Hydration and Coordination: How 6 World-Class Collectors Prepare for Art Basel Miami Beach

Leading international collectors reveal their secrets for getting the most out of the fair.

The scene at the Art Basel Miami Beach VIP preview in 2016. Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images.
The scene at the Art Basel Miami Beach VIP preview in 2016. Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images.

Art fairs can be intimidating places in general, but an event with the vast size of Art Basel Miami Beach poses particular challenges. In the lead up to this week’s edition, we consulted five leading international collectors to help navigate the Miami madness. Below, our art world veterans reveal strategies for maximizing what you are getting out of the big fair, whether you’re buying or just browsing.

Fred Bidwell
collector, executive director of FRONT International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art

Fred Bidwell. Photo courtesy of the FRONT International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.

What’s in your collection?

My wife and I primarily collect photo-based work, not necessarily by people who call themselves photographers, but there’s often a connection to photographic technology, process, or practice. Works in the collection range from prints by Adam Fuss, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Kehinde Wiley, Allison Rossiter, and Richard Leroy. They cover the ground from very conceptual, abstract, and traditional representational photography from a pretty wide-ranging group of artists.

What are you after this year?

My wife and I collect contemporary work. We sometimes break the rule and buy historical work and vintage things, but we’re really very much interested in the art of today, so that’s what we’re looking for: the new work that galleries are bringing forward, either from artists that we know and collect, or from new artists we’re not familiar with.

What’s your approach to buying at Art Basel Miami Beach?

We use the art fairs as a very efficient way to do research. Because all the dealers are bringing a lot of art together at once, it’s a great place for us to find new things. Our style is not to have a strategy or a specific work in mind; we don’t want to get in at the opening bell and buy it before someone else does. We tend to be more thoughtful, to step back and keep our minds open for discovery.

How do you prepare for Art Basel Miami Beach?

I hydrate and bring comfortable shoes. The dealers do send us previews and that’s really useful because you get a sense of what they’re bringing to the fair. But a lot of it is the journey of discovery. I think some of the best things we’ve found are not what’s hung in the booth, but what’s in the back room.

What’s your advice for budding collectors?

Don’t be intimidated. It can be an overwhelming experience, especially at the main fair, so you should ask questions and don’t be afraid to ask for the price. There are obviously some things that are going to sell for jaw-dropping prices, but not everything, and just because you don’t know the price doesn’t mean you can’t afford it.

Curiosity and inquisitiveness are the keys, and after a while, you start to get a sense of the place.

Robbie Antonio
real estate developer and collector

Robbie Antonio. Photo courtesy of Robbie Antonio.

What’s in your collection?

Modern and contemporary masters including Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

What are you after this year?

I am focused on my personal collection while similarly actively buying pieces for Revolution Precrafted’s first project in Batulao, Philippines.

What’s your approach to buying at Art Basel Miami Beach?

I usually contact galleries ahead of time to get a sense of what I might like to buy.

How do you prepare for Art Basel Miami Beach?

I like to know who is showcasing an artist’s work and really get a feeling of who the artist is. I have been attending Art Basel Miami for the last 10 years. Unfortunately, I am unable to attend this year, as I am speaking at the Fortune BrainStorm Tech conference in China… For that reason, I have to adjust my priorities, but Art Basel has always been an integral part of my experience as an art collector.

What’s your advice for budding collectors?

Go to as many art fairs as possible, talk and build relationships with galleries, attend gallery openings, read books and articles, always know the latest trends. Read and be up to date with emerging artists and talk to other art enthusiasts for advice. It helps to share thoughts and ideas with others.

Linda Pinto
designer and collector, Paris

Linda Pinto. Photo courtesy of Linda Pinto.

What’s in your collection?

Modern and contemporary works by artists including Alexander Calder, Roberto Matta, Wifredo Lam, George Condo, Sam Francis, Joan Miro, and Agostino Bonalumi.

What are you after this year?

I’m not after anything specific because I’m moving apartments, and I’m not sure what’s going to fit into my new place.

What’s your approach to buying at Art Basel Miami Beach?

I’m looking for what I like, impulsively. Only after do I check who did it, what it is, if it’s interesting or not. I never buy a painting just because it’s by an important artist. First of all, I need to like the piece, to like the painter, to like the object, to like everything. After I check to see if it’s a good work or not. I lead by impulse. I need to fall in love with the piece. I’m not at all an investor, I’m a lover, an art lover.

How do you prepare for Art Basel Miami Beach?

No, I never prepare before, I go to the fair, and when I’m at the fair I open my eyes and I see what I like and I decide. I’ve never prepared for fairs at all, not once.

What’s your advice for budding collectors?

Buy with your heart. Love, and never worry about the amount. You have to buy the piece of art with which you want to live. Because when you’re an investor it’s one thing, but when you buy for yourself you have to buy what you like.

Suzanne Syz
jeweler and collector

Suzanne Syz. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Syz.

What’s in your collection?

There’s a lot in the collection, about 900 works. We have everything, from A to Z, from Armleder to Heimo Zobernig, Every letter has been filled up, from Warhol to the young generation.

What are you after this year?

We just installed about 300 artworks in our headquarters in Geneva, so we’re looking to round off certain artworks that are missing, such as photos by Fischli & Weiss.

What’s your approach to buying at Art Basel Miami Beach?

We work closely with our curator Nicolas Trembley, who’s been with us for the last six years. He previews and puts together some works that we view at the fairs. Of course, we often discover artworks we didn’t think of, which is always exciting.

How do you prepare for Art Basel Miami Beach?

We do the preview with Nicolas, and sit together and select the works. The rest just depends on where we go. When I go to Miami I always bring a swimsuit and sunblock.

What’s your advice for budding collectors?

Learn a lot. See a lot. Trust your eye. And never take the market for granted.

Ella Fontanals-Cisneros
collector

Ella Fontanals-Cisneros. Photo Mauricio Donalli.

Ella Fontanals-Cisneros. Photo courtesy of Mauricio Donalli.

What’s in your collection?

My collection is a worldwide collection with an emphasis on work by Latin American artists. There are different areas of focus within the collection, such as architectural photography, historic conceptual art, video, and concrete art from Latin America.

What are you after this year?

Some of my more recent purchases include works by Loris Cecchini, an Italian artist; Kader Attia, a North African artist; and Noel Leon, a young Cuban artist. This coming year I would like to investigate and discover more North American emerging artists.

What is your strategy or approach to buying at fairs?

In reality, most galleries always sell the most important works before the art fair begins. The search for new artistic talent is usually my goal when at art fairs.

How do you prepare for Art Basel Miami Beach?

For me, Art Basel Miami is more work than pleasure. We receive a lot of collectors and friends at CIFO Art Space, so the week prior to Art Basel Miami Beach involves a lot of coordination to prepare for these visits. My days to visit the fair are usually Wednesday and Thursday.

What’s your tip for budding collectors?

Always buy the best work by the artists you love!

Michael Spalter
collector

Michael and Anne Spalter. Photo: Patrick McMullan.

What’s in your collection?

My wife Anne and I collect, with a few exceptions, early computer art from the second half of the 20th century. The collection presently includes over 500 works including plotter drawings, 2D media, sculpture, and 16mm film by artists such as Vera Molnar, Manfred Mohr, Jean-Pierre Hebert, Frieder Nake, Stan Vanderbeek, and Ken Knowlton.

What are you after this year?

It’s important for Anne and I to share this foundational genre with the rest of the world, so we search far and wide for the best examples possible—as well as some exciting, slightly offbeat pieces that augment the general ethos of the main collection. Our loan program has extended to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Venice; the Daelim Museum, Seoul, and many others. We want to continue to acquire museum quality works so that we can help curators find what their institutions are looking for when they visit our collection; curators are conduits of international audiences discovering historically important early computer artwork, so it’s crucial that our collection is as encyclopedic as possible within, and slightly beyond the genre.

What is your strategy or approach to buying at fairs?

The density of dealers and galleries in one place from around the world makes Art Basel a great opportunity to get a sense of what’s on the market and to maintain relationships with dealers and curators. The fair also attracts all sorts of people from around the art world, so we look forward to seeing some familiar faces in Miami each year. Social media, catalogs, auctions, etc. are great, but there is still no substitute for the intentional or serendipitous in-person meetings and the connections that happen face-to-face, whether in a booth, a party, or other events.

But for the most part Anne and I use the fairs as a place to view and learn about new artists, especially those whose work with digital or systems processes may not be well known. For instance, I recently found some amazing light-based pieces from the 1960s at a fair that I think fit the collection even though they are not strictly “computer art.”

How do you prepare for Art Basel Miami Beach?

Well, the galleries do a great job of letting us know what they’re going to bring to Miami, so we usually have sense of which dealers we want to visit beforehand. Once we’ve seen the works in person we’ll decide whether we want to add anything to our collection or not. Sometimes the decision to buy is instant, and sometimes Anne and I will talk it over, compare notes, and finalize the acquisition later—it really depends. A fun and unexpected impulse buy last year was a set of three video works from the alternative Satellite Art Show; Anne just really loved the pieces and believes they will be an important example down the road. Other than that a liver cleanse and lots of sleep.

What’s your tip for budding collectors?

Trust your instincts and don’t feel pressured to buy what everyone else is buying. We started collecting in the early 90s when Anne was teaching at RISD and researching for her book, The Computer in the Visual Arts (1999), which became the seminal textbook on early computer art. At the time, nobody was interested in the genre, but we felt compelled to support this group of radical artists who were redefining what could be considered art. And today our collection makes up a wall of MoMA’s current survey exhibition of art in the computer age.

Our mantra has always been to only buy pieces we love and want to live with. That way if they gain a larger audience, which has happened and is wonderful, it’s fantastic, but at the very least you end up with art you love on your wall, so you always win. We never buy a piece just because we think it will appreciate in value, that’s what the stock market is for.


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