Plan Z: How the Art World Is Contending With the Specter of Zika at Art Basel Miami Beach

The virus has darkened the forecast of this week’s fair and parade of parties — even as some opt for blissful ignorance of the threat.

Illustration by Alex Hodor-Lee

“It’s beautiful, sunny, perfect Miami weather,” the dealer Jeffrey Deitch said on the phone from South Florida last week, where he’d arrived early to prepare for the weeklong circus that accompanies Art Basel Miami Beach, which unofficially kicks off today. “Everything is completely normal.”

Deitch, who’s been heading to Miami every year since even before the fair started in 2002, was not just offering blithe small talk. His comments on the weather — and assertions that he hadn’t yet been hit with a blast of bug spray, nor encountered a single mosquito — also served as a reckoning on the current status of Zika in Miami Beach. Since late July, the virus has found a home in the city, marking the first continental United States outbreak of what the World Health Organization deemed an international health emergency earlier this year. And, as it turns out, the problem areas — Miami Beach, Wynwood, Little Haiti — are also ground zero for Art Basel and its ancillary fairs and events, which all told brought 77,000 people to town last December.

Zika causes birth defects, including microcephaly, a type of brain damage, in newborns whose mothers are infected during pregnancy. The mosquitos that transmit it were reportedly cleared from Wynwood in September, and from a three-mile stretch of Miami Beach just last week. But worries about the virus still run rampant in the art world, particularly among women of childbearing age. Bring up Zika at any of the many parties and galas in the last month, and most gallerists, collectors, and dealers would have revealed they know at least a few people — likely women — who consider the threat reason enough to stay home this year.

At least, they’ll do so off the record. “The art world has taken a rather ‘let’s not talk about it’ approach,” said Elena Soboleva, a 30-year-old art market observer and special projects manager at Artsy who has opted to go to Miami, her 35th art fair this year. In part, honest, open discussion can be impossible because “it also puts a woman’s personal information on view,” said the dealer Loring Randolph, a 35-year-old partner at Casey Kaplan gallery. “If you say you’re not going, it means you might be trying to get pregnant or are thinking about getting pregnant. Those aren’t the kinds of things that you necessarily want to tell your employer. It puts you in a vulnerable position.”

Of course, the overwhelming concern does not correlate to an overwhelming percentile of women in the art world planning to have children within the next year. The worry stems more from a “fear of the unknown,” as Anne Huntington, a collector in her early thirties who cancelled her trip to Miami just a few weeks ago, explained. This year is the first she won’t be attending the fair in a decade. The threat of Zika is among the reasons why, and it’s the primary deterrent for the art adviser friend she had planned to travel with. Together, they decided that “if there was a year not to go, it would be this year.”

The art world, Soboleva suggested, begs for clarity when it comes to the virus. But it doesn’t appear that information will be coming from the Art Basel fair itself, whose website yields a total of zero results when you search for the Z word. When I reached a spokesperson, they did maintain that none of the fair’s partners or 250-plus galleries have pulled out as a result of the scare. Pre-registration numbers have been in line with those of previous years, and organizers have kept in regular and direct contact with both the CDC and officials of the City of Miami Beach, who say that “the rigorous abatement measures they have collectively taken throughout the city since late summer are proving to be effective.”

On its own website, however, the CDC still recommends that pregnant women consider postponing travel to all parts of Miami-Dade county, and to stay out of some areas of Miami altogether. Those with plans to get pregnant in the near future should also beware — if infected, the virus, which can be sexually transmitted, can linger for two months in women, and six months in men. Cause for concern, then, is very real among the family-inclined.

However, some would rather not know the details. “In terms of the virus — if it’s considered a virus or infection, however they refer to it — I don’t know medically what a threat it is,” said the blogger Colby Jordan, 23, who just married the collector and dealer Alberto “Tico” Mugrabi in September. They will be in Miami this week. “My husband would have had to go anyway, so I figured I’d much rather be with him than be at home in New York.”

Whether Jordan and her husband, one of the biggest collectors in the world, are thinking about family planning at this stage, she said, was too personal — a common and completely understandable reaction among many of those whom I approached for comment. When the threat was still a mosquito cloud hovering far away in Brazil in 2015, Zika felt like something of a jokey buzzword among removed New Yorkers — an attitude that’s darkened as the virus has spread into the U.S. over the last year. I first received notice of this growing concern in June, a month before Zika landed Stateside, when I asked Serena Williams during an interview whether she was worried about Zika at the Olympics later that summer. She’d been in a light mood, offering up athlete platitudes — her goal was simply to “go out there and have fun,” she said — until mention of the virus saw her suddenly turn serious. “Obviously,” Williams replied, before listing off her detailed plans to protect herself.

In conversation, Zika has been a prickly topic to introduce. Those willing to speak on the record are hard to come by, which is why I followed up an unrelated interview with the 28-year-old model Coco Rocha when I caught wind of her upcoming Miami vacation with her husband James Conran and their 19-month-old daughter. While they’ve “definitely” been following the story, Conran said, after the recent birth of their daughter, Rocha no longer considers pregnancy one of her top concerns. “I feel like there’s so much in the world that you can worry about until it makes you sick,” she said earnestly. “This is one thing, and we’re trying to live life.”

New motherhood has also been a balm for Randolph, who had a baby nine months ago and will be present in her booth under the Art Basel tents. “I think I’m one of the few people who maybe is of a bit of a different mindset about this than most women my age,” she said, adding that she’s talked with “a lot” of women in the art world between the ages of 30 and 40 who are “really choosing not to go because of a fear of Zika.” But Randolph isn’t planning on having another child immediately, and she’s come to regard the relatively small risk of contracting microcephaly as “totally fine” compared to the three to four percent chance of death her newborn faced due to other complications.

For some, children aren’t even on the radar. “No one I know is trying to have kids,” said the artist Chloe Wise, 25, who’ll be attending for the fifth year in a row. She’s even throwing her birthday party in Miami, and so far hasn’t seen any downtick in expected guests. “There’s way crazier things in the world than the Zika thing, no offense to Zika,” she said. She added, with a laugh, “The L train [shutdown] seemed like a big deal until Trump got elected. And now we’re all over the L train.”

Wise’s young peers are not the only ones who seem to be immune to worry. “Men should be taking it just as seriously,” Soboleva insisted, though few could point to any men who’ve decided to skip out on Basel, let alone even openly discuss the virus in the first place. And yet, as of the known cases in late June, men, not women, were responsible for all instances of the virus being sexually transmitted, and are recommended to wait six months — three times longer than women — after experiencing symptoms to have unprotected sex.

“I feel like it’s as big of a threat for a man as it is for a woman, if you’re in a relationship and want to get pregnant,” the newlywed Jordan said, explaining why she feels she might as well join her husband in Miami if his work already compels him to be there. And for men who aren’t committed to just one partner, the effects might be even greater, as they can contract the virus and pass it on without ever experiencing symptoms — or, if research rates are as low as they appear, without even realizing that’s within their capability. (As the CDC notes, aside from light fever and a few other irritations, “many people infected with Zika virus won’t have symptoms or will only have mild symptoms.”)

Even if the attendance figures hold, there is anecdotal evidence that this year’s Art Basel Miami won’t be the beaming sun and fun of previous iterations. Whether it’s Zika or the election of Donald Trump, Wise admitted, “people seem to be less enthusiastic about their attendance this year.” Randolph has already observed “a mood change,” she said. “Any time you’ve got a group of people who are resisting — ‘Oh, I can’t believe you’re going with this scare’ — it just puts a pall over everything,” she said.

“Certainly, these women of my age are a very important demographic to have at the fair, and that’s definitely going to be missed,” Randolph went on. “It’s going to be a noticeable problem.” Indeed, the Guggenheim postponed its Young Collectors Council lunch in Miami this year because the invite list was heavily skewed towards women of a childbearing age.

Soboleva has been planning an Artsy event with Gucci, and while she hasn’t seen any drop-off in her RSVPs, she’s heard fretful whispers that collectors are skipping out this year for a few reasons, Zika among them. “Gallerists are worried about sales, and especially those doing it for the first or second time, for whom it’s a greater investment on their part,” she said.

The economics of fairs, Randolph pointed out, can put pressure on those who would rather stay out of Zika’s way. “If you’re working for a gallery, and you work on commission, you’re losing a lot of money if you’re not going to Miami,” she said.

Nevertheless, this week there will still be roughly 75,000 estimated visitors at the festivities in Miami Beach. They may have been encouraged by a Miami travel guide the New York Times published just two weeks ago, which relegated Zika to a brief mention consisting of a line or two before diving into backwater apéritifs. Perhaps after the election, the big Z might just be a distant concern B.

As Chloe Wise put it, “Who’s trying to have kids right now, seriously? Those kids are going to have to deal with an apocalypse.”