Many eyes may be on the football World Cup in South Africa, but in Basel - host of the world’s premier art fair Art Basel - art has taken centre stage.
Swiss galleries and artists are hoping to make their mark as thousands of art lovers descend on the Rhine city over the next few days to find out what is going on in the art scene, and make discoveries and – it is hoped – big purchases.
More than 300 galleries from 37 countries will be showing modern and contemporary works by 2,500 artists at the five-day “Art”, as it is known, which officially opens on Wednesday.
Visitors can wander around two huge exhibition halls, one containing the galleries’ booths and the other a selection of outsized works by established artists (Art Unlimited), as well as displays by young galleries of upcoming talents (Art Statements).
Switzerland, with 32 galleries, is the third-largest country group at Art Basel after the United States and Germany. Art Basel co-director Annette Schönholzer said that the show was important for the Swiss art scene.
“I believe that Art Basel has been one of the many factors which have brought forth interesting artists from Switzerland,” she told swissinfo.ch at the media preview on Tuesday.
Big Swiss names
The Swiss scene is very international and many of its biggest names are present at Art Basel. Ugo Rondinone and Urs Fischer, both New York residents, are being exhibited by the Zurich-based Galerie Presenhuber.
Its owner, Eva Presenhuber, says all artists are very careful about what they show. “They really love this fair because it tries to include only highly professional artwork and dealers,” she said. Big collectors come as well.
A particularly impressive work by Fischer can be seen in the Art Unlimited section. Presenhuber’s technicians were already setting up the five grey, twisting sculptures, which together take up 200 metres² in space, a week beforehand.
The entry standards for galleries are really tough, added Presenhuber, who is also a member of the Art Basel selection committee, and has been at the show for 12 years.
This is why Nicolas Krupp, whose gallery is in Basel, is pleased to have made it for the first time into one of the highly-coveted booths.
“It’s actually what I have been working for in the last ten years … so it’s a very exciting moment,” said Krupp, who has previously been in Art Statements. Key now is to have an attractive booth, he said.
At the preview there seemed to be plenty of interest in the galleries, with hundreds of - mostly well-heeled - guests mingling with journalists and the sharply dressed gallery staff.
On show was a large mix of art, including works by Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Topping the price list is reportedly a $25 million (SFr29 million) Alberto Giacometti sculpture.
The economic crisis seemingly did not affect the number of gallery applications to Art Basel, with 1,100 in 2010, the same as last year.
Krupp is optimistic that the art business is slowly recovering after being hit with falling sales, even if the present situation is still not “really great”. Recent auctions were quite good, he points out and there seems to be more money flowing into the market.
Presenhuber admits the market is slower, but says “great art finds its home always”.
Great art can also be found at shows running parallel to Art Basel. And many of them offer a snapshot of the upcoming Swiss art scene, says Claudia Jolles, editor of the Art Bulletin, Switzerland’s best read art magazine.
“The Swiss Art Awards is the biggest event for young artists in the year because everyone is curious who is nominated and who will get a prize,” she told swissinfo.ch.
The Federal Culture Office-sponsored awards are given out two days before Art Basel opens. A glimpse into the nominees’ exhibition, opposite the Art Basel buildings, shows a lot of creativity in the video installations and oil and canvas work.
The Liste show is for young galleries and is an exciting place, says Jolles. “A lot of the Liste galleries later end up in Art,” she said.
Whether visitors are looking for the next big thing or to invest in art, there should be something for everyone in Basel in the next few days – even residents can for the first time enjoy a selection of Art Basel works dotted around the city.
“Basel becomes a very busy international city,” Krupp said of the art-filled days. “There’s so much going on, with this fair and all the events around it. It’s actually quite a wild week.”
Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Basel, swissinfo.ch
The exhibition includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, installations, photographs and video works.
On display: one of the last pieces by Louise Bourgeois, who died last month in New York at the age of 98.
New this year: Art Parcours, ten large-scale works installed throughout Basel, and Art Feature, with 20 gallery projects including rare historical items.
Claudia Jolles’ (editor of Art Bulletin, subscription art magazine) tips for Basel: Kunsthalle (contemporary art exhibition room, with special opening hours during Art Basel); Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco at the Kunsthaus fine arts museum; the Swiss Art Awards exhibition.
Art Basel in brief
Art Basel, in its 41st edition, runs from June 16-20, 2010.
It is said to be the premier event of its kind and allows art lovers to rub shoulders with the cognoscenti and gain an overview of the art market. 61,000 people visited last year.
This year Art Basel features almost 300 galleries (selected from more than 1,100 applicants) from 37 countries in North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa. 20th and 21st century works from more than 2,500 artists are on show.
Galleries’ provenance – the top five: United States (72), Germany (53), Switzerland (32), France and Britain (both 27), Italy (20).