(Paul McCarthy ‘Tomato Head (Green’), sold to a private collector for $4.75MM at this year’s Art Basel)
BOS ✈ ZRH
I was on my way to Switzerland to attend Art Basel.
This international fair is the art world’s equivalent of New York Fashion Week and boasts four annual shows across three continents. Since its Swiss beginnings in 1970, Basel attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year, executes sales in the millions, and showcases the work of some of today’s, and yesterday’s, leading artists from across the globe.
This year’s visit was my maiden voyage. And the original plan was to document the experience through on-the-spot insights and daily digests from my airbnb home, but when I finally arrived in Europe and began wandering the dreamy streets of Basel, the last thing I wanted to do was tuck myself away at a computer in a room that belonged to my host’s teenage daughter.
I didn’t have much time in the city and the exchange rate served as a gentle, yet constant, reminder that this trip would not be an everyday occurrence. So, I set out to make the most of my visit – seeing as much as possible, sleeping as little as possible, and fueling myself with Nature’s Valley™ as I flitted from location to location.
OFFICIAL FIRST IMPRESSION: Woa.
Welcome to the Messeplatz. The sheer size and sprawl of Art Basel is intimidating. To dream of seeing every little thing is an impossible feat unless you relinquish your sanity and spend your days locked in a perpetual sprint.
Think: Armory Week x 10 + (jet lag/art fatigue)² #PEMDAS.
This year, over the course of 6 days, 100,000+ visitors experienced the work of 4,000+ artists represented by 284 galleries hailing from 33 countries (!).
And that’s just the main fair. There were also dozens of concurrent arts happenings and independent satellite shows scattered throughout the city; each vying for time, attention, and indefatigable eyeballs.
As a newcomer, it didn’t take long to discover that the show is just as much about personalities, psychologies and social dynamics as it is about the artwork on view. I mean, you have the entire arts ecosystem buzzing away under one roof. Predators, prey, gallerists, phytoplankton.
At Basel, the typically invisible forces that guide the art market and the seamless activities that support this system are exposed, seams and all, with the theatrics unfolding in plain sight. I watched infatuations become sales, unknowns get snubbed by knowns, and folks shopping for million dollar works as if they were casually strolling the aisles of a supermarket.
Somewhere out there, a painting that would rupture my entire 401k is undoubtedly hanging in a collector’s guest bathroom, centered neatly above a tissue box and an essential oil diffuser.
The cost of admission itself (note: I think public passes were~$100 per day? will update.) is an exercise in branding, it positions Basel as a premium event; weeding out drop-ins and catering to a crowd that is clearly invested in their visit.
With booths costing on average $60,000 for exhibitors, time is money and efficiency reigns supreme. You don’t see people lazing around swapping stories (at least during waking hours) like you might at a local gallery. The Messeplatz is an environment where conversations are pleasant yet calculated, and it’s a cut-to-the-chase kind of networked affair for all.
And whether you are visiting as a curator, gallerist, artist, journalist, consultant, collector or voyeur, it’s hard to entirely avoid a micromanaged mindset when faced with an ambitious list of things you’d like to see, places you’d like to go, and personal missions you’d like to accomplish before the week is over.
As for my own schedule I tried my best to keep things loose, but I still ran into situations where haphazard show hours, waning daylight, and scattered performance locations occasionally caused life to be managed to the moment.
8:05:01AM brush teeth
8:05:07AM spit toothpaste
So..why exactly was I there? Officially, I was at Art Basel as a member of the press. Unofficially, I was there as someone whose curiosity carried them across the Atlantic.
It only took a decade of mulling and a obscenely large bottle of wine to get me to finally click ‘purchase airfare’.
Ever since I first embarked on my arts career (back when I assumed the fair was pronounced like the herb of a similar name), I have been fascinated by the spectacle of Basel: the exhibitors, the price tags, the parties, the patterns and trends. It was clear to see, even at a distance, that what was happening in Basel was significant, and that its influence steered the art market and impacted the greater art world along with its creators.
And if that was a world I too saw myself operating in, in some capacity, I figured I should probably see the spectacle for myself someday instead of merely reading about it online.
Despite the seemingly ‘years in the making’ nature of all this, when it came time to actually plan my trip this spring, I ended up with a very short-list of discernible “to-do”s: I knew I wanted to create content about the fair, I knew I wanted to connect with interesting artists and gallerists for possible future collaborations, but that was about the extent of my professional agenda.
On a personal level, I was genuinely interested in simply being at Basel and taking it all in, but I suppose my subconscious was also quietly invested in the idea that I might stumble upon some secret to my future self while I was there.
Perhaps a map to all my tomorrows would be waiting for me at coat check.
That would be convenient.
In fairness to my inner dreamer, history has shown that whenever you break free from your usual flight patterns, something interesting is bound to happen.
Even though you can never fully control, steer, or predict how that something will manifest itself, the risk is always worth it.
Afterall, the unknowns are what keeps life exciting.
So, would Basel end up providing context and guidance for my current and future efforts? Would it add clarity to the increasingly blurred edges of my arts career? Would I feel a sense of place and belonging? Would I end up so disenchanted and disgusted by the art world that I booked a one way ticket to the to the HR Giger bar in Gruyeres and spent the rest of my days drinking beer inside the chest cavity of an alien while peddling FitTea on instagram? #spons
..well, I suppose I do now.
And as we close out this year, I wanted to share my first-timer @ Art Basel experience on FLUX. with you through a series that highlights some of the artists and artwork that excited me, a conversation with one of the fair’s organizers who inspires me, and some good ol’ fashioned tips/resources/information for those of you contemplating your own maiden voyage to Basel someday.
So, step aside, Rick Steves.
Further isolate yourself, Lonely Planet.
There’s a new guide in town.
Thanks for lunch. More from me soon. ♥