When the Miami Beach Convention Center opens its doors to the public on December 6 for the annual four-day Art Basel expo, a tsunami of artists, dealers, collectors, critics, curators and art-world followers will flood the 262,960-square-foot exhibition space to ogle, and possibly buy, everything from Impressionist landscapes and Cubist collages to neon sculptures and avant-garde video art—220 booths displaying the works of some 2,000 artists from 30 countries.
"Art Basel Miami Beach has one of the planet's highest concentrations of wealth and talent," boasts fair director Samuel Keller. "It's an explosive mixture of art, intellect, glamour and money." The art mart (a spinoff of the international fair held annually in Switzerland) has some of the glitz of Hollywood's Oscars, but it has also become one of the key events of the art-world calendar, a place where trends get set, deals get done and names get made—even if it has been criticized for its frenzied atmosphere and rampant commercialism. The New York Times has called it "an Art Costco for billionaires," and conceptual artist John Baldessari, whose work is marketed at the fair, observes: "You have to understand that it's not about mounting an art show, it's about selling art." But, he adds, "It's a chance to see a lot of good art in one place, even if it's not under optimum conditions."
"Art collectors love the sort of mall experience that art fairs provide," says Walter Robinson, editor of Artnet Magazine. "You walk down aisles and there's pressure to buy because the collectors know that there are other collectors there vying for the same choice artworks and they know they've only got a few days, if that, to make their move."
Why Miami Beach? "It seemed a good place to bring together the art scenes of the Americas and Europe in winter," says Keller, who is also one of the fair's founders as well as the director of Switzerland's fair. "The city was open and ready for a new international art show with a contemporary concept, and the South Florida art community was willing to actively support and embrace it."
While most of the action takes place at the convention center, there are a dozen or so subsidiary fairs—Pulse, Scope NADA, Aqua and Wave, among others—that have sprung up in Miami Basel's wake. An ancillary Design Miami fair, across Biscayne Bay in Miami's booming Design District, showcases furniture, lighting, antiques and objets d'art.
Sparked by Art Basel, Miami's art scene is enjoying a rapid escalation. Galleries in the Wynwood Art District, not so long ago a run-down area of old industrial buildings, warehouses and factories, are opening left and right. And two of the city's largest museums have announced ambitious expansion plans. The Miami Art Museum (MAM) is building a new $220 million space downtown, and North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) will nearly double in size. The city's art mania is also due in no small part to a handful of energetic collectors.