Raclette, Sausages, and Optimism: Gallerists Are Surprised by Their Own Success as Art Basel’s VIP Day Kicks Off

Among the art world A-listers at the main fair's opening were Nicole Chen, Michael Ballack, and the Boroses.

The newly installed fig trees at Art Basel. Photo by Annie Armstrong.

Before the hour struck 11 am, the Messeplatz was brimming with art world elites from around the globe itching to get into this year’s edition of Art Basel in Basel. Among the VIPs who snaked through the line under the sunny Swiss skies was a veritable “Who’s Who” of the global art collecting class: Jennifer and David Stockman, Benedikt Taschen, Udo Brandhorst, Li Lin, Christen Sveaas, Daniel Birnbaum, Nicole Chen, Sophia Cohen, Maja Hoffmann, and Karen and Christian Boros, just to name a few. 

It was so packed with collectors in fact, that almost instantly upon arrival, on the first floor of the fair, a director at Pace was overheard panicking—“I can’t find my clients! I can’t find my clients!”—over a crowd of people admiring the booth’s presentation of top-notch work by Alexander Calder, Lee Ufan, Helen Frankenthaler, Agnes Martin, and Arlene Schechet. Close by, Larry Gagosian was on hand personally to hawk pieces by Cy Twombly, Francesca Woodman, and Willem de Kooning. 

Suffice to say, the high caliber of the works on view matched that of the opening’s clientele, and the resultant energy in the room early on was palpably optimistic.

That was in contrast to the chatter ahead of time among dealers, many of whom were apprehensive as the market has slowed down significantly over recent months. That concern was perhaps felt most sharply in New York this May during an auction season that sent confusing, at best, signals about the direction of the market.

“I wasn’t expecting this,” said Friedrich Petzel, after selling several works on site that morning. “It’s better than I expected. The vibe is exuberant and very, very fun.” 

Art Basel in Basel 2023. Courtesy of Art Basel.

Louis-Phillippe van Eeckhouette, a director at Brussels gallery dépendance, was also feeling relaxed. “It’s always nice to be here, because for us it’s the end of the season,” he said. “American galleries go back and put up their summer shows. We go on holiday!”

True, the only complaints logged at the start of the VIP day were of luggage lost by Air France due to a staff strike, a characteristically European lack of air conditioning in the Messeplatz, and that the heat made the lunch options—raclette or sausages—feel a bit heavy. 

Noah Horowitz, who was appointed CEO of Art Basel last fall, was looking remarkably relaxed for his first year at the helm of the art world’s biggest stage, perhaps due to who was walking through the door.

“We need the market to do what it does, but in terms of audience, this couldn’t be going better,” Horowitz said early on in the day. “Asia completely showed up, and there are a lot of Americans here. I feel proud. It’s the real deal. You just see the incredible trust we have from this community, from these galleries and their artists and collectors.”  

Among Horowitz’s picks from the show? Laura Owens’s solo booth at Sadie Coles, and Adel Abdessemed’s piece at the entrance of Unlimited. “He has that extraordinarily ambitious video piece of a burning ship,” he said of the French-Algerian artist. “It’s an interesting metaphor for the time, standing right there at the entrance of the fair, holding court. That’s amazing.” 

Ahead of opening day, there were rumblings about how this year might diverge from the fair under Marc Spiegler’s decade-long regime. From asking around, apparently not all that much was different, though one prominent advisor liked the fig trees added in the center garden. “Having some shade out here does make it radically better,” he said.

If there were any indicators of a scant market, it might be that the beers served in the garden came in slightly shorter mugs than years past, or that there weren’t prominent (non-art world) celebrities on-hand.

Instead, we saw a few European athletes in attendance. Michael Ballack, the German soccer player and art collector, stopped in, presumably to pick up works for the art foundation he’s planning to open, and rumor had it that Roger Federer would be dropping by to see his likeness made into a sculpture by Ugo Rondinone at Eva Presenhuber’s booth. 

There were, however, some unwelcome visitors this year: several Swiss customs officers descended upon satellite fair Liste’s opening yesterday for a surprise check, forcing exhibitors to declare values on the floor. Collector Alain Servais saw it all go down first hand. “Gallerists were quite shocked as it was no joke, and at the worst moment,” he told Artnet News. No such officers were spotted at the Basel opening.


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