As Another Fair Goes Virtual, Art Basel Finds Its Footing

As Another Fair Goes Virtual, Art Basel Finds Its Footing

Marking the end of ‘a tumultuous year’ with Miami Beach, there’s a sense of what works, and what doesn’t.​


By Ted Loos

At the beginning of 2020, the organizers of Art Basel, the art fair powerhouse, were preparing to celebrate this influential event’s 50th birthday with fanfare at its three far-flung iterations: in Hong Kong; Basel, Switzerland; and Miami Beach.

“Suffice it to say, things did not turn out as planned,” said Marc Spiegler, the fair’s global director.

The coronavirus pandemic upended everything; all three fairs were canceled and replaced by digital versions, which Art Basel refers to as online viewing rooms, or OVRs. (It also added two new virtual fairs.)

Its final event of the year, Art Basel OVR: Miami Beach, runs from Friday through Sunday (with V.I.P. access on Wednesday and Thursday).

At the same time, another change is underway, in the fair’s ownership. Lupa Systems, a private investment firm run by James Murdoch, son of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, is taking a substantial stake in the fair’s Swiss parent company, M.C.H. Group, and will have three board seats.

Mr. Spiegler said the investment would provide “the kind of knowledge and network that will allow Art Basel to expand and thrive.”

All in all, he added, it has been “a tumultuous year.”

But art is resilient and could even be said to thrive on turbulence. There is plenty to see in the rooms created by the 255 galleries from 30 countries and territories that are taking part in OVR: Miami Beach. All are presenting six to 10 works, depending on the sector.

Some galleries have chosen the Whitman’s Sampler approach, with a varied selection by their artists. Pace Gallery’s slate, for example, includes Lynda Benglis’s 1993 “Stacked Forced Bunch,” a ceramic sculpture, and Mary Corse’s 2019 “Untitled (White, Black, Blue, Beveled),” consisting of glass microspheres in acrylic on canvas.

Anthony Meier Fine Arts of San Francisco is choosing to focus on one artist, the reclusive quiltmaker Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936-2006), who was born Effie Mae Martin.

Mr. Meier, who has been taking part in Art Basel fairs for almost 25 years, said that Ms. Tompkins was late in gaining art world notice, bursting onto the scene in the 2001 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He held his first gallery show of her work in 2003.

The star of his viewing room is an untitled quilt made around 1974. With vibrant colors and patterns, it has not been displayed before.

“Her work has this unconventional, staccato quality,” Mr. Meier said. “It defies all norms of our silly world. It has irreverence.”

He added that one of the charms of Ms. Tompkins’s art was “its human scale.”

“They are all twin-bed-size or smaller,” he said.

The London gallerist Stephen Friedman, another Art Basel veteran, will be showing works by the Texas artist Deborah Roberts, the London-based artist Yinka Shonibare and the New York painter Kehinde Wiley.

Mr. Friedman is also part of a growing trend in which dealers present a concurrent physical show to accompany the virtual viewing room. He plans to recreate the exhibition with the actual works in his London space, to be on view through Jan. 4.

The same strategy is being employed by Hauser & Wirth, which will show works by Jenny Holzer, Simone Leigh, Philip Guston and others, both in the online rooms and in its New York space. As a bonus, the gallery is debuting an interactive augmented reality tool so that collectors can see how an artwork would look on their walls or in their garden.

The 10 Mexican galleries participating in the viewing rooms are banding together to put on a simultaneous group show of the Art Basel works at Casa Versailles in Mexico City. The group includes Kurimanzutto, Galerie Nordenhake and CURRO.

The location of that collective effort “gets at the core of what Art Basel Miami Beach is about,” said Noah Horowitz, Art Basel’s director of the Americas and the chief of the Miami Beach fair. “Since its earliest days, it has created a robust bridge to the Latin American art scene, both Central and South American.”

That said, the fair itself is still virtual, and dealers have had to adjust.

“The main thing we have seen since March is that the fluency of galleries in this space has increased exponentially,” Mr. Horowitz said. “They know how to make the works pop.”

Mr. Spiegler agreed, adding that specific strategies had evolved.

“There are some dos and don’ts,” he said. “Do use video. Do get material that feels fresh. And don’t bring material that doesn’t translate on the screen.”

One piece of evidence that digital fairs are working is that dealers are willing to pay to participate. Previous online versions were free, but for this viewing room, Art Basel is charging galleries, though at a rate far lower than that of the in-person event. All dealers in the Galleries sector, for instance, will pay a flat fee of around $6,500 this time, versus $40,000 to $140,000 for last year’s booths, depending on size.

The dealer Paul Gray, of Gray gallery in Chicago, is showing Theaster Gates’s sculpture “Fragile and Dirty” (2020); McArthur Binion’s ink, oil paint stick and paper on board “dna:study” (2019); and a 1993 untitled David Hockney painting, among other works.

Mr. Gray said that for living artists such as these, the prospect of an all-online show is generally “less motivating.”

But he added that during the pandemic lockdown, artists have had “more time to focus on their art,” and hence were sometimes more productive.

This glass-half-full perspective also applies to the gallery’s relationships with collectors, said Mr. Gray, who has done other digital fairs this year.

“Few new clients come of it, but it’s a pretty effective way to interact with our existing client base,” he said.

Mr. Spiegler said that one approach that worked “tremendously well” from earlier viewing rooms was to offer supplemental “Zoom room walk-throughs run by groups of five or six galleries.” That way, he added, “People get to be talked through the art by the dealers themselves.”

David Zwirner Gallery is complementing its viewing room — featuring Ruth Asawa, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Suzan Frecon and others — with live-streamed sessions on its own website. Gallery directors will discuss the works and the artists.

The New York print and drawing dealer Susan Sheehan, a veteran who did her first art fair in 1986, has spent considerable time this year thinking through the ways she can highlight her offerings. She will present the woodcuts “Freefall” (1993), by Helen Frankenthaler, and “Blue” (1984), by Richard Diebenkorn, among other works.

Ms. Sheehan said in an email that she found “scale was the biggest issue that collectors were having with the online fair platforms.”

“It was hard for them to visualize the dimensions,” she explained.

With that in mind, she said, “For our Basel Miami viewing room, we are making a video and photos of each work with a person standing next to the artwork.”

In general, she said, she found that prints were slightly easier to show in an online format than, say, a unique painting, because many prints are familiar works that exist in multiple editions or as part of a series.

In this case, “most collectors know what the work looks like in advance,” Ms. Sheehan said, adding that prints were an “image-centric” medium.

An example is the Jasper Johns print she is presenting, his 1976 silk-screen “Corpse and Mirror,” part of a series of crosshatched works made in that decade. (Mr. Johns may be increasingly top of mind for collectors, given that a large retrospective of his work is to debut in 2021, jointly mounted at the Whitney and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

But no amount of website scrolling, Zoom chatting and augmented reality experimenting can replace what is perhaps Art Basel Miami Beach’s primary charm outside the fair’s walls.

As Mr. Meier put it, “I’ll miss the sunshine and warm weather.”

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