Art lovers and investors from around the globe will be flocking to the northwestern Swiss city from Thursday for the world’s biggest contemporary art fair, Art Basel, featuring nearly 300 leading galleries from six continents.
“I’m from Basel but for me Art Basel is not a Swiss event – it’s international,” explained 30-year-old artist Reto Pulfer, who is exhibiting his work for the first time this year. “I would be happy to become known to collectors but my dream is to simply be able to work as I want.”
Pulfer, who previously took part in Basel’s parallel Liste exhibition for young up-coming artists, lives in Berlin and is represented by a Parisian gallery run by an Italian and a German.
And then there is Ben Vautier, 77, an established painter, whose show La Suisse n’existe pas (Switzerland doesn’t exist) featured at the Swiss pavilion at the Universal Exposition in Seville in 1992. He says he feels perfectly at home in Basel.
“Every time I go to Art Basel I’m amazed to see everything and everyone at the same time. Its reputation is maybe due to the fact that it’s a safe place where people feel at ease. There are the banks and big business and it’s less ethnocentric than other countries - it looks at what’s going on elsewhere,” he said.
Artists, gallery owners, collectors, museum curators and other specialists will be making their annual trip to Art Basel. But his year discerning VIP collectors will get two days’ sneak preview before the public gets in.
When it closes on June 17 the usual congratulatory press release will be released talking about how happy the “world’s 300 most influential and innovative galleries” have been and giving a few details on record sales. But overall business figures about the hundreds of millions of dollars of art that was sold will remain secret, as always.
The fair offers a kind of supreme legitimacy, explained Paul-André Jaccard, director of the Swiss fine art studies institute at Lausanne University.
“To participate in Art Basel is to reach the summit of a very segmented market. The galleries ranked in this top global event gain in visibility and notoriety as do the artists they represent, who end up also being ranked,” he explained.
Lausanne gallery owner Alice Pauli, who has taken part since the second edition in 1971, said it was clearly the best art fair: “The selection is very strict in all categories, including young artists. Every year I present a dossier like everyone else and I’m never sure of being chosen.”
Until now she has always had an 80-square-metre stand, but the competition is heating up among Europeans.
“Basel has evolved a great deal from an international perspective, especially with the arrival of emerging nations, both in terms of participants and collectors,” she said.
“The exhibition costs me over SFr100,000 – two-thirds for the stand and the remainder for insurance, transport and staff accommodation. But generally we break even.”
The estimated 65,000 public visitors and occasional buyers are not allowed to take part in events reserved for the VIP collectors. But they somehow manage to find what they are looking for, said Jaccard.
“Basel boasts a unique concentration of ‘tastemakers’, people who popularise new trends, find new artists, and orientate the tastes of the big collectors which are then copied by the smaller amateur collectors who sometimes lack direction,” he said.
This year the fair has convinced exhibitors to share their precious client lists.
“We decided to optimize our files and centralise the invitations,” explained press officer Nicola Fässler.
Pauli is not concerned: “We received confidentiality guarantees. It will also stop the same people receiving several invitations at the same time.”
Wheat from the chaff
Ever since auction houses started getting interested in the contemporary art market in the 1980s, prices have soared, attracting numerous big banks.
UBS has been Art Basel’s main sponsor since 1994. In 2009 following heavy losses caused by the sub-prime crash, UBS closed its Art Banking section. Eighteen months later, however, it discretely opened a new Art Competence Center.
“In the old days the king, the Pope or Stalin were the ones deciding what was beautiful or ugly. Today power lies in the hands of Coca Cola and the banks. They even launch bids for certain artists. Power likes to see itself reflected in a mirror and naturally it tries to control the contemporary art market,” said Vautier.
“Art is all about ego where everyone wants to be the best. The artist remains independent as he is constantly trying to transgress the rules. He says: “ok, I’ll obey the powers, I’ll do advertising for Coca Cola, but I’ll add to it and hijack it’. Just look at Andy Warhol who did a painting of dollar bills.”
Unlike other business sectors, the international contemporary art market has not witnessed a major slump, and Art Basel remains the focal point, exporting its business model to Miami and Hong Kong.
This network is a true reflection of today’s globalised world, said Jaccard.
“With borders disappearing the art market has a similar economic interdependency to states. Artists, like art fairs, are going global. Fairs are attracting the very wealthy and new markets like Asia and South America are emerging. They have to therefore seek out new artists and collectors who are increasingly international.”