Art Basel draws big spenders along with art lovers

Art Basel is Europe's biggest art fair. Art Basel

Switzerland’s premier showcase for modern-classic and contemporary art opened its doors on Wednesday.

This content was published on June 16, 2004 minutes

The art fair, at which 270 galleries are exhibiting, opens two weeks after a prominent critic fuelled an ongoing debate over spiralling prices for art.

Robert Hughes said the payout commanded by Pablo Picasso’s “Boy with a pipe”, at a New York auction in May, reflected the “obscene” prices being paid for modern art.

“When you have the super-rich paying $104 million [SFr131 million] for an immature rose-period Picasso – close to the GNP of some Caribbean or African states – something is very wrong,” Hughes fumed in a keynote address to the Royal Academy of Arts in London on June 2.

Art Basel organiser Maria Finders countered that an original Picasso “isn’t just art anymore. For those kinds of things, you’re paying for heritage. You can’t price it.”

She said people speak of the high price of art all the time. “Even me. But at Art Basel you can buy work for under €5,000 (SFr7,800).” One in four pieces at the show is marked with a yellow dot to alert buyers to the lower end of available prices.

Artists said the price can be deceptive. “There isn’t so much money for the artist, when you consider the galleries get half,” said Pia Zerhat, a German multimedia artist working for an online art magazine.

Art unlimited

Zerhat is among an estimated 50,000 people expected to visit the show, now in its 35th year. As a conceptual artist, she says Art Basel is her playground.

This year the more than 5,000 exhibits will include works by Picasso, Matisse, Warhol and 1,500 other artists.

Among several larger-than-life exhibits in the Art Unlimited hall is Wombhouse, a model uterus big enough to sleep in, and furnished for the purpose with sound system and wine bar in the left ovary.

Other offerings include a military observation tower with a pole-dancing stage, and a house built to scale and padded in what appears to be fat – complete with a talking, “fat car”. Among other things, the car says it’s hungry.

“The place to be”

About 830 galleries applied for the show this year. One in three were selected, organisers said.

“Everybody goes to this one,” said Yuko Hasegawa, curator of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Japan. “In terms of finding art and new artists, it has been very helpful in my work. This is my tenth year.”

Claude Walter, owner of Fabian and Claude Walter Galerie in Basel, said she frequents major fairs in New York and London, and regularly takes in Art Basel’s sister fair in Miami Beach, Florida.

But the Swiss show is most important, she said. “Art Basel is really ‘the place to be’. If you have a gallery, you don’t want to miss it.”

This year, for the first time, Art Basel will bring together art collectors, museum curators and artists in a series of hour-long panel discussions. “Conversations” will take place every day and will be open to the public.

“Professional exchange has sometimes become a victim of commercial exchange in the art world,” explained show director Samuel Keller.

swissinfo, Elizabeth Meen in Basel

Key facts

Art Basel is at the Messe Basel from June 16 to June 21.
Doors open from 11am to 7pm.
"Conversations" will be held in Hall 4 from 10 until noon daily.

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In brief

This year, more than 270 galleries from all over the world have stands at Art Basel.

More than 50,000 people visit the show every year.

Around 5,000 artworks will be displayed, including pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Warhol and 1,500 other artists.

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