Art Basel remains the ultimate benchmark for the world of modern and contemporary art. The 49th edition with 291 galleries from 35 countries, representing around 4000 artists, reported record sales also in this year. Business is going well for the top dogs of the international art market, but medium-sized and younger galleries are having a hard time.
For art dealers who want to be a factor front and center Art Basel is a must, also in 2018 the most important art fair of the world has demonstrated this. Although the market has cooled down slightly in the meantime, Art Basel remains a guarantee for turnover in the millions and an increasingly international clientele who pilgrimage to Basel in great numbers. However, Art Basel never was suspected of promoting progressive art, instead the fair stands for tradition and reliability. This year’s edition revealed that many art dealers preferred more conservative positions again, blue chips and main stream in the top-price segment.
In a world becoming more and more chaotic, with new trouble spots emerging every day that shake the so far stable democracies of the Western world, collectors prefer to be on the safe side with regard to their investments. This has led to the circumstance that at auctions and fairs always the same old artist names are circulating, the Eliassons, Longos, Wei Weis and Kapoors bother the attentive observer of the art market with a never seen relentlessness. This leaves only little space for young galleries with emerging artists, resulting in a two-tier gallery market. Due to the monopolization of the art market the top galleries have developed into internationally operating major companies which have divided up the market amongst themselves. There is no cartel authority controlling the art market, but it would be naive to believe that the rules and price gauging of industrial cartels wouldn’t apply here as well.
Art Unlimited, Art Basel 2018
Lara Favaretto, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), 2018 – Franco Noero, Art Basel 2018
In this non-transparent market names, money and information are circulating at an ever increasing speed, with art being about to lose its cultural added value. Nevertheless art dealers and gallerists don’t get around Art Basel. Anyone who can afford it in some way is willing to pay the exorbitant booth fees, as the opportunity to do good business in Basel is still incomparably more likely than on other fairs even though these are distinctly cheaper. The concept of the classical gallery as a place of intellectual exchange between artist, collector and gallery owner has become obsolete in the 21st century. The new generation of collectors is part of today’s event society and expects the red carpet to be rolled out for them as it is tradition at Art Basel.
To make Art Basel younger it was revamped with the sections Features and Statements.
The trend towards safe investments has resulted in a more and more obvious uniformity of conservative works of art. Art Basel 2018 caters to this clientele, but also offers some discreet political statements. Although talking about politics instead of emerging art markets is relatively new, most of the galleries couldn’t bring themselves to exhibit more than declarations of dismay. The best example is Robert Longo’s installation Death Star II which turned out to be the Instagram icon of this year’s Art Basel. Longo’s installation is a huge sphere studded with 40.000 large caliber cartridges that alludes to the Death Star of the Star Wars Saga and deplores the excessive violence being rampant in the American society with its arms lobby. Although the artistic message is pretty banal, the work was sold immediately for 1,5 million Dollars.
Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Tyesha Flemons, 2018 – Stephen Friedman Gallery, Art Basel 2018
Tony Oursler – Art Basel 2018
José Yaque, Tumba abierta III – Continua, Art Basel 2018
A little bit of social criticism is welcome to demonstrate to belong to the good guys, but a general questioning of the excesses of neoliberal capitalism also today’s art market is part of, would not necessarily promote sales. Thus primarily pleasing luxury objects are prevailing that celebrate the narcissism of the selfie period, though more subtly and seriously at Art Basel than at its sister fairs Miami Beach and Hong Kong, where glamour is displayed in a blatant way. The concept of the Art Basel show reveals that the management of the fair strives to rejuvenate the fair by promoting young galleries, even though this takes place at the cost of major established galleries. For new positions and political works the Features and Statements sections were created, while large-size installations can be displayed in the Art Unlimited section.
Striking was that at the Art Basel show 2018 less works of Classical Modernism were exhibited, although the established galleries representing this market segment such as Ernst Beyeler, Jan Krugier, Nahmad or Landau participated again, only Thomas from Munich was missing this time. Classical Modernism continues to represent a safe investment, Gmurzynska from Zurich sold a painting by Surrealist artist Roberto Matta for 900.000 Euros, a Picasso could be bought for 8 million Euros and Marcel Duchamp’s Box in a Suitcase for 1,3 million Euros. Thaddaeus Ropac could sell a work by Robert Rauschenberg for 2,5 million Dollars and the New York-based Pace Gallery a picture by David Hockney for 2,5 million Dollars as well. Hauser & Wirth, however, could be happy about the biggest turnover, they sold a work by Louise Bourgeois for 4,75 million Dollars and a work by Joan Mitchell for 14 million Dollars.
Pablo Picasso, Femme assise, 1953 – Landau Fine Art, Art Basel 2018
Max Ernst, An Anxious Friend, 1957 – Landau Fine Art, Art Basel 2018
Joan Mitchell is the rediscovery at the Art Basel show 2018.
Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell who died in 1992 and is just about being rediscovered, was the hottest name at the Art Basel show 2018. Some international top galleries had works by Joan Mitchell in their portfolio, beside Hauser & Wirth also Lévy Gorvy based in New York and London sold one of her paintings for 14 million Dollars. David Zwirner who in the meantime takes care of her estate sold one of her works for 7,5 million Dollars. This hype is for sure no coincidence, if one considers that at a Christie’s auction in May 2018 a record price of 16,6 million Dollars was reached for a work by Joan Mitchell. Nothing is easier than setting the value added chain of the art market in motion, if the global players have agreed upon an artist name forgotten long ago with a completed oeuvre and a limited availability of works as investment for potent collectors.
For dealers and buyers such deals are completely risk-free, as they are secured by the entire worldwide financial system of the art market and its investors. Galleries which don’t belong to the club of the market leaders are having a substantially harder time establishing their artists on the art market and are under increasing cost pressure. Today the for surviving vital turnover can be only generated at fairs, therefore for smaller and medium-sized galleries every participation in an art fair resembles a visit to a gambling casino. Only one single miss is permitted, another failed fair normally results in bankruptcy. In the end the high cost for the participation in fairs is the main reason for a gallery’s closure and the dying of the gallery idea. In 1970 the fee for an entire booth at Art Basel had cost 800 CHF, today it’s 830 CHF per square meter. Thus a medium-sized booth with a space of 70 sqm costs 58.100 CHF and a large booth with 100 sqm 83.220 CHF. If a gallery books a privileged location at the entrance or along the side walls another 5 percent come on top.
Mariele Neudecker, What If We All Just Stopped?, 2018 – Galeria Pedro Cera, Art Basel 2018
Art Unlimited, Art Basel 2018
In order to enable young galleries to afford the participation in the Art Basel show at all, the booth fee in the Statement sector was reduced to 400 CHF per square meter, which still adds up to a fee of 20.000 CHF for a booth of 50 sqm. However, the fee is just a fraction of the total cost. For heavy or large-size works the walls of the booth need to be reinforced, catalogues need to be printed and for particularly expensive works security personnel needs to be engaged. In addition, there are also the costs for shipping, flights and hotel accommodation. The hotel industry in Basel exploits this relentlessly and doubles the room prices during the Art Basel fair.
Collectors want to be courted, that’s why galleries which claim to play in the first league are expected to give costly dinner parties entire restaurants are booked for. For an international top gallery the total costs for the participation in the Art Basel show easily amount to 400.000 Dollars, but these costs are more than recouped. The inflationary spiral will continue to be pushed upward in the future and will force the art scene to find new democratic ways of selling art that don’t reduce art just to its monetary value, otherwise contemporary art, produced by a handful of privileged artists, will be consumed only at auctions and art fairs by the global financial elite in the future. In this case the rest of the artists and people that perceive the experience of art as an enrichment of their everyday life will only be able to enter into a dialogue on the internet.
12.06.18 – 16.06.18 Messe Basel