Art Basel codirector sees positive changes

by Andrew Maerkle

Since its inception in 1970, Art Basel has become one of the world’s most prestigious art events. Held every June in Basel, Switzerland, the commercial fair hosts almost 300 galleries dealing in blue-chip Modern and postwar art as well as those with cutting-edge contemporary art.

The fair’s inclusion of curated sections such as Art Statements, which provides young galleries the opportunity to present individual emerging artists, and Art Unlimited, featuring large-scale video, sculptural and installation projects, has blurred the lines between trade show and international art survey, creating a model that is now widely copied.

In December 2002, Art Basel added a sister fair, Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB), which expanded its influence in the Americas. Marc Spiegler, codirector of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach, was in Tokyo recently to give a presentation for the Mori Art Museum’s MAM Art Course lecture series. The Japan Times caught up with Spiegler to discuss the current state of the contemporary art market.

How do you feel the global financial crisis will affect the international art market?

I can only speak for the sector of the market that forms our clientele: the top international galleries dealing in contemporary, postwar and modern art. What we’re seeing is an end to the speculative practices of the past five years or so, during which so-called “collectors” were buying art the way one might buy stocks. They would get a tip on young artists who were just emerging on the market and then flip work into auction within even a year’s time. Consider that a decade ago, no respectable collector would have auctioned work that was less than five to 10 years old.

It makes things more complicated because there are fewer people acquiring art. Galleries (faced with the cost of booth fees, shipping, transportation and accommodation) must now strategically evaluate where to invest their money: Which of the eight international fairs per year that they did previously really make sense to attend?

But it’s important to remember that there was already a thriving art world before the boom. And to the extent that the boom has receded, it still leaves more behind than was there before. In fact, what we saw at ABMB in December was that collectors who left the market because they didn’t like the boom-time competitive atmosphere were actually returning. So there is an influx even as there’s an exodus.

I think the market will become more consolidated, more serious, and the people who remain will do so because they truly love and want to support art. Collectors are defying the conventional wisdom that you shouldn’t buy art in difficult times. For them, this is exactly the time to buy. It’s a commitment test. If you’re in it now, you’re not in it for the money.

Will tough economic times result in more conservative gallery programs?

I hope not. Art Basel and ABMB select the majority of their participants on the basis of their overall programs, not for specific projects. We never know what’s coming to the fairs until the work is out of the crates. In the runup to ABMB, we feared that galleries would play it safe by bringing small, easily spotted, aesthetically pleasing works. But, overall, participants brought ambitious presentations.

It reinforces for me the idea that the only art that will sell right now is great art. You can’t expect a conservative program to succeed because that entails appealing to the lowest common denominator. The only thing that can succeed is something that’s unique, something that collectors only have one chance to buy because there’s only one like it.

Also, with less money flowing around, gallerists may conclude that if there are no sure sales, they might as well do something interesting and significant. In the past, certain types of art were sure to sell, and if you took a risk, you were leaving money on the table.

Recent years have seen strong collaboration between luxury brands and contemporary art, but now brands are shutting down their more ambitious cultural projects — for example, Chanel’s recent decision to cancel the world tour of its Mobile Art exhibition of works based on the company’s signature 2.55 quilted-style chain handbag. Does that affect Art Basel?

There’s always an ebb and flow between contemporary art and mainstream culture. My feeling is that the fashion world will continue looking to artists for inspiration. Part of it depends on the brand’s history with the arts.

One of Art Basel’s sponsors is Cartier. They’ve put a lot of effort into the partnership, and they have a long tradition in the arts through their private gallery, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris, which turns 25 this year. We’ve always focused on working with companies that have an enduring, day-to-day relationship with the arts, as opposed to those that want to use the fair simply for a quick promotion.

In Japan, the contemporary art market is smaller than other countries with comparable art infrastructure and artistic production. Does Art Basel have the wherewithal to help promote a market here?

Part of why I came to Tokyo was to talk about Art Basel, and I hope that people who attended my presentation will be motivated to visit the fair. It takes a lot of educational work to build an art market, and that happens mostly on the ground.

I met Hiroko Ishinabe, founder of the group One Piece Club that encourages its members to buy at least one work of contemporary art per year, and I think she’s showing great initiative in using her social network to support galleries and artists. Even if club members only buy one piece a year, that’s still 40 or 50 art works sold in the two years of the club’s existence. What we’ve seen in various markets is that things build slowly, and then one or two people, because of their social standing or networks, have a strong multiplier effect that builds on years of hard work by artists and galleries.

We don’t have the power to transform the Japanese market, but certainly the Japanese galleries that show at Art Basel benefit from the international exposure. Art Basel collectors not only see the galleries at the fair but may also visit them in Japan. To the extent we can help that happen, we do.

Europe has a strongly integrated market, and in the United States, people from across the country collect art, not just collectors in specific localities. But in Asia only a few collectors are crossing borders. Does that limit the possibilities for art?

That’s been an interesting question for us. If we were to launch a fair in Asia, we would have to attract collectors from across the region. A lot of fairs in Asia have the problem that the markets are localized, and few people fly in from even neighboring countries. I think that’s slowly changing.

We’ve noticed a synergy between the Chinese and Indian markets developing, and in pop culture, links between Korea and Japan are strengthening. Maybe that will translate into art. As much as people associate art with the avant-garde, sometimes it adapts slowly to new conditions.