But exponential growth is creating a fissiparous art market
This commentary by Marion Maneker is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
Art Basel’s Blessing and Curse
It’s been a tough year for Art Basel and its global director, Marc Spiegler. In the Spring, Spiegler got ambushed at a global art conference by some of his own best customers; in the late Summer, his expansion project Art Basel Cities launched in Buenos Aires without much impact and, more important, no apparent follow up customers; in the Fall, Art Basel’s parent company made an embarrassing about face on a much-promoted expansion into regional art fairs.
If it was a bad year, it comes at the end of a long cycle of unimagined success where art fairs expanded beyond what anyone believed was possible. Though Art Basel’s pre-eminent place in the global constellation of art fairs remains unchallenged, the fair’s parent company is facing obstacles that come more from Art Basel’s success than from any failures.
Indeed, Art Basel’s central challenge remains the broader question facing the entire art market: how to grow in a way that meets the demands of the expanding interest in art while recognizing that art does not scale like a mass-market product.
The Biggest Brand in Art
That conundrum can be best encapsulated in Art Basel’s brand which is bi-furcated into two very different parts. The core of Art Basel’s brand is the fair Ernst Beyeler created in his hometown. Held in June every year in Basel, Switzerland, Art Basel is the Modern and Contemporary art market’s biggest and most important event both for sales and for status. Collectors and dealers save up their energy, time, money, and inventory for Art Basel in June. The event is such a black hole of attention at the top end of the market that one auction house has tried to reshape the art-selling calendar by abandoning their June sales in London just to give Art Basel a wide enough berth.
Powerful though that core may be, most of those who interact with Art Basel’s brand will never go to Basel nor do most of them even know that it exists. Through the strangest of brand alchemies, Art Basel dominates the global art fair scene in the popular imagination through its two more accessible fairs in Miami and Hong Kong—and beyond.
Social media may not measure much but it is a good proxy for the power of a brand. TEFAF may have only recently expanded to New York but its long-standing reputation as the world’s leading Old Master and Antiquarian art fair has garnered it a social media footprint of 55,000 followers on Facebook, 13,000 on Twitter and almost 50,000 on Instagram, the art world’s preferred social network. With the marketing power of WME behind it, Frieze art fairs have 86,000 Facebook followers, 154,000 Twitter followers and 570,000 followers on Instagram. But Art Basel dwarves them both with its 433,000 Facebook followers, 727,000 on Twitter and a whopping 1.7m on Instagram.
The Popular Imagination
In the popular imagination, Art Basel is the art market. Hence the attempt to create Art Basel Cities which tries to leverage Art Basel’s relationships with artists, curators and dealers to provide access for Buenos Aires in exchange for fees in the “millions of dollars,” as Art Basel told Bloomberg’s James Tarmy.
Diego Radivoy of Buenos Aires’s municipal government told Tarmy the money for Art Basel Cities comes from existing government arts funding. “As a city, you have a budget to work with, and if you already have money [allocated] to do a mural and Art Basel comes and says, ‘We can get Barbara Kruger to do a big mural for the same price,’ then it’s no extra cost to the city,” he says.
But the popular imagination doesn’t buy much in the way of art. So Art Basel’s public reputation is a product of how much press Art Basel Miami Beach gets every year. As central as Miami Art Week may be to the city’s shoulder season, few of the attendees are buying at Art Basel’s fair there.
This gets at the big problem for Art Basel. Art Miami, a fair for the kind of galleries and collectors who have no aspirations to go to Basel or buy the type of art shown there, is thriving and expanding in Miami Art Week. Not so at the Convention Center where many of the booths are sold to galleries hoping to climb the ladder to the Swiss Alps and many of the VIPs are checking in more out of social obligations than to check off a wish list. Art Basel’s sponsors don’t mind that. Their marketing goals of meeting with their client base are being met.
The question is how Art Basel can thrive in a fissiparous market where the two ends are each gaining their own specific gravity. The process by which the art market creates new buyers at the very top end is difficult to manage or promote. Art fair directors like to joke that they sell squares of carpet because their revenues are based upon the price of booths which are, in turn, measured in square feet. (This is what allowed David Zwirner to deflect frustration with the growing market presence of global galleries toward the fictitious issue of booth costs.)
What an art fair really sells is a flow of customers. Museum visiting committees, VIP programs and private jet landing slots are far more important to the financial fate of a gallery that buys a booth than the relative rents. Whether an art fair is cheap or dear to attend is not a function of the upfront costs but can only be measured on the basis of the financial return in revenue.
Art Basel’s problem isn’t that galleries are defecting. Spiegler told the Financial Times, “the trend isn’t that people don’t want to do our fairs, it’s that they now want to do all three.” The problem is that top is easier to feed than the middle of the market.
Miami was originally a draw because of the large number of private collectors there who liked to open their houses and could be counted upon to act as influencers drawing all of those museum committees and VIPs climbing the aspiration curve. It was also accessible to some powerful Latin American collectors.
Seventeen years later, the serious money has graduated to Basel, London or New York. The not-so-serious money that can’t fuel a gallery’s rise to Basel-worthiness is over at Art Miami. More power to them but that hasn’t helped MCH’s ambitions to grow into an art fair behemoth.
The Federation Strikes Back
The problem may be a lack of imagination in Switzerland. The way for MCH to capitalize on Art Basel’s success would not seem to be investing in a greater inventory of carpet squares. Rather, the company has overlooked what Art Basel is, a federation of independent galleries gaining market clout by cooperating and coordinating on certain marketing functions.
For many years, Art Basel flattered its constituent galleries by vocally and aggressively waging a battle against the ‘evil empires’ of the auction houses whose marketing reach is the envy of even the biggest galleries. It was mostly posturing. But it should have and could still be more than that.
Art Basel may be a bigger brand than either auction house and just as global. It employs a large creative team to feed its social media presence but so far that has yet to find a voice, an identifiable look or feel that is distinct and memorable. It is no easy task to craft a platform that has a brand sensibility powerful enough to promote the identities of a gallery or artist without diminishing one of the component parts.
Figuring out how Art Basel can promote galleries and artists who are not yet featured at its fairs, however, would go a long way toward solving the three problems that bedeviled Spiegler this year. Art Basel would become the giant upon whose shoulders the most promising galleries and artists could succeed; it would create new model for expansion and finally leverage Art Basel’s brand and connections in a way that connects directly to its business strengths.