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Art Basel Miami Beach: What Does the Future Hold for the Most Raucous Week in American Arts?

On Tuesday morning, Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach, stepped out of City Hall and walked the half block lined by botanical gardens to the city’s convention center, flanked by a small crew of staffers. A press conference was set to start, and Gelber took a seat onstage next to the people who run the Swiss-based global mega-fair empire that is Art Basel. Gelber was in his wide tie and big slacks, a far cry from the Speedos of South Beach, and the crowd included several Swiss politicians, journalists from Asia and South America, billionaire art collectors who live in town, and at least five armed policemen. 

By the time his life had led him to this press conference, Gelber had been entangled with Basel for 25 years—in the late 1990s, his father was the mayor of Miami Beach, and the forces were colluding to bring the first-ever expansion of Art Basel to America. Director Lorenzo Rudolf had turned a regional trade fair in the Rhineland into a global power with a wait list of nearly a thousand galleries. After securing a partnership with UBS, Rudolf thirsted for expansion into America. His director of communication, Sam Keller, found that a number of the fair’s most vigorous collectors were advocating for Miami. Miamians weren’t sure why. 

“When Sam Keller came to Miami, he came to dinner at our house, and he said they were thinking about coming to Miami—not New York, not Los Angeles, but Miami,” said Rosa de la Cruz, the longtime Miami mega-collector, while on a panel. 

“Miami had really gone downhill in the ’80s, and in the ’90s South Beach turned it into a party town, which upset me,” said the collector and real estate developer Craig Robins. 

“We went through our Miami Vice phase, which was something we really don’t want to remember a whole lot,” said Gelber, who was living in DC when his dad was mayor, working as a federal prosecutor. 

Still there were advocates. The mega-dealer Jeffrey Deitch, perhaps the biggest buyer at the Basel fair, came down to see his clients Norman and Irma Braman and was taken by the Art Deco architecture of South Beach, with the historic buildings ripe for reinvention. Deitch linked Norman with Rudolf and Keller, who then invited a delegation from the Magic City to the lovely Swiss city to see their decades-old fair in a centuries-old city, and they were still unconvinced. 

But the Miami advocates persisted and eventually, Art Basel Miami Beach first opened its doors in 2002. The fair brings in an estimated $500 million to region each year, with the week of the fair long since mutating into a bonanza of attendant happenings—museum galas, pop-up galleries, fashion shows, boutique openings, brand activations, NFT nonsense, film premieres, high-profile concerts, and DJ appearances, a pop-up Saint Laurent gallery on the beach displaying Steven Meisel’s photos of Madonna for her book Sex—unmatched anywhere in the American cultural calendar. 

So the story has been for at least the last decade or so. But a recent (and somewhat abrupt) changing of the guard at the top of the Basel leadership, coupled with the new vision of the media scion James Murdoch, who bought the largest stake in the fair group’s parent company, MCH Group, in 2020, means that the 20th-anniversary edition comes at a time of upheaval for the fair. Both the outgoing global director, Marc Spiegler, and the incoming global CEO, Noah Horowitz, were onstage Tuesday, sitting next to each other as if a baton was set to be passed between them. Many in the convention center’s grand ballroom were waiting for some spark of drama to emerge, something akin to the shock announcement of Spiegler’s departure a month earlier. 

For those ready to pounce on Basel, Spiegler reminded them about those initial doubts surrounding Miami 20 years ago, and even took a veiled shot at rival Frieze, which operates its US fairs in the nation’s two biggest cities.

“Rarely have so many people been so wrong—because the moment this show opened, it established itself as the most important fair in the most important art market in the world,” Spiegler said, staring down the attendees of the press conference from the podium. “And Art Basel in Miami Beach has held that position firmly for 20 years, truly uncontested, despite challenges from New York and from Los Angeles.”

It should be said, even though we should by now be used to this, that even in 2022 the sheer amount of personal wealth on view in Miami during Basel is staggering. Each year hundreds of private jets are chartered down to South Florida, arriving a day early to diligently take in the dozens of private museums and collections and gallery shows and mega-dealer pop-ups. The de la Cruz family opened its Key Biscayne mansion to invited guests Monday morning, and more spoken Spanish than English wafted through the seaside mansion as women in extravagantly high heels walked past a room-sized Ugo Rondinone installation and paintings by Sigmar Polke and Albert Oehlen. 

Onto the Rubell Museum, the giant Allapattah space run by the mega-collectors Don and Mera Rubell, which houses the collection they’ve built over 50 years—gigantic works by Sterling Ruby and Keith Haring and a whole room full of Pictures Generation masterpieces. Then to the offices of DACRA, the real estate company built by Craig Robins, the man responsible for the Design District. For hours he offered Champagne and caviar while those on the list—hello, Jorge Pérez!—gawked at the works of art his employees get to hack out emails next to: a quite frank Jenny Saville painting of multilove in bed, a suite of Marlene Dumas paintings that rivaled anything at François Pinault’s museum show of the artist in Venice, and Urs Fischer’s larger-than-life wax statue of Julian Schnabel, intended to be lit and melted down. 

Speaking of Schnabel, his son Vito was a floor down in the Buick Building, admiring a painting by Jamian Juliano-Villani at 100 Years, a joint show put on by Deitch and Larry Gagosian. A few blocks away at the ICA Miami was the first Stateside museum show for Michel Majerus, swarmed with advisers who rep the lenders to the show. And then White Cube took over the private beachfront offered to members of Soho Beach House and erected a giant white tent so the likes of actor Eric André, singer Joe Jonas, and collectors Sandretto and Agostino Re Rebaudengo could eat grilled lobster while listening to the legendary Roy Ayers elegantly whack out melodies on the vibraphone. 

And the fair hadn’t even opened yet. As guests awoke Tuesday, many rolled through their lobbies to see the works of art installed in various Miami Beach hotels as part of No Vacancy, which awards one of the featured artists a prize of $10,000. One such hotel is the Loews, the preferred local inn of many an art dealer—the place is so lousy with gallery folk it was like a niche reality show waiting to happen. Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong was at one table, Bard’s Hessel Museum of Art director Tom Eccles was at another, and surrounding them were dealers from David Zwirner, Skarstedt, Pace, Karma, Hauser & Wirth. The French dealer slash-TV-star Kamel Mennour was at one table, and New York’s Marianne Boesky was at another, and Sean Kelly was at another. (Gagosian stays at the swanky 1 Hotel, but sources said this year he booked a double suite and then decided not to come.)

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