Have you ever wondered if the success of today’s visual art mega-events depends less on their content than on the expectations surrounding them? The Venice Biennial and Art Basel’s 40th edition are a case in point.
Venice is a classic example of an event that art insiders love to hate. Every two years, a superstar curator is asked to prepare a vast exhibition in a difficult and historically charged venue, with limited resources, a ridiculous timeline, Italian ineptitude, and a spaghetti bowl of national pride, politics, and pavilion positioning thrown into the mix. Then the art crowd descends and, between bouts of champagne drinking and Vaporetto riding, it delivers a categorical judgment—usually negative. The pop psychologist in me believes that some folks have so much fun in Venice that they have to declare the Biennial a failure and a bore. This is partly intended to make their expense-account journey look more like a hard-working professional chore than the sybaritic fun ride it is. (You may discern a note of envy: I wasn’t there.) After this year’s opening, the commentariat appeared to be speaking from the same talking points. The line was that while the last Biennial was awful, this one—organized by art-world wunderkind Daniel Birnbaum, who is undoubtedly one of the smartest young figures on the scene—was banal and flat. Really?
Contrast with Basel. It’s a trite metaphor, but the world’s leading art fair, which occupies the same space as Baselworld, the epic watch fair, really does run like clockwork. (Disclosure: ArtworldSalon co-founder Marc Spiegler and his colleagues deserve much of the credit for this). This year as every other year, Basel was a disembarkation point for collectors and museum honchos arriving from Venice. Profound and justifiable art market anxiety preceded the fair. Even so, nothing hinted at any malaise or uncertainty on the surface. It is a very Swiss thing to never let trouble show, so it didn’t. An astonishing exhibition-cum-performance extravaganza, Il Tempo Del Postino, added a special layer of excitement and significance. But what made Art Basel so different from Venice was the talk surrounding it. The common line here was, “We were hoping for the worst, and we came away happy.” With dealers running out of inventory by the third day, Basel was declared a triumph, a turning point, a milestone to recovery.
In reality, all global events have their strong points and weak points, their relative successes and failures. Their scale and complexity, the sheer quantity of artworks and people involved renders blanket judgments meaningless. Nonetheless, the art world longs for a simple verdict, like a bloodthirsty crowd in a gladiator arena. The best advice for mega-event organizers, it seems, would be to keep expectations on the muted side. Everyone likes a surprise, especially a good one.