those fairs are somewhat inexplicably attracted to New York City, a venue epitomizes art market competition.
TEFAF is smartly trying to emulate some of Art Basel’s unique footprint. TEFAF is a massive fair that has begun to hold more manageable versions of itself in New York. But Art Basel is three different fairs with different audiences and constituencies operating in three very different art milieus. That must create a real management challenge for Spiegler simply because the fair doesn’t scale as directly as Frieze or TEFAF does.
But simply replicating the fair in different regional markets won’t provide much real scale to Art Basel’s business either given the nature of art markets. Spiegler tries to get at this a little bit in his interview when he presents his view of what an art fair is. As a business, an art fair makes money by renting space to art galleries. The fair makes that space more valuable by its ability to attract others who add value to the gallery’s business either by purchasing art or raising the visibility and value of a gallery’s artists.
We’re not just helping galleries put their artworks on sale for a few days; we’re disseminating ideas to the whole world, for their consumption, reflection and creativity. We see one of our biggest roles as being market builders for the great artists of the 20th century and of today: not just helping galleries sell great art a few times a year, but delivering to them today’s and tomorrow’s collectors, so that we can broaden the market, and grow and support the eco-system.
The central challenge facing Art Basel, and facing it more acutely than other fairs only because it is so much bigger and more successful than all of the other fairs in terms of public consciousness and dealer prestige, is how to provide further leverage for Art Basel’s owners the Swiss company MCH, on the one hand, and a more powerful and dynamic platform for the galleries, on the other.
As far as MCH is concerned, their recent decision to pursue growth by using the ‘learnings’ from their ownership of Art Basel to expand into regional fairs suggests MCH’s management views the art fair in linear terms. Art Basel itself can only be made to be so big without losing its caché (the vetting of galleries is an essential component of the fair) so MCH is looking to pick up minor league teams instead.
In some ways, Art Basel faces the same growth ceiling that its arch-nemeses, the auction houses do. The top end of the art market is a crowded place with high costs of selling and fierce competition that erodes margins. There has been a great deal of antipathy between the art fairs, Art Basel in particular, and the auction houses. Part of this has been Spiegler playing to his audience. The more he fulminates against the auction houses, the more his galleries feel that Art Basel presents a united front against the onslaught into their market.
Here may be the one place that Art Basel can expand, and in a different way from simply offering another fair. If Sotheby’s and Christie’s are the evil empires, Art Basel has only been a loose federation of resistance. Art Basel’s goal ought to be becoming a robust alternative empire: Android to the auction house’s Apple.
You might think this is not a plausible strategy but think back to the era of department stores and remember how luxury malls displaced them (only to be displaced themselves, in turn, today.)
Spiegler recognizes this implicitly. As he told AMA,
Art Basel is an exhibition platform that doesn’t own any art. So we rely on the galleries to deliver a great fair – let’s not forget that Art Basel was founded by gallerists after all. […]
Our job is to bring great art to the public and to build new platforms – such as Unlimited, Parcours, Film, etc. – when it’s necessary to show great works.
But the fair has been slow to recognize its advantage over the auction houses. This lies in the knotty problem of marketing art. Neither auction house has great marketing beyond the high-touch, personal outreach that really makes its sales happen. Everything else comes across as what it is, breathless promotion. Even when an auction house is sincere, its marketing comes off as insincere. It’s simply the nature of the beast.
But Art Basel exists as an intermediary, not a principal. It can market art with greater sincerity because it has more work to choose from and a greater variety of vendors. The combined power of these overlapping constituencies has a kind of Doppler effect that has, as Spiegler points out,
built an extensive online presence – we now have an online catalogue with more than 20,000 artworks from past fairs, not to mention our very large reach on social media, with more than 2 million followers: eight times the 250,000 attendance across our three fairs.
What Art Basel does with those 2m followers, remains a bit of an unanswered question. Perhaps the galleries feel they’re getting booster rockets from Art Basel’s social media attention but the way in which Art Basel runs its social media seems to vacillate between serving the needs of promoting the fair and providing a platform.
Social media isn’t the only media that Art Basel produces, as Spiegler tells us:
We produce well over 100 hours of conversation each year across our three fairs. As we decided to record and publish those online for free, there are now available more than 1,000 hours of conversation with artists about the world, art and the market.
Looking at the You Tube views on those conversations, one can only conclude that the media is under-leveraged and engagement is not a priority. You can’t blame Art Basel for not devoting more to its media operation. Media is hard to get right. Figuring out compelling art-related media is even harder.
Nonetheless, Spiegler continues to celebrate the transformation of the global economy and the way in which retail is rapidly being remade. Art Basel may be working to integrate its broader global presence with its 500+ gallery community in a way that fundamentally expands its business from renting space into managing a broader art discovery entity. The need for a countervailing force to both the auction houses and the large global galleries is there. So, too, does the imagination, if this quote from Spiegler is any indication:
I’m fascinated by how globalization and digitalization has facilitated interaction between galleries, artists and collectors. Artists from all over the world work with galleries from all over the world, selling to collectors and museums from all over the world. And this all is to the benefit of artistic creation.
Marc Spiegler: Reflections (Art Media Agency)