Basel becomes the capital of contemporary art

The event expects 50,000 visitors MCH Swiss Exhibition (Basel/Zurich) AG

Art Basel, the world's leading fair for 20th and 21st century art, opened its doors on Tuesday, with 50,000 visitors expected to admire the works on display.

This content was published on June 12, 2007 - 08:28

The 38th annual event is set to highlight the robust health of the art market, driven by the booming economy and stock market performance.

With 300 galleries displaying the work of around 2,000 artists, Basel is the show not to be missed for all those involved or interested in the world of contemporary art.

The 2006 results have remained under wraps, but exhibitors were widely quoted as saying it was their best year ever.

"The only thing we can say is the 99 per cent of the exhibitors want to come back the next year," Art Basel spokesman Peter Vetsch told swissinfo. "So the investment must be worth it."

The waiting list to get inside is very long, the selection process is tough and an 80-square-metre stand will set you back at least SFr50,000 ($40,000) for the show. For Lausanne's Galerie Pauli, the cost is SFr100,000.

"It's a big budget, but you get to meet an international clientele that comes to Art Basel and doesn't often visit galleries," said Alice Pauli, who has been present at the fair for the past 30 years. "The results come later."

New players

Art Basel is for many observers a mirror image of global interest in contemporary art. Museums are popping up everywhere, and more than 100 major shows are held around the world.

Simon Studer, a Geneva art merchant, confirms this interest.

"There's more money around because people are making profits on the stock market," he said. "What's really new though is the number of people who are interested in art, for all kinds of reasons."

The market is experiencing exponential growth with the rich getting richer and new fortunes appearing in developing nations. Some estimates put its value last year up to $35 billion.

In 2007, the trend has continued unabated. In May, Christie's sold artwork for $384 million in one evening, including $71.7 million for a piece by Andy Warhol and $7.4 million for another by Damien Hirst.

"The market is doing even better with direct sales between buyer and purchaser," added Studer. Working with Geneva's Benedict Hensch Bank, Studer's company advises clients who own artwork.

Other banks have begun taking an interest in this new form of wealth management, responding to rising demand. Investment funds are also considering art as a way of leveraging higher yields, although some fear the bubble will eventually burst.

No control

"Before, auction houses only considered works that were at least ten years old," said Hanno Rauterberg, art critic for Germany's influential weekly Die Zeit. "That all changed in 1998 when Christie's started proposing new works with huge success."

For Studer, one of the biggest concerns is for the artists themselves. "There is no control over the prices, which can double from year to the next, even if the artist never had a personal exhibition or a real career," he told swissinfo.

While he admits this of little concern to established artists, this is not the case for newcomers. "Its dangerous for youngsters with no experience who might off in directions they might have never taken without financial success," he added.

For Alice Pauli, it's hard to say what the future holds.

"It's true that the market tends focus on fairs and auctions, and public tends to forget galleries," she said. "But what's important is that galleries ensure that artists maintain quality that goes beyond trends."

swissinfo, Isabelle Eichenberger

Key facts

The 38th Art Basel runs from June 13 to June 17.
Tickets cost SFr30.
Founded by gallery owners in 1970, it has been headed by Samuel Keller since 2000.
Spin-off Art Basel Miami Beach was launched in 2001 in Florida.
This year it will take place in December.
From January 1, 2008 a three person management team - Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, Annette Schönholzer and Marc Spiegler - will take over from Keller.
Rabinowitz, who lives in New York and Basel, will be artistic director of the two fairs.
Schönholzer, a Swiss-American dual national, will be responsible for organisation and finance.
Spiegler, a French-American dual national, will be in charge of strategy and development.

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The programme

Besides the actual market, the Art Basel offer includes Art on Stage, Art Statement (for young artists), Art Unlimited (monumental works) and Public Art Projects (open air works for public spaces).

The Art Basel Conversations colloquia bring together specialists from different fields.

Films, book releases, shows and workshops for children are also part of the official programme.

Parallel shows in Basel include the Volta, Liste and Design Miami events.

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