A plea for optimism

miami_beach_nightThere is a question circulating around the art world blogosphere: Will Art Basel Miami Beach, and all of its attendant satellite fairs, be a gallery killer?

The rationale behind the question works something like this: Given the way the art world’s schedule runs, one assumes that most galleries paid for their art fair real estate many months ago.   And given that many galleries have begun to rely upon their fair sales to remain profitable, if not solvent, in a down turn, the art fairs begin to look like a bigger and bigger gamble, akin to doubling down on an otherwise iffy hand.   With the US economy in tatters, and knowing that the full scope of the financial crisis has yet to come into focus (not to mention the dismal performance of the fall’s contemporary art auctions), can there be any doubt that real buyers will be few and far between, and that only those galleries with (enough) cash already in the bank will still be around this time next year?

I do not relish what I believe to be the answers to these questions.   The sought after purification of the art world’s soul will be seen–if LA MOCA’s potential collapse has not shown it already–to affect the avant-garde and the opportunists alike.   So I ask, where is the silver lining?   What should an optimist for the future of the art world be looking for?   What might we find in Miami that we did not expect or could not have foreseen?

4 thoughts on “A plea for optimism”

  1. In the past, my reasons for going to Miami were only partially motivated by ABMB and the various satellite fairs. There were museum openings, collections to be viewed, a whole panoply of local galleries and artists, various curated shows, book signings, concerts and outdoor events which made Miami a hundred ring circus during that heady week.

    All of this will again be happening in a few days, but of course it is ultimately based on the central commercial premise of the fairs, and would not be scheduled but for that thriving center. If money is not being abundantly spent, if art is not being sold, if the top echelon of movers and shakers does not show up, the whole house of cards can easily fall.

    Art Basel (in Switzerland) has survived previous economic downturns, but ABMB, its younger and glitzier offshoot, has not. The excesses of ABMB since 2002 have been nurtured by a continuous art boom. It will be interesting to watch a new sobriety take hold, to see if the words “sober” and “Miami” can be uttered by the art world in a single breath.

    Unfortunately I will not be there to see it. For the first time in seven years I am not attending. This has less to do with the economy than with personal logistics. But apparently I am not alone. From my sources “on the ground” in Miami, I have heard that hotel reservations are down 30 percent from last year. This is a large, unsubstantiated figure, and might deal with general tourism rather than ABMB per se. Certainly I know many curators, critics and other members of the arts intelligentsia who are attending, for the simple fact that they are being shipped down as part of the event, to serve on panels and conversations. Others are being sent to cover the event for their magazines. I have recently received hundreds of emails announcing gallery participation in the various fairs, and an admittedly smaller number announcing special events. So Miami, to be sure, will not be a ghost town.

    The real variable is those who must devote themselves to a week in Miami on their own dime – the freelancers, the bloggers, even the journeyman artists – as well as smaller galleries who have put down a deposit on their booths and now, as Jonathan notes, must decide whether to double down on an iffy hand.

    The one constant in Miami will be the chatter. Talk is cheap, and even without the same plethora of cash, you can bet there will be just as much talk. This year it will coalesce around a singularly interesting topic, the lack of money.

  2. From an unscientific sampling of this year’s attendees, allow me to modify a prediction made above. As a fair matures, it attracts greater participation from all strata of the art world. There is a trickle down effect, a hopeful emulation of activity at the top. Art Basel’s success in Miami over the past six years has spawned a slew of satellite fairs and artist run projects, emanating from within Miami but also from New York and other points north.

    It is possible that this year will be the most democratic yet, as artists and other attendees with small budgets find cheap hotels or friends to crash with, and stay on for four or five nights, hoping to advance their careers, attend some openings and parties, and have a bit of fun in the sun. This modest forecast is certainly not the glitz, glamor and rampant consumption that was built into the original concept of ABMB, but it does suggest a sustainable model for Miami to continue as the art world’s early “winter break”, as a sort of art convention, a non profit sortie into community building and networking in the subtropical vacationland.

    It also recalls the hotel based art fairs of the mid-1990s, when the Gramercy International (forerunner of the Armory Show) and others were established not primarily as market tools but as venues for experimentation, for sharing ideas, assessing the terrain, establishing professional courtesies and modes of conduct among a guild of young dealers. Growing up in public was not just allowed but expected. It was a moment of heady, nervy amateurism. With the art market in a slump, no one really knew whether these fairs would attract a collector base.

    Are the smaller hotel fairs dotting Collins Avenue above Lincoln Road, or some of their cousins in the tents and warehouses of Wynwood, an indication of the humbler, gentler future of the marketplace as we move into a recession? As per Jonathan’s thread opener, current expectations would have to be amended. Fairs would need become less expensive propositions. Is a high octane platform like Art Basel capable of running on cheaper fuel? Because at current prices, galleries cannot plan to rent large booths, ship art, book hotels and flights and arrange dinners, without a strong sense of market return.

    If the fair no longer guarantees an A-list of international collectors, if major Europeans stay away from Miami this year, as many Americans apparently neglected Frieze, FIAC and Berlin in recent months, then ABMB becomes both more parochial and less lucrative. At some point it will preclude the participation of many leading dealers. This scaling back is obviously dependent upon an individual gallery’s cash reserve, but could quickly extend to mid-size and smaller dealers. As mentioned above, many who are sitting their booths in Miami this year had already put their money down before the full extent of the economic downturn was apparent. They would not necessarily do so now. Once a descending spiral like this gets started, it might eventually only leave the arrivistes and the mediocre, the carrion birds of the art world picking at the bones of a once world class event.

    As currently defined, ABMB is ultimately not a grass roots but an elitist affair. It is ordained from the top down, not built from the bottom up, with the pecking order particularly exposed under its big, open tent. (This metaphorical invocation of panopticon is visually realized on the catwalk of the Miami Beach Convention Center, with the entire fair spread out below.) Since most everyone in the art world is looking for upward mobility, when the action dwindles at the top of the pyramid, among the most powerful, visible, influential dealers and with the most expensive work, a sense of diminishing possibilities will necessarily permeate all levels.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with a new modesty of scale and purpose, but it would require a major realignment of the zeitgeist. A new model would have us not look to the top of the pyramid for validation, even though that is where the all seeing eye is found on our dollar bill. It would level the field rather than heaping the stones upward, stress lateral bonds of cooperation rather than vertical preening. Would it even be recognizable as an art fair? Not by current parameters. But it might lend a welcome sigh of relief, a chance for the art world to stop collectively holding its breath and finally exhale.

  3. After two years when all we heard were complaints that Miami has become “too big” and it’s “all about promotion” and “it’s not art people anymore” and so on, I for one am looking forward to a slightly downscaled weekend.

    As Alexandra Peers and other have been faithfully reporting in Portforlio, New York, Wall Street Journal and other papers, however, the downsizing is all relative. Most rental and sponsorship contracts have been long ago locked in. Much of the reduction in activity consists of canceled fashion parties and the elimination of extreme frothiness, such as that white balloon sponsored by Krug champagne. It will no longer rise above South Beach every morning. I’m fine with that.

    The underlying causes for fair attendance, for those in the actual art business, have not disappeared and may arguably have become more pressing. For better or for worse, fairs are where more and more of the aggregate volume of annual art sales are transacted. They are a crucial hub for networking–something that an indsutry in distress needs all the more. Miami is in a privileged position. Being the largest, it is the least likely to be cut from annual marketing and travel budgets. And if it is one of only a few events that galleries can attend, its relative importance for the serious art trade may increase.

  4. To be sure, let’s shed no tears for the froth. I also agree that “downsizing is relative”. Despite graphic memories of Great Depression breadlines, no one expects ABMB amenities to be reduced to a can of beans heated over Sterno.

    As to the galleries, contacts inked in better economic times (only a few short months ago!) require them to show up and bite the bullet, hoping for the best. There is also peer group pressure. Not showing up is an early admission of defeat, even insolvency. But if your assessment is correct, that the size and privileged position of ABMB makes it the “must do” fair, and perhaps even more important should there be attrition elsewhere, I submit that only galleries still in existence next year will be able to attend. Now that they co-own the Miami Beach Convention Center, I wonder what leverage Messe Schweiz has to tweak the numbers, to make sure the fair is affordable for potential exhibitors should December 2009 prove even grimmer than the here and now.

    That said, let’s see what happens over the next several days.

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