The Art World's Biggest Party
By Lauren A.E. Schuker
When the nation's largest art fair, Art Basel Miami Beach, opens next week, it is expected to draw more than 40,000 visitors. But many of them will be coming for the glitzy social scene and beach bacchanalia, rather than the art.
One reason: Many of the top works are already spoken for. Collectors and dealers say the practice of "preselling" -- allowing collectors to purchase the art well before the main event -- is more common in Miami than at other fairs, in part because it is so heavy on coveted contemporary works. As the fair's international profile has grown, so has the pace of preselling. "It's getting earlier and earlier every year," says Lisa Austin, a Miami-based art adviser who helps collectors choose work. "So much of the art world is based on what you can't get, so it makes people crazy for certain works when they walk in and a whole booth is sold."
By Thanksgiving, the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York had already sold three of its 15 works to collectors, including a $100,000 Tracey Emin sculpture made with neon lights. The Richard Gray Gallery in New York and Chicago just sold two new portraits by American artist Alex Katz, whose Pop Art-inspired work is in the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Now the gallery plans to bring only a small painting by Mr. Katz and the artist's less sought-after drawings. And last month, New York's Mary Boone Gallery sold five works by the 59-year-old American painter Eric Fischl to a single collector, for $2 million apiece. Mr. Fischl, who is often compared to Edward Hopper and Édouard Manet, is best known for his subtle renderings of psychological tension and figurative paintings of domestic scenes.
Buyers will have more luck finding art at the "satellite fairs," which take place during the same week and feature works from newer galleries with emerging artists. The number of these fairs has more than doubled -- to about 23 this year over last -- in part to cater to buyers locked out of the main event by top collectors who bought in advance.
The feeding frenzy in Miami reflects broader shifts in the way art is bought and sold. Years of booming business, particularly in the contemporary area, have attracted new buyers and new money from around the globe. Galleries have long waiting lists of collectors clamoring for the works of in-demand artists. In 2006, Christie's brought in $4.67 billion from art, the highest in art-market history.
The social cachet of collecting has also drawn younger people into the fray, increasing the profile of arts events, from evening auctions in London and New York to art fairs like Miami. Fairs used to be stodgy trade shows for serious collectors. Today, shows like Art Basel Miami Beach have become an excuse for jetsetters to party for a cultural cause. Big-time collectors do their buying beforehand, because they know that major deals are rarely brokered on the spot anymore.
These changes annoy some collectors, but they have invigorated the scene in Florida. Now in its sixth year, Art Basel Miami Beach -- an offshoot of the long-running Art Basel held annually in Switzerland -- is no longer merely about buying art, but an all-purpose super-convention for the rich and trendy.
"Miami has become overwhelming and insane -- but mostly, it has become a major social event. It shows what has happened to the contemporary art world," says Adam Lindemann, a collector and investor in New York who is exhibiting watches at Design Miami, one of this year's satellite fairs. "It has become impossible to see everything, or even much of anything."
Art advisers say they have their eyes on a handful of satellite fairs this year, including one run by NADA, or the New Art Dealers Alliance, a not-for-profit group formed in 2002. NADA's fair will combine works from more than 80 emerging galleries.
At a booth run by the Daniel Reich Gallery in New York, for example, four new Susanne M. Winterling photographs will hang, including the $4,500 "Untitled (her cup of tea)." The image of a fur-covered teacup pays homage to Meret Oppenheim's famous 1936 fur-lined cup on a fur-covered saucer with spoon. The gallery will also put up an $8,000 collage titled "Cold Cream" by Anya Kielar, an American sculptor in her late twenties whose work sells for as much as $16,000.
Other fairs are held in hotels (the staff empties the rooms and turns them into booths), the arts district of Wynwood, and in galleries in Miami's "Design District." Many of the fairs specialize in photography or design.
Pulse Miami, at SoHo Studios in Wynwood, will offer high-end works from 80 galleries. Tel Aviv's Braverman Gallery, for example, will feature the melancholy landscape installations of Israeli artist Uri Nir. For contemporary Asian works, art advisers recommend Scope Miami.
Some galleries at satellite fairs are now starting to presell, too. Didier Krzentowski runs Galerie Kreo in Paris and will be exhibiting sets of limited-edition furniture at the Design Miami fair. He says that before the event begins, he will have sold between four and eight items of each 12-piece set. The sold pieces include a $44,000 coffee table by the young French design duo Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, and a table designed by Martin Szekely.
Mr. Krzentowski says he offers the pieces to favored clients before the fair, because they follow the work of his artists and "will be really upset if we tell them it is sold out."
The Miami Beach Art Photo Expo, a satellite fair being held at the the Surfcomber Hotel on Collins Avenue, says it had already set aside 20% of its stock for VIP clients by the end of November. The fair is dedicated to works by leading fashion photographers, with prices averaging about $8,000 and going up to $40,000. Among the reserved works is a flashy photograph by Miles Aldridge called "Pure Wonder" and a work by Japanese photographer Kanjo Take called "Madonna," which shows a nude modern Geisha peeking through a colorful coat. It sold for $20,800.
John Morrissey, a lawyer in West Palm Beach, Fla., says that after attending the fair for the past six years, he has learned to plan ahead. If he wants work by a particular artist, he calls galleries about a month before the fair. Even if they won't presell work, Mr. Morrissey says it can help grease the wheels of a deal by showing interest ahead of time.
The process of selling a work in advance typically starts when dealers notify clients about the items they are bringing to the fair. Images are emailed, along with lengthy descriptions. Often in the world of contemporary art, the pieces that go to fairs are fresh from the artists' studios -- and most in demand. Seasoned art collectors develop intimate relationships with galleries in order to get access to such work.
Many dealers who presell works will end up bringing different, less valuable pieces to the fair. But some dealers exhibit presold work as a way to attract visitors to their booths. Fair organizers say that's a practice they discourage. "Putting something on your wall that is sold -- well, it's a real waste of real estate," says Lucy Mitchell-Innes, co-owner of the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery in New York and a member of the fair's selection committee.
Ron Warren, director of the Mary Boone Gallery, which presold the Eric Fischl paintings, calls the business of preselling "a frustrating situation." He says, "On the one hand, we can't say no to our clients, but on the other, we need to bring unsold work to attract collectors."
There are other ways buyers can get special access. They can ask dealers to reserve a work for a couple of hours while they roam the fair, or they can score a VIP ticket. Some 2,000 VIP tickets are sent out every September by the organizers of Art Basel, allowing entry to the fair about 24 hours before the general public. Museum directors and curators are usually on this list, and exhibitors are given four tickets each for their top clients.
Ken Edelson, a real-estate developer who splits his time between Boca Raton, Fla., and New York, collects work by blue-chip artists like the German painter Anselm Kiefer, known for his post-apocalyptic landscape paintings. He says he'll go to Art Basel again this year, but with so much already spoken for, he doesn't have high hopes: "Anything that is a name is probably snapped up, and if it isn't, it's because it's a 'B' or a 'C' piece."
Samuel Keller, director of Art Basel as well as Art Basel Miami Beach, says while preselling is more common, there is still plenty of art available this year. He says he tries to keep the playing field level by barring collectors and their advisers from the fair before the VIP opening. In recent years, he has also allowed galleries to bring more art so they can replace works on the wall as they are sold. Last year, he says, galleries brought 40% more freight than the year before.
"We would not get the world's biggest collectors here if we ran out of art -- there is still more artwork than money, even in Miami," says Mr. Keller.