Has Art Basel Become the Facebook of the Art World? An Interview With Marc Spiegler
After 10 years leading the largest art fair company in the world, Marc Spiegler reflects on Art Basel's evolving role in the market landscape.
Ten years ago, when Marc Spiegler left his role as one of the art world’s most acute market journalists to take the helm of Art Basel, the preeminent Swiss art fair had two editions, one in Switzerland and one in Miami. It was also, unmistakably and without pretense, an art fair—a place where international dealers could convene and show works of art to an assembled mass of collectors, allowing them to inspect them in person and make new discoveries.
A decade later, Art Basel has expanded to include a burgeoning third edition in Hong Kong—and a whole lot more. For starters, it has a robust social media presence, with 1.4 million followers on Instagram, 660,000 on Twitter, and 414,238 on Facebook—an audience that dwarfs the 250,000 people who come annually to the actual fairs. It had a partnership with Kickstarter (now discontinued) that raised nearly $2 million for nonprofit art sites. It has a website that archives high-quality images of artworks that exhibitors have shown in previous editions, allowing you to visit the galleries’ “profile pages” and “follow” them to receive updates.
The Art Basel YouTube channel (which boasts 10,593 subscribers), meanwhile, features videos of talks from the fair’s “Conversations” program, but also professionally shot mini-movies about individual Art Basel exhibitors. Recently, Spiegler gave into his journalistic roots and hired a team of editors to create a new digital content layer for the fair, bringing on Jeni Fulton—the former editor-in-chief of Sleek magazine, whose official bio cites a PhD “on the subject of value and evaluation in contemporary art”—and veteran market reporter Coline Milliard.
Most impressively, the Swiss art organization is currently in the process of spawning an entirely new initiative called Art Basel Cities, creating a yearlong multidisciplinary contemporary-art hub in a revolving roster of regional capitals, the first being Buenos Aires this fall.
This is all to say that, under Spiegler, Art Basel has evolved to become something much broader, more variegated, and more ambitious than ever before. Significantly, it has also become more vital to the network of galleries that depend on it for the lion’s share of their annual revenue. One might argue Art Basel serves a function analogous to the role Facebook performs for the media industry: as an aggregator that creates tremendous efficiencies for visitors while providing access to unprecedented audiences for its paying clients.
And just like other cultural industries in the 21st century, art galleries have been feeling the pinch of this new paradigm, as all but the top players find themselves confronted by rising costs, diminishing returns, and increasingly monopolistic competition. The implications of this shakeout, meanwhile, threaten the entire art field, as the smaller galleries that nurture and guide the next generation are closing at a regular clip due to the adverse marketplace. Does Art Basel bear any responsibility for this? And is there anything the organization can do?
In the run-up to this year’s Art Basel Hong Kong, artnet News’s Andrew Goldstein spoke to Spiegler—who, from his prominent vantage point, is now an even closer observer of the macro-trends governing the art market—to find out if there’s any truth to the Facebook analogy and how Art Basel might evolve to equalize the adverse pressures facing the world’s emerging and middle-market galleries.
Art Basel Miami Beach 2017. Photo courtesy of Art Basel.
Over the 10 years, you have been at Art Basel, the fair has grown into something far beyond a collection of booths on a grid. From a fundamental standpoint, what is Art Basel in the year 2018? Is it still primarily an art fair, or has it changed into something where the art fair is a component?
I think the core of what we do still ties into the three fairs, because these fairs give us a direct relationship with nearly 500 galleries, thousands of collectors, and hundreds of museum directors. But the underlying theme of our organization is a focus on quality, and on bringing together people who have productive exchanges. Some of those exchanges are financial, of course, and that is the essence of the shows, with dealers coming to find patrons for their artists. But a lot of the exchanges are social—there are friendship groups that form and then reunite, and there’s also a lot of intellectual exchange as well.
When I got to Art Basel, “Conversations”, our talks program, had already started, and it’s intensified since. We’re now presenting three different regionally attuned programs each year with topics that are timely, all of which we put online. This means that there’s a lot of thinking and talking about what’s going on within the art world, in a context of what was originally purely a commercial event. This alone makes it so far from being a trade fair that you really can’t consider it that anymore.
I think a lot of what makes the shows successful comes from outside of the fairs. It’s about the relationships we cultivate with patrons, future patrons, private museums, and public museums, and it’s about us trying to figure out how we can support galleries on a day-to-day basis. It’s about us being present all over the world in various ways. In a sense, when I got to Art Basel, it had already transformed from being two fairs in two halls to being two weeks in two cities, now it’s really become a much more consistent presence in the art world. We don’t just pop up three times a year—and if you look across all of our activities, what’s really essential in all of them is that they’re about patronage for culture.
That’s what I think we’re good at: not only activating interesting collectors that galleries may know but also introducing our nearly 500 galleries to new collectors they wouldn’t know otherwise. This means tapping into a wide spectrum of patronage, of artist groups, and of artistic production, and I think the idea both has a lot of potential impact and creates a lot of responsibility. We don’t think of ourselves as people selling square meters—we think of ourselves as people who are allowing galleries to help sustain the careers of artists, or to extend the legacy of artists who are no longer with us.
For so long, the fair-in-the-hall model was pretty much about selling booths to exhibitors and bringing in collectors, with all the epiphenomena happening around that—the conversations in the aisles, the parties, the social interactions—being a happy side effect. What’s interesting is that Art Basel—and, to a lesser extent, Frieze—is shifting the social elements and conversations closer to the center of the platform. It’s tempting to compare this metamorphosis to the evolution of social media, where a company like Facebook started off as being dedicated to sharing within college communities and has metastasized into a hugely powerful platform built around the concept of sharing on a global scale. On the other hand, Art Basel has outgrown its basic commercial raison d’etre to become a social platform for the idea of supporting art, engaging with art, and encountering like-minded people with interests in art. Do you see a parallel there?
I guess I half-buy the Facebook metaphor. First of all, I have to underline that the community is essential to the commerce, which is essential to the fair’s existence. The reality is that there are a lot of ways to buy art, but going to a fair is a way to learn about the art, to meet fellow collectors, to meet new artists, to see the exhibitions. We need to do the best we can ahead of the show, to get people excited about contemporary art and make sure that we’ve done everything we can to ensure that everybody who comes to the show—regardless of whether they’re a dealer, a curator, an artist, or a museum director—can get as much as they can out of it. With artists, we want them to get a sense of what’s going on with galleries and collectors on the other side of the world; we want to give collectors the chance to buy great work, but also to discover new galleries; we want galleries to see their existing collectors, but also meet new collectors; museum directors, meanwhile, might want to buy works for their collections but also to entertain existing board members and meet potential new ones.
Coming back to the Facebook metaphor, yes, it applies in the sense that Facebook started with people just talking to their friends and now they’re talking to the world. On the other hand, anybody can present themselves on the platform of Facebook, whereas what’s made Art Basel strong is our very precise, broad-minded, and yet rigorous selection of the galleries. That’s a big difference between Facebook, with its billion-plus users, and an Art Basel fair with its 250 to 290 galleries. You know, people who analyze internet businesses talk about class businesses versus mass businesses. A class business is a boutique place that has a very specific selection of offerings for an audience they feel can appreciate it. A mass business offers as much as possible to as many people as possible—and that, certainly, is not how Art Basel operates.
But there is a virality to what happens at a fair similar to what happens at biennials—for instance, there are always a few stars that emerge from the fair. Maybe it’s a historical artist who’s been rediscovered, or maybe it’s a great new project from a sector like “Positions,” “Discoveries,” or “Statements”. And there’s a lot of word of mouth that goes around, especially on the second day of the show, after they’ve talked over cocktails about what they saw the first day or when they’re starting to track down the great pieces they saw in their friends’ Instagram feeds.
One thing I find interesting is that there are two macro-trends in society at large that have been very good to Art Basel over the past decade. One of them, of course, is the globalization of the art market, where you’ve got all these people from emerging regions who are flush with unprecedented cash and curious about getting into art and the glamorous art-world lifestyle. At the same time, you have an acceleration of the pace of daily life, where people are seeking out the greatest efficiencies to optimize their precious leisure time, often through aggregators like on-demand TV. So these two trends have united to make Art Basel—with its presence in Europe, Asia, and, with the Miami fair, at the intersection of the United States and Latin America—the most globally famous, prominent brand among art fairs. How would you describe the way Art Basel’s position within this art ecosystem has changed over the past 10 years?
First of all, if the globalization has been good to Art Basel, it’s because we’ve set ourselves up for it— first by going to the Americas and then to Asia. There’s a big difference between actually going to those regions and being in one of the traditional art-market power cities such as London or New York and passively benefiting from the fact that new collectors are appearing in Latin America and Asia. By going to Asia and the Americas we put ourselves in a position to benefit from the internationalization of the art world.
That other factor—the notion that people have less time—is very true, and it absolutely applies to the people who are currently building wealth. You’re right: the combination of an audience that has less time and the fact that we have three fairs that provide a global overview does make our shows a really good way to take stock of what is going on in an ever-more diverse, geographically spread-out, and rapidly changing art world.
The inside perspective has been really interesting in the sense that we’ve seen Asian collectors starting to come to Miami Beach much faster than we expected: Asian collectors who had never left their own countries for fairs first came to Hong Kong and then came to Basel quickly. We’ve also seen galleries that knew us personally because we did a fair in their region being much more confident in taking a chance and applying to a fair halfway around the world. One thing that is often underestimated outside of Art Basel is the way we’ve seen the increased desire for differentiation between the shows on the part of the selection committees. When Art Basel Miami Beach started, the idea was to get something as close to Art Basel in Basel as possible, because that was the archetypal greatest show.
But over time you started to hear discussions in committee meetings where someone would say, “That’s a great project for Basel but not for Hong Kong.” In essence, the fair in Europe has gotten more European, precisely because we thought a great Asian project or a great Latin American project would do just as well in the region from which it originated. So on the one hand, you have a more global, international organization with a more international group of collectors, and on the other hand you have a greater desire for specificity between the fairs.
Speaking of your fair in Hong Kong, it seems that beachhead in the Asian market is going to be increasingly important if trends in global commerce continue. A report by Bain & Company, for instance, has stated that Chinese buyers alone purchased a third of luxury goods worldwide in 2017—a larger percentage than any other nationality—with that number estimated to increase to 44 percent by 2025. Establishing Art Basel as the Western art market’s portal to China and to Asia more broadly could further entrench the fair’s centrality in the art market over time.
I think it’s not enough to have been early—you also have to work very hard. When we went to Asia in 2013, most Asian people outside of the really Westernized core art world didn’t really understand what Art Basel was. There really wasn’t a history of this kind of fair in Asia. So, while we’ve certainly built up recognition in the region of what Art Basel is and what it stands for, we’ve also built up the whole notion that art fairs having an important role to play within the cultural and economic ecosystem that feeds the galleries and collectors.
At the same time that Art Basel has been gaining increased centrality in this ever-changing art world, art galleries have been going through a period of wrenching transformation. The big galleries like David Zwirner, Gagosian, and Hauser & Wirth have been expanding into globe-spanning corporations of a kind the art business hasn’t seen before, with outposts that allow them to rise above individual economies in order to have an ever-replenishing pool of people to sell to, and marquee booths at every strategic art fair in the same way you once saw big-box stores in every ritzy shopping mall. This, of course, has done wonders for their brand recognition around the world, further ensuring their continued dominance. At the same time, the smaller galleries and middle-market galleries that historically nurture emerging artists have been struggling in their home cities, and are disadvantaged in the global market because of the high cost of doing art fairs.
In what sense?
Well, say you’re a gallery in Brussels. In the past you’d be competing with the other art galleries in Brussels, or maybe in Belgium and the surrounding region, to get the attention of your collectors. Now, as fairs become the main way people buy, you’re no longer competing with the biggest galleries in Belgium anymore—you’re competing against the biggest galleries in the world. It mirrors the trends we’re seeing everywhere else in society, with local newspapers being put out of business by the international papers that can afford to buy prime placement in the Facebook feed, or with the relatively few winners in American capitalism pulling farther and farther ahead of the rest of the herd. In the art world, damage to the lower-rung galleries is harmful to art in general, because they are typically the ones who take the risks to unearth new talents. My question is, does Art Basel have a responsibility to somehow modulate this trajectory, which could eventually start to erode the foundation of the entire infrastructure?
We talk a lot about the struggle of mid-career galleries and younger galleries, and what we can do to help. One thing we try to do, for example, is to work hard in our promotion of the fairs to highlight really great works that are coming from the fair’s smaller galleries. Also, it sounds like a tiny thing, but about five years ago we rewrote the rules of the “Statements” sector. At the time, the rule said that we weren’t interested in artists who had shown at competitor fairs or had already had a museum solo show. Now, especially with three Art Basel fairs per year, if you’re looking to attract young galleries that are doing proposal-specific booths, the number of good galleries that fit our criteria run out of artists pretty fast.
We realized we weren’t getting the kind of quality proposals we wanted, but we also heard that there were artists who were leaving their young galleries because those galleries weren’t getting into our fairs, and they weren’t getting into the fairs because they had run through all of their artists. So, we rewrote the rules to say that what’s important is not whether the artist has done a museum solo show—because those shows happen a lot faster than they used to—or whether they’d had a project at another fair, but rather whether it was a new and interesting body of work from a new and interesting artist. Essentially, we did this because we saw a pernicious unintended consequence that was actually disadvantaging the galleries we wanted to support.
You noticed as it was happening?
We were told by the young gallerists that this was a phenomenon. But we also did things like starting to put out a catalog for all of these younger, proposal-specific sectors so that there’s something the galleries can give to collectors, and that remains after the show. It gives these booths a kind of gravitas. At the same time, we’re very conscious of the fact that our job is not just to bring in the people who buy the biggest works from the biggest galleries but also to get the whole bedrock of the international collecting scene—which is a lot of people who may not be multimillionaires but who know and understand art and are able to buy a few works every year. We’re very conscious of the fact that the mid-level collectors and the mid-career galleries are essential to the art market as we know it.
As Art Basel has changed, and as art fairs in general have become more important, the new climate has obviously had some impact on the kind of art that artists are making, the cycle on which this art is being produced, and the strategies that artists and dealers alike are employing. How have you seen the kind of art that gets shown at Art Basel change over the past 10 years?
It’s really hard to generalize about thousands of artists being shown at hundreds of galleries, but I will say I feel like the era of “art-fair art” may be behind us, in the sense that the smarter gallerists have realized it’s counterproductive to ask their artists to make 10 different pieces for 10 different fairs per year. I think this notion that the best way to approach a fair booth is to get one piece from each of your current bestselling artists and create a kind of “sampler platter” has been replaced by strategies that are much more specific in terms of which artists they’re trying to highlight at which fairs. Perhaps it’s an artist who has a show coming up at a major museum in that fair’s region; perhaps it’s an artist that the gallery has just signed; perhaps it’s two artists whose work just happens to juxtapose well.
I feel like galleries are much more structured and are putting much more thought into their fair strategies. I would not underestimate the impact of the iPad in this, because what the iPad allows you to do is to sell work that you don’t have on the booth in a very fluid way. I remember talking to a gallerist who had done the Miami Beach show from the beginning, and he said, “I used to bring 90 works and sell 60. Now I bring 60 works and sell 30, but I also sell 30 more off the iPad.”
You talked a moment ago about making changes to the rules when you saw an unfortunate unintended consequence playing out in the fair. Are there any other examples of times when you’ve tweaked the algorithm, as it were, in order to compensate for something that was causing an unanticipated negative effect?
I wouldn’t say that. I will say, for example, we were very conscious of the fact that by introducing “Feature,” and then “Survey,” and later “Insights,” we were creating opportunities for galleries that might not have the depth of program or the finances to do Art Basel every year, but still have some fantastic work to put before our audiences. It’s not really tweaking the algorithm, but there was a decision to make the young sectors more geographically embedded within the shows. In Miami, we brought the young sector, “Positions,” in from the containers on the beach into the hall in 2009. Likewise, in Basel, we decided to bring “Statements” into Hall Two, where the rest of the galleries are. Previously, we had thought it would be good to give them their own space because otherwise they’d be at risk of getting overwhelmed by bigger galleries with more famous artists, but in the end we realized we wanted them to be part of the general flow and discussion of the main part of the fair itself.
These are obviously the very pragmatic considerations of working with a grid of booths and trying to figure out where to place things on the grid in order to provide maximum impact—it’s the city-planner aspect to organizing art fairs. But, considering how the fair has morphed in other ways, do you ever anticipate a day when Art Basel would leave the grid-in-a-convention-center format behind for something new?
Forever is a long time, but I cannot imagine the fair functioning as anything except a gateway into the programs of the galleries that are present. And, in order for that gateway to function, each gallery needs to have a space to show a microcosm of its program that displays who they are and what they believe in as far as the constraints of a fair environment allow. It’s interesting, because we used to have a lot of joint booths for galleries that were well aligned in terms of their artists, aesthetics, and the psychographics of their audiences. But time after time, the galleries came to us and said they wanted to be separate so that people could understand them better. If you think of each booth as a potential portal into the gallery space itself, I don’t see a way around having booths.
In a sense, when I think about the urbanism of booths within a hall, it’s a little bit like democracy—it has a lot of flaws, but no one seems to have invented a better system yet. And we’re not actively seeking to. It’s a system that works for what it’s trying to do, which is to present hundreds of galleries to people with limited time, in a way that allows each gallery to have a chance to distinguish itself from its neighbors.
Here’s a sci-fi scenario: What if I slapped on a VR headset and was transported to a sort of Second Life-meets-VIP Art Fair scenario and browsed art from the galleries that way. Would that maintain the quintessential factors of the fair?
In that case, you might as well just browse through a virtual hallway, open a door, and walk into the gallery itself. But, from a fundamental standpoint, I think there’s a very human, primal dimension to what happens at fairs, and that is very hard to copy in VR. There’s a degree of competition, you know? The game is afoot. What happens at fairs, with the physical presence of collectors in the same space, creates both a competition and a kind of complicity between the collectors. They’re all complicit in this crazy act of buying art, but the fact that so many of them are doing it at the same time validates it, and the fact that they see successful, intelligent people also buying art, also excited about art, in the same space as them creates an environment where acquiring art seems like a thing that interesting people do. And it is, but it’s good to have that reinforced by the presence of others. And, certainly, the fear that someone else is going to get the piece that completes your collection does a lot to drive collectors into fairs, hunting for great work. There’s a thing that happens when a crowd of like-minded people gather—it changes their behavior. [German author] Elias Canetti wrote a whole book on this called Crowds and Power, and while there isn’t a chapter on art fairs in that book, there could be.
The human brain is still the best technology.
At the same time, I definitely do think VR has a future. VR is for experiencing spaces that don’t exist. Alone. Is there any gallery doing VR viewing rooms for their collectors? I don’t know. Will it happen? Yes.
Speaking of the physical versus the non-physical, the Frieze Art Fair made waves recently when it tweaked its rules to allow galleries to exhibit without operating physical gallery spaces. This is an interesting development for some dealers, because maintaining physical gallery spaces entail significant costs at the same time that foot traffic to galleries—as with any other retail operation—is dwindling. Would Art Basel ever consider accepting galleries don’t have a brick-and-mortar gallery space?
Again, I’m not going to speculate into the infinite future, which is what happens when you use a word like “ever,” but I will tell you this: We have repeatedly debated, in one way or another, whether we should consider the inclusion of galleries without spaces. And the committee has repeatedly argued—and it is an argument I support—that given the role of Art Basel within the art world, there is a risk that if galleries weren’t required to have a space, quite a few galleries would shut their doors and just do our fairs. The impact of that, in the long run, would be that there would be fewer exhibitions in those cities and fewer collectors being exposed to art in those exhibitions. The risk that we would catalyze a wave of gallery closures by changing those rules is, on balance, too high for us to consider it at the moment.
So Art Basel feels it is its responsibility to foster a climate in which people visit shows in their cities and encounter new art?
We want to support galleries, and we want people to see shows in galleries. I like nothing more than to run into a collector in a gallery and hear them say, “Oh, I first met these guys at Art Basel Miami Beach.” We strongly support programs like Gallery Weekend Berlin and Condo. We believe in artists showing in galleries. Because these are the spaces that the artists chose for displaying their work, and these are the cities the artists wanted to show their work in. The art fair booth is a gateway, but it should not be the end all and be all of people collecting. Anything we can do to prevent that from happening is important.
Is that a strictly altruistic kind of position? Or something else? It reminds me again of Facebook, since they recently changed their algorithm to prioritize posts about people’s local events and news in order to make its users happier and healthier and more inclined to do the things that are good for Facebook’s overall longevity.
We are very conscious of a few things: Number one is that the reputational quality of Art Basel lies in the quality of the works that are brought to the fairs. Two, we don’t have any art! The art has to come from the galleries. Three, in order to have great art coming from the galleries, the galleries have to be healthy. And, in order for them to be healthy, they need a chance to do business all year round because we are only as strong as the gallery system is strong, and that means we want our galleries to succeed 52 weeks per year, not three weeks per year. You know, when we do a VIP event in a city, we invite all the gallerists in that city so they can meet the VIPs who flew in from out of town.
I’ll give you another example. One of the things that really shifted on the digital front was our approach to images from the fairs being put online. When I started, we put very few images online for each gallery from the fair, and after a month or so they disappeared –it was actually a collaboration we did with artnet before your site started doing auctions.
Then, a few years ago, when we launched Art Basel’s online catalogue, we said, “Starting now, every work that is put online by a gallery for the fair stays forever.” And our hope is that, five years from now, if someone is looking for an artist they can see who had their work in, say, 2013, even if they’re not represented by that gallery anymore. And if they find something they like in the Art Basel online catalogue, they can call up the gallery and say, “Hey, do you still have this piece?” and the gallery might say, “No, but we have another one,” or, “No, but we can ask whether the buyer wants to sell it.” Our hope with the online catalogue is that it functions as an archive, and that in those tens of thousands of images there will lie a long tail for some of the artists and some of the galleries.
Is there any other data that Art Basel collects from its galleries, visual or otherwise? I heard that a little while ago the fair streamlined its VIP outreach for galleries by collecting the galleries’ collector contacts to ensure they received passes for the fair, which seems like very valuable information. Is there any other way Art Basel can use data to improve the fair or advance its business?
I know “big data” is everybody’s favorite business buzzword these days, but to be honest we still rely primarily on observation and conversation when it comes to improving our fairs. At every level—directors, VIP teams, operations, et cetera—we spend a ton of time on the fair floor. And then we go through incredibly granular debriefs after the fair when it’s all still fresh, identify problems, and start working on solutions immediately. Don’t get me wrong—I love statistical analysis and digging through numbers, all that Malcolm Gladwell stuff. But the reality is that if you don’t have any transaction information—which we don’t—the data sets you can generate around our fairs are not massive enough to do true “big data” analysis.
Fortunately, I really enjoy “walking the yard,” as [Los Angeles dealer] Jeff Poe calls it—touring galleries, visiting collectors, working fair floors—and we make many broader business decisions based upon these observations, conversations, and qualitative analysis. In parallel, the work that Clare McAndrew has been doing on the Art Market Report adds a valuable perspective on broader art market trends, which is one of the reasons we felt so strongly about getting behind this kind of research. Not just for our own benefit, but also for that of the art world in general.
Going back to Art Basel’s effort to foster a vibrant gallery-going culture in cities around the world, that’s a great segue into Art Basel Cities. Can you explain how Art Basel Cities works, and where it fits into these broader objectives?
Art Basel Cities is about helping to build up cultural ecosystems in coordination with the governments of the cities that are involved. And those ecosystems can be built up, for example, through developing commercial structures, like gallery districts, or by developing museum structures. The goal is that these ecosystems can have a knock-on effect in the long run, which is that you have more people engaged in the visual arts than when you started the program. Now, of course, in the near term, it may also mean that you have artists from our galleries all over the world showing in exhibitions that are supported within Art Basel Cities, but that’s a sort of limited impact. In the long run, it’s about creating more cities that are more vested, more engaged, in the global art scene.
One imagines that it also extends the Art Basel brand into the minds of new audiences, creating more people who could come to the fair, more galleries that can show there, and more artists that can be shown and sold at Art Basel. It’s like cloud-seeding, in a way.
I guess that’s one way to look at it.
How long are the cycles of the Art Basel Cities initiative as it goes from one region to another?
To be honest with you, we’re very much in the beginning stages of Art Basel Cities, and every day we learn more and our thinking evolves. But the basic plan is to do multiyear engagements in each of the cities where we get involved. It’s not a pop-up, and it’s not a permanent presence either. The idea is that at some point the city will develop in the way that it wanted to develop, with our aid, and that we’ll have less of a role to play.
How do you mean? How does it develop for cities?
It could be that, by some future point, a whole new group of collectors has emerged and is supporting a whole new group of galleries; it could be that a lot of curators have done training programs that allow them to bring in interesting work and spotlight their own local artists. It could be that the city has become a real cultural destination.
So this is clearly a long-game approach for an art fair.
This is very much about creating development, and legacy. I think that many major shifts in our thinking have happened during my decade at Art Basel. One of them has been that, given the potential impact of Art Basel and the geographic spread of our activities, we have to take a position within the art world. We are not just people renting square meters. The position that we have to take in the current environment is one that actively supports the galleries, because the other shift that has taken place, as anyone in the art world can see, is that the gallery system is not something that can be taken for granted—and that, on the other hand, this gallery system has proven itself to be the greatest support mechanism for bringing artists up and sustaining their careers. So, if you believe in sustained artistic production at the highest level, galleries have an important role to play. And if you believe that, then you believe that Art Basel has an important role to play in sustaining galleries, because we have so much influence and reach.
That, then, is very different from when Facebook infamously took the stance that it wasn’t a media company so it could abjure itself of responsibility for the quality of the content in its feed, which, as we’ve seen, had disastrous consequences. Instead, it sounds like Art Basel is very much accepting a degree of responsibility for its impact on the wider world.
I think here I actually am buying into your Facebook analogy. Because Facebook is now starting to take responsibility for the impact of their platform. And because of the impact of our platform, we feel a responsibility towards sustaining the galleries that make our shows possible. I think it’s a sort of enlightened self-interest.
This first decade of your tenure at Art Basel has certainly been an eventful one, to say the least. If you were to pinpoint the most significant change in the art world that you’ve witnessed over that time, what would it be?
I think the major shift is simply that you have an art world that is much bigger than it used to be. Every sector is bigger—there are more museums, more curators, more artists, more galleries, more collectors, more auction houses, and it’s all more internationalized. The net effect of each sector growing and each sector becoming more international is that everyone is struggling just to cover the mandatory events within that sector. And one of the things that’s dangerous in the way that the art world is evolving is that a lot of people are now confined to their silos and don’t necessarily think about the impact of what they’re doing on the artists—and the artists, at the end of the day, are the sine qua non of this whole world.
People forget that you can’t take the artist for granted, and that you cannot take artistic production for granted, and that there isn’t an unlimited supply of great or even good art. Nor is there an unlimited supply of great or even good collectors. We’ve reached a kind of critical mass that has allowed us to have the art world we have now, which is constantly rejuvenating, highly international, very diverse—but it’s not going to scale to five times the current size. Art is not pop culture, and just because there’s three times as much demand does not mean there is three times as much good art. You can distribute a sound file infinitely, or a Netflix film infinitely, but art is different. And we should always be conscious of that.
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