Miami Babel: A weekend in the art world’s most baffling, velvet-roped, celebrity-filled spectacle

Dec 20, 2013 15:18 UTC

PRESS RELEASE: “Hope you are having an amazing week. I wanted to send over some photos and information of Gerard Butler traveling from LAX to Miami mid last week for Art Basel.

Gerard is wearing PRPS Goods & Co. denim while he stopped to sign a few autographs and talk to fans before rushing to his gate to catch the flight. He was hurrying to Miami for the dinner he hosted at the W South Beach with Dom Pérignon.”

Everyone hoped I was having an amazing week in Miami, which is exactly the sort of place made for having an amazing time. That’s especially true during the week of the dizzying art fair circus, party mecca, and society hotspot that is Art Basel Miami Beach.

Miami’s version of Basel, a popular fair started in the Swiss town of the same name, began in 2001. Like New York, London, Hong Kong, and, of course, Basel itself, Miami is now one of the major stops on the annual art fair circuit.

The biggest names in modern and contemporary art dealing (the fair is heavily focused on the latter) have booths at the fair, and arrive with a cadre of employees. Smaller, but still relatively select, galleries make up the rest of the 300 or so spaces at the main fair. The exhibitors (and the visitors) are most often from New York, but there are a fair amount of international dealers and collectors peppered in, particularly from Latin America. Capitalizing on the density of collectors, curators, and museum staff in town for Art Basel, several satellite fairs have popped up over the years; there were roughly twenty of them this year.

The economics of Basel are fairly baffling. It’s hard to say what the “average” price for works of art at any of the fairs are, as dealers are not required to, and don’t usually, publish their price lists. But at the main fair works were mostly sold for sums between five and six figures, with plenty of work selling above $1 million, according to the anecdotal data gathered by the various reporters present. Prices at the satellite fairs go down from there.

On Art Basel Miami Beach’s opening day, Steven Robinson, a local Miami collector, described the fair’s price points this way:

“I went into a gallery [at the fair] a few years ago and I asked, ‘Do you have anything for less than a million dollars?’‘As a matter of fact we do. He went into the back room and he brought out two drawings.”

But the business of the art fair is beside the point at ABMB. The real focus, for better or for worse, is the endless list of tangential events. “The most-discussed moment [of last year’s fair] wasn’t a bidding war or a Damien Hirst brawl. It was the Chanel dinner where Demi Moore spent the evening petting a stray cat, even during an auction for a Dash Snow charity”, writes Nate Freeman.

And so, intending to have the full ABMB experience, I collected every social invite that was thrown my way and started planning my week.

Innumerable, forgettable paintings

PRESS RELEASE: Presented in partnership with CUSP by Neiman Marcus, the 2013 edition of Miami’s most stylish residents features a highly-curated group of the city’s top entrepreneurs, hoteliers, social influencers, artists, designers, and more, all of whom propel the artistic richness that sets the backdrop for Miami Art Basel.

Miami Beach doesn’t really attract the before-noon crowd. I barely saw anyone as I walked toward the convention center. But as I rounded the corner of 17th, suddenly there they were: the Art People. All seemed to be wearing at least two too many layers for the Miami heat, but I couldn’t find a single glistening drop of sweat on any of their foreheads (botox?).

After a skeptical look at my journalist credentials (solved by Google), I was granted press access to the fair. The first half hour was spent with other journalists standing in front of the doors as VIPs streamed in, attempting to get a glimpse at someone famous or otherwise noteworthy. I came up pretty empty. It turns out that for every Steve Cohen, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Val Kilmer, there are hundreds of other unrecognizable people who also warrant a VIP pass to Art Basel: museum staff, auction house representatives, curators, PR people, journalists, artists, dealers and gallery staff, collectors without tabloid followings, society-types looking to kill an afternoon.

Despite the distractions the rest of the week, the Wednesday VIP opening is the one time to be completely focused on art. Basel puts its most conservative foot forward off the bat. The entryway features the nexus of the New York-based Helly Nahmad Gallery, the Swiss Galerie Gmurzynska, and the Acquavella Galleries: all powerhouses of modern art, but unlikely to have anything that might be considered edgy. They all, for the most part, deal in secondary market works.

Galerie Gmurzynska’s booth caught my eye: it proudly proclaimed its design by Richard Meier. Meier is well-known for designing spaces that are white — sort of like every art fair booth and gallery that has ever existed. After inquiring with the gallery, I was told that he did indeed create the booth, to which he brought not only the whiteness but also the lighting. To be fair, it was subtly softer than in many of the other booths. There was also a room in the back of the booth dedicated to Meier’s NSFW collages of nude women. Risqué as it was, it was carefully walled off from the eyes of passersby.

The fair, however, was not conservative enough for some. A collector who asked to remain unnamed (well, she gave me a stage name) told me of her and her husband’s time at the fairs: “We’ve seen some things. We collect mostly glass, and that’s the thing we feel is lacking in the show… Some of it [the art] is too far out for our tastes. We’re a little more conservative, and we’re wish we could find a little more conservative work.”

After giving up on celebrity spotting, I began to circle around the fair. And circle and circle and circle. Despite the fact many people I know claim to have been there at the same time, Basel’s massive size, along with its disorienting, casino-like layout, all but guaranteed that I would run into very few of them. I meandered endlessly, searching for something interesting. This is what I remember (not a lot):

The fair was full of medium-sized, perfect-for-a-large-living-room sculpture, most of which pushed the envelope of thought-provoking, but rarely entered the realm of the noteworthy. The exception that proves the rule was the Jeff Koons “Elephant” sculpture being offered for $20 million by David Zwirner (the most expensive piece at the fair, from what I’ve seen reported).

Mostly, Art Basel is full of innumerable, forgettable paintings. It’s hard to say whether that’s because of the quality of the painting or the layout of the fair. Each dealer brings roughly a dozen works, most of them paintings (or some canvas or paper-based medium) of roughly the same medium-to-big size. Multiply that dozen times 250 galleries, and Basel becomes such an overwhelming display of color hung on the wall that it’s hard to really see it as art anymore.

That, of course, didn’t stop people from buying it. Numerous reports had high-priced works selling well. “It was a big day. As big as I can remember”, David Zwirner told Katya Kazakina. This may or may not be true — unless you are a salesperson at Zwirner, it’s impossible to verify. Given the number of people likely to be affected by how much multi-million dollar work was sold at the fair, the detail is largely irrelevant.

Conference food as performance art

PRESS RELEASE: A presentation by Vermouth enthusiast Miguel Angel Vaquer who will demonstrate “the golden hour of Vermouth” Spanish tradition … including tips on how to savor and enjoy this new trend launching in the U.S. during Art Basel week (free and open to the public).

Then there was the jungle-themed bar, hidden between two gallery booths for those looking for a fake oasis. Two local artists, Jim Drain and Naomi Fisher, filled the back-room-like space with plants and some of their own works. Each day there was a different local specialty being served.

On the VIP day, Miami resident Clive Chung hacked away at the tops of 200 coconuts, giving them out for free (with a straw) to fair visitors. Ostensibly this was a performance piece about interacting with the local culture. Fisher told Artinfo, “…there’s a farmer market I can walk to from my apartment and he’s there and I get a coconut from him every weekend. And we were just like, how great would it be if he was cutting coconuts for people at Art Basel?”

Of course, no one carrying a coconut around the fair knew why they were being given out — people were just excited to be getting free stuff. Before I talked to the artists, I asked Chung why he was there. He shrugged and went on hacking away.

Kanye, free steak for celeb photos, a forlorn dime bag

PRESS RELEASE: Interview Magazine and OHWOW teamed up to throw one of Art Basel’s most anticipated celebrations on the rooftop of The Boulan South Beach on Wednesday, December 4th. The invitation-only brought together boldfaced names across film, music and the arts to dance and drink under the stars, plus play with G-Star RAW Crossovers with Prouvé and Leica. DJ Dunks (Rub-n-Tug) provided the crowd with beats while cocktails from GREY GOOSE® Vodka kept the party going long into the morning.

The essence of ABMB has become about the symbiotic (or self-defeating) relationship between celebrities capitalizing on the art world’s intellectual credibility, and the art world capitalizing on the pop-cultural credibility of celebrities.

On my first evening, I spent an hour “with” Klaus Biesenbach at what qualifies as an intimate cocktail reception at the Standard Hotel (you could spend an entire week in Miami never going to a hotel, restaurant, or club that isn’t an offshoot of a hip New York spot). Intimate nevertheless meant the guest of honor had no more than five seconds for me, and I retreated to the group of young, low-paid arts workers where I belonged. When someone offered the group I was standing with, in all seriousness, a Peter Luger steak for anyone who could produce a photo of any celebrity in Miami drinking Perrier, it was time to go.

Later, I found myself in Little Havana, at a late evening discussion between curator and ultimate art person Hans Ulrich Obrist, architect Jacques Herzog, and Kanye West. It started two hours late, and most of the crowd headed for the door when West’s rambling did not turn out to be as hilariously incoherent as they expected. Kanye largely pontificated on his insecurities about not being taken seriously as an artist (he went to art school, you know). He also talked of his recent love for Le Corbusier and his attempts at furniture arbitrage when he felt big-name designers were over-charging him. He said many things about the nature of celebrity, none of which are worth printing.

In a particularly low moment, as West prattled on about his girlfriend’s good taste — Kim Kardashian appeared for one brief moment, then disappeared backstage — I sat on a white ottoman streaked with the dirt from the shoes of people who had gotten their fill of celebrity and left for greener pastures with fewer insecure monologues.

Pharrell playing next door was one of about 20 other things to be doing that night. I stared at a woman who couldn’t possibly have time to do anything but an endless cycle of pilates and sunbathing. When I got tired of wondering which exact yoga poses might make my legs look that way, I glanced down at my feet to find an empty dime bag with residual traces of white powder. I wondered if people had actually left because the cocaine ran out.

Behind the velvet rope — sort of

PRESS RELEASE: “Last night the artist KESH held an one night only art exhibit entitled W@WW (W/HAT @RE W/E W/ORSHIPPING?) on Friday, December 6th, 2013 in Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach 2013. Tastemakers in attendance included Raekwon, Theophilus London, Mykki Blanco,  Leo Velasquez, Jeanette Hayes, Shaun Ross, Niki the Icon, Charaf Tejar, Brandee Brown, Shayne Olivier (Hood By Air), Telfar Clemons, Omahyra Mota, Macuria and more.”

At the SoHo Beach House I was greeted by the now-familiar rope line. Those outside the venue aggressively demanded entrance, those inside smugly looked down (literally) from their perch above the stairs.

After being granted entrance, I was quickly reminded that I was not a member of the private club. I was given a small card — an “invitation” to the private party outside in a tent by the beach. Basel is a fascinating place to observe the subtle gradations of “elite society”. I counted eight successive employees who checked my card and waved me on through a dimly lit hallway that may have been a part of the kitchen. I was led down around the pool, and onto the beach boardwalk, where one of two final men took the card and whisked me into a tent full of people. I got just close enough to those who had full reign of facilities to be reminded that I was not one of them.

Regardless, if you are at the right party, with the right people, this is Basel at its most useful. The private party with a guest list carefully curated by an adept PR professional is where relationships are maintained, networks are expanded, cards are exchanged, deals are finalized. As a journalist, you can get the interviews with collectors, curators, and dealers you may not have been able to pin down at the fairs themselves. Unfortunately, the usefulness of these events is undermined by their ubiquity.

A dozen or more events per night, coupled with the horrendous snarl of Miami Beach traffic during Basel week, can mean that overlapping with the right people takes unfathomable amounts of planning. Judging which parties will be interesting, versus those full of people you’ve never heard of — and which are full of mind-numbing small talk that’s generally about where you have been or where you are going next — is one of the most exhausting parts of the week.

Brunch, brought to you by whoever

PRESS RELEASE: “Lucky Peach ‘All Ewe Can Eat’: The must-attend party of the year, for sheep. Anybody who’s anybody who’s a sheep will be there. Clean water, and all-ewe-can-eat grass. Humans also invited. No wolves.”

Despite consumption being the obvious theme in Miami, food was an afterthought. Inside the fairs, there were $7 bags of almonds and $11 sandwiches for sale ($5 and $9, respectively, at the smaller satellite fair Untitled). The price of a soda was so obscene I’ve blocked it out of my memory, although I do remember thinking it was more than I paid for a liter bottle of water at the airport on my way in. Elsewhere, of course, the food was often free, but still second fiddle.

I had enough to eat exactly once: at a brunch event Thursday sponsored by Ruinart champagne in honor of the company’s design collaboration with the Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek, whom I’d met the day before at the Basel fair. (There’s good and bad, but no such thing as a free-of-marketing brunch during Basel Week). This was also the party where a full glass of champagne was poured for a teddy bear.

The further you drifted from the core of the art world toward the fashion-and-society set, the more likely you were to go home hungry. On Friday morning, on my way to some of the satellite fairs, I swung by the “Tees & Tea” brunch, an event sponsored by Gap and Visionaire (a “multi-format album of fashion and art”) held at a upscale, multi-level boutique called the Webster. The point of the event, it seemed, was to sell $30 t-shirts that, while “limited edition” were also limited quality. “Hottest ticket in Miami” this was not. The place was half-empty, and the promised “brunch” turned out to be mostly alcohol. The mimosas were accompanied by coffee, if you asked nicely, and thumb-sized bits of food that might generously be called sandwiches.

This is, I suppose, is closely related to the fact that Art Basel has quite a dense concentration of thin people who look good in white pants.

Brand-aligned attempts at philanthropy


WHO:   Oasis Collections, a full-service hospitality company offering luxury, design-focused, short-term rentals in Latin America with recent expansions into Miami and New York City alongside Sweetwater, a hidden cool hangout in Miami decorated with salvaged wood, serving as a retreat and social space for locals to enjoy an organic and local farm-based food menu.

WHAT: Paint the Town Belvedere (Red)

A day to create awareness for National AIDS Day with a backyard BBQ featuring Claire Smith, The Hongs and Shangria LA

No discussion of Art Basel Miami Beach would really be complete without a mention of philanthropy. A good percentage of events in Miami are put on by brands in the name of some generally art-related but philanthropically ambiguous cause. Many of these causes fall under the umbrella of Felix Salmon’s ways you’re doing philanthropy wrong. Madewell, the J. Crew-owned clothing shop based in New York, was selling artist-designed purses in its Miami Beach store, in partnership with the online auction site Paddle8 (“They helped us chooses the artists who are brand-aligned”, said a Madewell representative). “Net proceeds” were to go to the Bass Museum of Art.

Why, or for what, was not exactly clear. Megan Riley, the director of external affairs at the museum, didn’t seem to know either, but invited me to tag along. While a perfectly fine event (there was organic juice and empanadas in addition to the champagne), the “philanthropy” part is questionable. The three bags were each being sold in an edition of 10 for $268. The total revenue for the sale was a maximum of $8,040. Assuming the bags cost something to produce, and the artists were paid something for their work, net proceeds were maybe $5,000. That’s a rounding error in a museum’s annual budget. Why not split that between the young artists who did the work?

At another event, the other online art site, Artsy, had a dinner in honor of the new CalArts studio building, which is named after artist and longtime CalArts educator John Baldessari. It was generally a good party (oysters!). There were speeches, back patting, and hoopla surrounding the online charity auction that Artsy was hosting in partnership with Christie’s and several galleries in New York and LA. But no answers to my questions about how much the building was going to cost, and why this was a worthwhile charitable endeavor.

I asked Christine Kuan, the director of strategic partnerships at Artsy, how much money the campaign was looking to raise. Visibly uncomfortable, she told me she didn’t think that information had been released yet and quickly ended the conversation. In fact, the information is on CalArts’ website: the institution is looking to raise $4-6 million to cover the cost of the building and a scholarship. The LA Times adds that the building has already been built using the school’s internal funds, at a cost of $3.1 million.

CalArts has a $53.7 million annual operating budget, a $99 million endowment, and $38,438 yearly tuition according to its own website. Not to mention it has already paid for the building. Is this a worthwhile cause? I don’t know. What I do know is that, like everything in Miami, the spectacle of the thing overshadowed any real questions about it.

from Shane Ferro:

Steve Cohen is not selling art to pay his bills

Oct 18, 2013 14:02 UTC

All too often the business press falls prey to reductive explanations. For instance, during the debt ceiling crisis, every time the market fell it was reported that stocks were down “on shutdown, debt ceiling concerns” or “as debt ceiling nears”. It was literally impossible for the market to fall without the debt ceiling being blamed -- and of course there was no evidence at all to prove causation.

Steve Cohen’s art purchases similarly fall victim to this problem. Peter Lattman and Carol Vogel explained in Dealbook last week that Cohen is selling a number of works this November at the Sotheby’s contemporary art auction in New York, in addition to stocks, in order “to meet withdrawal requests from skittish investors”.

There are a number of problems with this analysis, starting with the fact that it cannot be confirmed that these are Cohen’s works in the first place (the sourcing is anonymous and Sotheby’s won’t confirm). Secondly, Cohen buys and sells work all the time. Last year, he reportedly took three minutes to make the decision to buy Picasso’s “Le Rêve” from Steve Wynn for $150 million. In 2009, Sotheby’s had a museum-quality show of the $450 million worth of Cohen art -- all in the single genre of women’s portraits. It’s fair to assume that most of the works were for sale, at the right price. Pick any modern or contemporary auction in the last five years and there is a decent chance that Steve Cohen was somehow involved.

Finally -- and most importantly -- if you need cash, selling your art (publicly, no less!) is the option of last resort. The auction isn’t until November. If his work sells, Cohen will be somewhere between $30 million and $60 million more liquid two months from now. For someone of Cohen’s net worth, that amount is negligible in relation to billions of dollars in investor withdrawal requests. And that’s if it does sell. It might not even sell, and it will instead sit on his wall for another five years before he can try again. If Cohen really was selling his work for the cash, he’d be selling it privately through Larry Gagosian, and we’d never know about it unless there was a nasty lawsuit over the details.

It’s really doubtful that in his $10 billion holdings, he doesn’t have a better way of scrounging up $50 million than selling a few Warhols and a Gerhard Richter. Besides, investor withdrawals pay for themselves: you just liquidate the investors’ holdings which never really belonged to you in the first place, and return them. A billion-dollar fine would be a different matter -- but even that will almost certainly be paid out of investments. Which won’t stop the financial press from declaring, every time that Cohen sells a piece, that he might need the cash to meet other obligations.