Art Basel: The Week Miami Becomes the Center of the Art World

Jennifer Rubell helps visitors step through the hole punched through a wall of the building that houses her family's art collection. One by one, they cross the yard towards the open door of a modest yellow single-family house that's been gutted, its rooms connected in sequence. In the first room, a large pedestal holds stacks of small white porcelain bowls. The second room's pedestal contains a pile of hundreds of stainless steel spoons. In the third room await 36 crock pots full of oatmeal. Next comes a mountain of brown sugar packets, then a slab of neatly stacked mini-boxes of raisins. In the last room, the house's former kitchen, two refrigerators are stocked with reduced fat milk. As visitors move through the rooms and create their bowl of oatmeal, there is a cumulative delight at something ordinary elevated to such proportions. Oatmeal in hand, visitors return to the patio behind the industrial-looking, 40,000-square-foot former DEA evidence warehouse that houses the Rubell family's cutting-edge contemporary art collection.


The project—part free meal, part art piece—is one of hundreds of special events large and small that happened in Miami last week. The art collectors of the world converge on the city, bringing with them large sums of disposable income and the assurance that there are no boundaries between art and life. And in this they are obliged—there are thousands of one-off events planned in the city this week, by the organizers of Art Basel Miami Beach and the dozen or so parallel fairs, by local galleries, stores, and art museums, and by individuals and groups looking to make a splash. Each of these events seeks to be unusual and eye-opening. Every gallery brings its absolute best work. Every semi-official warehouse dance party has a list of its distinguishing features and attractions. And every available space, warehouse, store, and street corner is covered with art, hoping to catch the eye of a moneyed out-of-town collector.

Integral to many of these events are varying degrees of exclusivity. There are email-ahead lists, VIP cards, and deliberately strict or lax door policies. The Miami Herald published a list of "5 Basel parties you'll want to crash," and rated each one with a status such as "strictly by invitation" or "forget about it." The granulated exclusivity begins with the main event—the huge Art Basel Miami Beach art fair that opens for five days every year at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Regular admission to the fair is $36, but free tickets to the "Vernissage," at 6 p.m. on the evening before the fair officially opens, are widely distributed to those in the art world. Much more exclusive are VIP cards that allow entry at 3 p.m., distributed to local museum directors and the like. Prominent collectors and others with ties to galleries in the fair, meanwhile, get in at 11 a.m., when the fair is relatively uncrowded.

But none of this would be remotely interesting without the art. The work shown in Art Basel has over the years (the original fair has taken place every summer since 1970 in Basel, Switzerland, while the Miami Beach edition has happened every year since 2002) developed a reputation for over-the-top spectacle. And while this year the overall tone is subdued in deference to the economy (while artwork sales, a leading economic indicator, are up from last year, themes in the work—most of which is made in the last year—tend to shy away from the irrationally exuberant), there is much that is surprising.

Painting and photography, and even more recent media such as video art, have been largely relegated to the satellite fairs. Instead, most of the work in Art Basel consists of collages, assemblages, and other work that juxtaposes handmade and found objects for aesthetic and conceptual effect. There are large machines that move, blow air, and manipulate their surroundings, there are uncannily transformed versions of everyday objects, and there are many works that create an environment that the viewer is immersed in. Some pieces seem almost thrown together, while others suggest feats of extreme skill and labor. There are over 250 galleries with booths in Art Basel proper, almost all showing a wildly disparate grouping of pieces. Combined with the disorienting layout of the main fair (each gallery has a different arrangement of temporary walls and passages), the effect is of a torrent of seemingly random imagery and objects, except that each item is presumably made by someone with impeccable credentials and an absolute commitment to their work.

The average price of works sold at the main fair is said to be in the six digits, and prices in the millions are not unheard of. And while few galleries post prices of the works, the thought of money is never far. Even the most obsessive and wealthy collector has a budget. Pure art speculation is still a rare thing, but it is impossible not to consider a work's future resale value balanced against the passion that drives collectors. And gallerists spend tens of thousands of dollars on booth rental fees and shipping for artwork from all over the world, so selling work is an imperative. But with most galleries returning year after year, and the worst of the economic times apparently over, and buoyed by the mild weather of Miami in December, the mood is optimistic, even giddy, and the sound in the air is the sound of checks with many zeros changing hands.