I've chosen to open this thread with my favorite photo of our trip to Miami (my apologies for being so silent during the fairs...I was exhausted). I'm offering up this moment of levity to balance out the very-much-like-sausage-being-made discussion of the inner workings of fairs and what they've become that follows...but first...the beach. Let me take you there...
Take a deep breath of the salty sea air, feel the cool sand squishing between your toes (watch out for the jellyfish), listen to the waves rolling in and the wind punishing the red flags on the lifeguard stations...ahhh...just relax...
OK, so now shove that thought aside, and buckle your seat belts...'cause there's a whole lot of everything to get out of my system here.
Miami was a blur. From the set-up to the plane ride home, I was mildly amused and continually surprised by my ability to keep moving, keep talking, keep packing, keep thinking (as it was). I saw so many people I adore, so much very good artwork, too many parties (yes, in the end I caved), bands, dive bars, etc. that it's impossible to reflect and choose what to share of all that. Besides, other bloggers did it live and better than I could have.
AND...I only did a fraction of what was available.
By day 3, the only folks dragging more than the gallerists were the glassy-eyed collectors and curators who had bravely (if not wisely) attempted to see it all. They moved in this touchingly slow shuffle...checking wall labels like a still-half-asleep hungry person sniffing a block of cheese in the fridge at 4:30 am. I found myself continuously boiling down my explanations about work in our space, making them more concise, so as not to make our visitors' poor brains explode from too much information (the way mine had by day 2).
The only thing that saved us (re-energized us) each day was the booze. Cocktail hour started generally two hours before we closed every day, and we moved from the free beer that Aqua graciously supplies to enliven the evening hours to the bottle of Red Label I quite smartly picked up on the day of the preview. That gurgling sound emanating from my torso is my liver attempting to detach itself and burst through my belly in self-defense.
Despite all my moaning about how tough it is to party that hardy, though...the art in Miami was more often than not pretty damn good. I didn't make it to all the fairs, but what I did see impressed me more than I expected.
The Fairest of Them All
I know I should come up with some tragically hip reason for missing it (like, "Oh, it's just a review of what I've seen all year long anyway"), but the truth is I simply didn't make it over to Basel at all this year...not even the containers. I heard it looked great, but I was either scrambling to get work done at our fair or obligated elsewhere. I know it's like going to Egypt and not seeing the Pyramids, but what can I say? I'll catch it next year.
I did manage to see a good cross-section of the satellite fairs, though, which is what I'd like to focus on for the rest of this rambling report. Specifically, I'd like to address what it means that the satellite fairs are not considered as good as Basel proper (few folks are denying that), but there's a remarkable disparity in which of the satellites folks do consider the "best" ones.
The day I arrived in Miami I read an article in which Sam Keller (director of Art Basel) discussed the satellites, noting
"I think it's good that there are twice as many fairs this year. Why not? There is enough for everybody. But there was already too much to do before all the parallel fairs. I don't think it makes sense to try to go to 10 fairs. You'll forget what you saw at the beginning when you get to the end,'' Keller says.So Pulse, -scope, Aqua, Bridge, Photo Miami, etc. come second to NADA, and the other fairs fall in somewhere after that is what that implies (and what I think most professionals would tell you if pressed), but I'm really beginning to wonder about the pecking order and its supposed importance.
From the start, the official Basel schedule has included a number of Off Basel events: museum and gallery shows, individual artist installations, and the satellite fairs deemed strongest by Basel organizers, such as NADA, -scope and Pulse. This year, the Basel schedule also endorses Aqua Art Miami, Bridge Miami and Photo Miami.
"We think the NADA fair is one of the better ones," says Keller. "Some of the galleries that have been in NADA are now at Basel."
Consider, for example, this post by Paddy Johnson on Art Fag City (which, yes, mentions one of my artists, but that's honestly not why I'm linking to it). Money quote:
I might as well just get this over with now: Art Basel is the best fair I have seen in Miami. I have some guilt in saying so, since it feels a little like supporting Microsoft, but what can you do? The show looks really good, there's a lot to see, and it's well organized. You have to give credit where credit is due.But I'm getting ahead of myself here...let's back up and get some much needed context....
The question then, is who amongst the 14(ish) remaining fairs gets second prize? Most predicted that the runner up would be awarded to either Nada or Aqua, which is indeed correct, but the race is a lot closer than I would have expected.
Art in Miami = Art Basel?
A friend in Miami overheard a woman on her mobile say, "I'm over in the Pulse section of Art Basel." (For those who may not know, there is no "Pulse section" of Art Basel. Pulse is a totally separate fair in another section of Miami...one would be forgiven for the association, though, given how professional Pulse looked and the quality of the work there, but I bet Art Basel would object to the blurring of their branding given how much they spend on it).
Indeed, though, there seems to be a fairly widespread confusion, or perhaps ambivalence, about the distinction between the "Big" fair and the satellites among a large group of collectors. We've participated in three fairs in Miami over the past 5 years (two of them hotel fairs, which I rather enjoy [being quite fond of the old Gramercy Hotel fair], but which have had a stigma attached to them that Aqua is finally breaking it seems), and yet we still have dozens of collectors each year find us back in New York and re-introduce themselves saying "We met you at Art Basel last year." I never correct them, mind you, but it does strike me as odd.
Perhaps to some folks it's just shorthand (or "art in Miami" is synonymous with "Art Basel" to them...and with so many fairs, who can blame them for not learning all the names), but other dealers have reported this blurring often enough to make me wonder whether collectors place as much importance on context as gallerists do. OK, so some clearly do. Younger galleries who get into the bigger fairs definitely see their prestige rise among the super collectors because of it (at least as long as they stay in the big fairs), but with the number of collectors expanding so rapidly that they can't all keep up with the fair rankings the gallerists all take so seriously, it does seem to be becoming a distinction without much significance (at least in the short run, IMHO).
I won't comment on Aqua, which I love for too many reasons to list (but can't be expected to be objective about really), but between NADA, which we've done in Miami, and Pulse, which we've done in New York, I'd have to say that Pulse looked more like Art Basel to me (or at least what Art Basel looked like in the previous years when I got to see it, and which I have no good reason to expect changed all that radically this year, having seen the photos and heard the reports). But saying that (i.e., that Pulse looked more like Art Basel) isn't a criticism of NADA, nor one of Pulse. Both looked great and had very, very good art in them. NADA simply had a unique feel to it, whereas Pulse and (in previous years) Art Basel seemed more diverse. Very little conservative artwork would have seemed at home at NADA, but both cutting-edge and more conservative work would have equally fit in at Pulse, as they both do at Basel.
But there's my puzzlement in a nutshell. If Art Basel is looking primarily to NADA for its new galleries, as Keller suggests, then that suggests to my mind that more conservative work will increasingly be out of place there (which may be countered neatly, I suppose, by suggesting that today's cutting-edge work becomes tomorrow's conservative work, and that today's conservative-looking work is either past its prime or derivative, but in the age of pluralism, I think that's an argument with razor-thin ice beneath it, honestly). My argument radar tells me there's a gaping hole here, but I'm too bloody knackered to find it.
Now, of course there's miles of background story here I'm conveniently leaving out, concerning not only our gallery, but the perceptions about pecking orders throughout the art world...but in order to discuss this in an open forum, I have to start somewhere. So in as gentle a fashion as I can, I want to ask what's been on my mind: What if there's an evolution to where there are three or even four "second-place" fairs? The organizers of all the satellites work their freakin' asses off and deserve the gratitude of art lovers everywhere. The quality at the satellites gets undeniably better each year. They are, like it or not, becoming as significant and well produced (if not better) as many biennials. Yes, I mean the satellites are. Of course if you participate in one or work for one, you're likely to see a big difference between them (that's natural I think), but there's a blurring that's growing and I can only see it doing more so as time goes on.
UPDATE: I see Tyler Green has posted on the blurring of the lines that he noticed in Miami (more of curators than fairs, but I laughed when I saw he used the very image I had thought would complement this post, but didn't get a chance to snap).