Art Basel 2012: A Gallery Director's Inside Scoop on One of Art's Most Influential Events

The forty-third Art Basel, a three-day fair for modern and contemporary art, opens today. Every year, hundreds of gallerists from all over the world lug their wares to the Swiss city in the hopes of catching the attention, and the pocketbooks, of veteran and rookie collectors. Competition for a booth in the fair is fierce; especially since art fair sales can make up the majority of a gallery’s income for the year. This year, there were 905 applications for 306 booths.

Despite the rough economic climate, collectors have seemingly not slowed down investing in the top end of the art market. Art is often portable, sellable in different currencies, and generally gains value. Prices can be astronomical. New York based Marlborough Gallery currently has a Mark Rothko painting for sale for $78 million, and it’s been reported that many multi-million dollar sales were made during the VIP previews before the fair even opened to the public.

Money talks. Art Basel just announced the expansion of its franchise to a third location after Basel and Miami Beach: Hong Kong. The entire city serves as a backdrop to the fair, and in addition to the main exhibition halls with individual gallery booths, Basel teems with satellite fairs, talks, performances, interventions, and of course plenty of dinners and after parties for networking and gossip. According to Art Basel’s website, last year 65,000 people made the pilgrimage to the Swiss fair.

Critics of Art Basel cite its rampant commercialism, but not all of the visitors are necessarily buyers; Art Basel often takes into account the pulse of the art world, thematically and financially. This year, for the first time in the history of the fair, two galleries from the Gulf region (both from Dubai) will present solo shows in the Art Statements sector for emerging international galleries. I took some time to ask the director of an international gallery participating in the fair a few matter-of-fact questions about Art Basel, who answered on the condition of anonymity. Here’s what she had to say:

Linda Green (LG): What is the selection process for galleries to exhibit at Basel?

All galleries have to fill out a long application with a proposal of the artists they will show at the fair, past exhibitions at the gallery, and documentation of involvement in past fairs, and then a committee decides on who gets in.


LG: How much does participating in the fair cost?

It depends on the size of your booth and the section, starting around €30,000, although just to apply costs €500. There is a bit of a financial break for sections that aren’t in the main gallery section, like for emerging galleries. Then you also have to figure in shipping costs and insurance.
 

LG: What's the rationale behind the choice of artwork for your booth? 

We try to present a cross section of the artists we represent in the gallery. And it is important that we show new work when possible. We try to put show-stopping work in the booth, to get people’s attention. If someone is interested in an artist but not necessarily one of the works in the booth, we always have plenty of backup material to show.


LG: How does Basel affect or influence artists and the art world?

Most importantly for us, it raises the profile of the gallery as well as the featured artists. We want our artists to gain recognition and there’s no better place for that than at Basel. Secondly, the media buzz around Basel is good because it convinces people that art is a solid investment, and sales generate publicity. I guess it’s a bit of a positive feedback loop, or a bubble.


LG: How many works of art do you typically sell at the fair?

It depends on the economy and varies from year to year. This year has been very good so far. Let’s just say we definitely got back our participation fee!


LG: What's the most fun part of Basel?

The Kunsthalle of course! It’s a see and be-seen affair, for art and people alike. One of the delightful things about the art fair is revisiting the restaurants here – which are out of this world.