Published December 1, 2005 in The Wall Street Journal
The story of Frank Gehry’s design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is by now familiar. Cities world-wide have begun to aim for the “Bilbao effect”: the construction of a spectacular museum building that attracts international visitors and boosts the economy. The story of the “Art Basel effect” is less widely known. It is the tale of the leading art fair for contemporary art, which has been presented in Basel, Switzerland, every June for the past 36 years, also coming to Miami Beach for the past three Decembers and becoming America’s premiere art fair; the fourth edition of Art Basel Miami Beach opens today.
Although it is a once-yearly, four-day event, Art Basel has profoundly altered the shape and scope of Miami’s cultural landscape, affecting real estate and tourism rates and enhancing government support for the arts.
In past years, about 30,000 art lovers from around the world arrived here for Art Basel, and the Miami Herald reports that this year a sizable increase is expected. The fair’s principal venue is the Miami Beach Convention Center, where about 200 of the world’s most prestigious galleries display paintings, sculptures, photographs, video works and room-scale installations, the majority of which date within the past five years. Works range in cost from thousands to millions of dollars. The fair continues nearby on the beachfront, where shipping containers turned into exhibition spaces display the wares of 20 younger galleries, a presentation underwritten this year by W South Beach. Since its inception, the fair’s principal sponsor has been UBS, with BMW and NetJets serving as supporters. Bvlgari, Morgan’s Hotel Group, Bloomberg Television and AXA Art Insurance are further providers.
In accord with the Swiss model, the fair is not a self-contained entity. A public art program, performances, video and sound lounges, discussion forums and “crossover” events involving fashion, books, music, film, architecture and design are all variously sponsored and promoted by Art Basel Miami Beach. Then there are “partners” in the greater Miami area, ranging from art venues to nightclubs, that feature events officially sanctioned by the fair.
According to Samuel Keller, director of Art Basel’s Swiss and American fairs, more than 840 journalists attended Art Basel Miami Beach in 2004. Much of the press coverage has focused less on the fair than on Miami as a cultural and tourist destination. That the world press offers millions of dollars of free publicity “is worth its weight in gold from a public relations point of view,” asserts Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council.
Mr. Spring claims that Art Basel helped to “supercharge the growth of the arts” in Miami. The fair strengthened the belief of government officials in the greater Miami area that the arts will carry a city forward and steer development. Increasing amounts of money and resources have been put behind the fair each year and additional funding has been provided for arts groups of all kinds; Mr. Spring’s budget at Cultural Affairs has tripled over the course of the past seven years to $14.4 million.
That the people of Miami-Dade County are convinced of art’s benefit to the community is evidenced by their approval of a bond issue last year designating $100 million of city funds to build a new waterfront facility for the Miami Art Museum. This issue had been hotly debated, with detractors asserting that corporate and private funds should pay for the new museum, not taxpayers’ money. Proponents, including many government officials, maintained that the new museum would revitalize a rundown neighborhood and further enhance the city’s global profile.
Marty Taplin, owner of the luxury Sagamore Hotel, which opened in South Beach in 2002 and is itself an art venue, chock-full of work from Mr. and Mrs. Taplin’s personal collection, claims that as regards tourism, “the last three years have been the greatest in the city’s history.” And, indeed, dozens of Art Deco hotels in South Beach have been renovated and new high-end hotels constructed. George Neary, associate vice president of cultural tourism for Greater Miami, also credits Art Basel for the fact that 90 high-rise residential towers are under construction in the greater Miami area, since Art Basel and the publicity it generates have cultivated a sense that Miami is a desirable place to be, combining tropical lifestyle and sophisticated culture.
While several of Miami’s museums have recently built new wings or buildings, the biggest news in the local art world has been the development during the past three to four years of the once derelict warehouse neighborhood of Wynwood into a major contemporary art center with private collections open to the public, about 40 galleries and a plethora of artists studios.
The Rubell Family Collection and The Martin Z. Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, which opened to the public in 1994 and 1999, respectively, have long drawn attention for the size and adventurous natures of their international contemporary art holdings. Since the advent of Art Basel Miami Beach, several other collection spaces have opened in Wynwood. This year, Venezuelan philanthropist Ella Fontanals Cisneros inaugurates a facility near Cesar Pelli’s Performing Arts Center, which will be completed in the fall. A collection space in Wynwood belonging to Tony Goldman, once a major developer of New York’s SoHo, has been lent to the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, for use as a satellite facility. Its opening, like that of about a dozen other art spaces, coincides with this year’s fair.
Fredric Snitzer, one of Miami’s most prominent art dealers, recently relocated to Wynwood, as have most of Miami’s other contemporary art dealers. (A high-profile new arrival is a branch of the Paris-based Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin.) For decades, Mr. Snitzer had bemoaned his inability to generate widespread interest in the Miami artists he represents. Today several, among them Hernan Bas, Luis Gispert and Naomi Fisher, are “hot properties” with international reputations. Art Basel, with its vast audiences and endorsement of citywide exhibitions, has presented Miami artists with unprecedented opportunities to have their work seen — and purchased — by museums and collectors from around the globe. Miami is now ranked among the top five American cities for contemporary art — a distinction unthinkable a short time ago.
Art Basel’s effects on Wynwood are not limited to a burgeoning gallery district. Four high-rise residential buildings are currently under construction there, as is Midtown Miami, a 56-acre shopping area and residential complex in a former railroad yard adjoining the neighborhood. If Wynwood, which is still decidedly seedy, is soon to be gentrified, the evolutionary process was undoubtedly “supercharged” by Art Basel Miami Beach.
In 2003, South Beach’s New World Symphony announced that it would be constructing a state-of-the-art rehearsal and performance venue designed by Frank Gehry. While it will be a welcome addition to Miami’s cultural landscape, it will be just another jewel in the crown. The “Art Basel effect” has already taken hold.