Art Basel Now: A Discussion with the Fair’s Global Art Director, Marc Spiegler

"You will see thousands of artists, and that can break down peoples’ perceived notions of what art is."

ABMB18, Misc, General Impressions, PR
Photo courtesy of Scott Rudd.

Art Basel, the premiere annual art fair that occurs in Basel (Switzerland), Hong Kong, and Miami Beach, is at the leading edge of how the art world is evolving the way in which it connects with both new and young audiences. Over the past 17 years, the lattermost event—under the guidance of Marc Spiegler (the fair’s Global Art Director)—has helped in part to turn Miami Beach into a cultural world capital.

Just as artists experiment with new mediums, tackle new sociopolitical topics, and explore new outlets of self-expression, Art Basel is constantly looking inward, questioning how, as galleries struggle financially and as social media continues to dominate, to connect people to art.

Here, Spiegler discusses the event’s evolution over the past (nearly!) two decades, and what to expect from 2019’s fair, which commences on December 5th.

Marc Spiegler attends PRADA MODE LONDON on October 03, 2019 in London, England. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Eamonn M. McCormack

You’ve been in your role as Global Art Director for over a decade. What is the biggest difference you’ve seen at Miami Art Basel over that timeframe?

In 2009 we expanded the floor plan in the [Miami Beach] Convention Center quite significantly to make it bigger, and this year, we’re adding Meridians, which is an entirely new sector in the grand ballroom designed for large-scale artwork, including videos, paintings, sculptures, and performances. It’s for the kind of work that doesn’t fit in a traditional fair booth but is really important if you’re going to show the broad scope of art made today. What’s surprising to some people is that the public has long thought of fairs as places to buy domestic scale artworks. But as more private collectors have more large-scale spaces and as more museums buy [art] at fairs, there is a strong desire for that work to be present.

Beyond Meridians, what aspect of this year’s fair are you particularly excited by?

This year we have the Rubell Museum by Annabelle Selldorf opening in a neighborhood called Allapattah. That’s the latest in a series of developments: A few years ago we had the Institute of Contemporary Art opening in the Miami Design District; before that we had the opening of the Perez Art Museum by Herzog and de Meuron and the De La Cruz Collection. In the time I’ve been with the show we’ve seen a real expansion in the quality and quantity of large-scale private or public institutions, which means there’s a much richer array of exhibitions going on in parallel to our show. Our presence in the Miami area has made more people think of it as a place for culture. I think we’ve certainly helped build the audience for contemporary art in the area.

In recent years, Art Basel has become known as a party hub. How have you been able to remind people that Art Basel is, at its core, about art?

First of all, there’s a lot going on [in Miami] that we’re in no way connected to that bring lots of interesting exhibitions, concerts, and performances into the area. Miami shows that the audience for Art Basel is broader than just the people who are all day, every day in the art world. There are a lot of people coming from other industries—cinema, architecture, music, design, fashion—who are real patrons of the arts and doing collaborations with artists. What’s interesting about Miami, more than any other event in North America, is that while this is, at its core, an event driven by a single industry—the art world—it also serves as a kind of uniting or meeting point of the broader creative class of both North and South America. Miami Beach has this kind of fluid character; it’s a fun place. This is not an art history class. This is not an academic setting. It’s a place where a lot of vibrant and dynamic personalities come together around art. In some cases they come together at parties, running on the beach in the morning, or sitting by the pool waiting for the show to open at noon. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Art Basel has also become a prime opportunity for sponsors. How have you been able to balance the creative with the commercial?

Our global partners are constantly bringing new and interesting projects into the world and supporting great young artists. One of the real evolutions for us in terms of the partners we work with closely is that they’ve shown more of a desire to commission new works and to highlight their involvement with the arts. They don’t just want to be present with their logo—they really want to be engaged with the art scene all year round. BMW, for example, has a very long history with the art world. They started doing art cars in the ‘70s, and they have an amazing art collection. The BMW Art Journey at Basel this year was a project we took a long time to figure out, and it has been really fascinating to see what happens when you ask great young artists to come up with a physical journey that inspires artworks or new series. Especially now, in this digital age, where so much is in the virtual space, it’s the idea of an artist traveling not quickly but slowly, doing research, being in places, meeting people, and then coming out of that journey and making art. I like to say these are journeys of discovery that will continue to inspire the artists for decades to come.

How have you attempted to evolve the fair this year, particularly as galleries struggle? Have you done anything to make it more accessible for galleries to participate, and if you do make it more accessible?

In terms of galleries that are struggling, this will be the first fair in Miami that has the sliding scale model for booth pricing. What that model does is that it creates a system where the larger the booth is, the more it costs per square meter. It used to be that regardless of the size of your booth you paid the same in the main gallery sector. In addition, galleries coming into the main sector for the first time get a discount, as well. We really tried to create a system that benefited the galleries that are the youngest or in their mid-career, that aren’t financially established and don’t have as many major artists. What was amazing was that the largest, most established galleries supported this idea. The extra cost to them wasn’t huge, and they really liked the idea that we were benefitting the galleries who are where they were 20 years ago and who are working with artists they may one day work with. Obviously the art world is a competitive industry, but there’s still a sense of collegiality and this notion that there is an ecosystem that needs the little galleries and mid-career galleries as much as it needs the big ones.

What do you ultimately want people to get out of attending Art Basel, both on the gallery side and on the visitor side?

I think fairs are about discovery. Whether you’re a collector or just an art lover, to discover new artists, new pieces, and new galleries gives you a lot of things to think about. It broadens your perspective. Maybe next time you go to Berlin you’ll have more galleries you want to visit, or you’ll find an artist whose retrospective you decide you need to fly across the world to see. For galleries, sales are obviously important, but I think what’s really great is when they sell to and meet new people. Galleries go to a show in the hopes of meeting new patrons for their artists, because most galleries have a core group of collectors—usually about a dozen people—so if you add one, two, or three more supporters of your program, it really helps. What we do well is brings patrons from all over the world to our shows and introduce them to great galleries and artists. There’s a possibility for connections between far apart countries that doesn’t usually exist in most contexts.

Do you think the role of art in peoples’ lives has changed? How do you see younger people interacting with art, and how are you attempting to invite younger people into the mix? I feel like most peoples’ hesitations with art is that it seems unaffordable or inaccessible.

Social media obviously plays a huge role here, and the fact is, we have more than a dozen times as many people following our social media accounts as we do actually attending the show. I think it’s also important that we constantly bring in new galleries and artists that have a more natural connection with the next generation of collectors. But artists today don’t just want to work for social media—they want to be part of the broader culture, and they want to make art based on that. We’re reflective of that; it’s important to us, our galleries, and our artists that the work is being seen by the broadest group of people possible, whether that’s on their phone in some far away place, at the show, or through many of our public art fairs. It’s important that we interact with not only the current core of the market but also with all the future patrons of the art world, whether those are people who are just going to buy a museum membership, or people who are going to sit on museum boards. Artists are coming from a broader range—including backgrounds and social classes—than they did before. They’re addressing a much broader range of social issues than they were before, and they’re much more a part of the dialogue. If you come and spend your day at a fair like Art Basel Miami Beach, you will see thousands of artists, and that can break down peoples’ perceived notions of what art is, what it looks like, what it talks about, who makes it, and where it comes from. And I think that’s important.