Economic Times Test Miami Art Show

Art Basel Miami is sister of the large annual show in Switzerland. The Miami show has been growing in both size and prominence as an international market for art, but will be put to the test in this year's economic slide.

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For the next four days, the focus of the art world's attention is Miami Beach. It's the seventh annual Art Basel Miami, featuring 260 galleries and more than 2,000 artists, and that's just the main event. It's an offshoot of Art Basel in Switzerland. And since it came to Miami, the fair has spawned events throughout the city. NPR's Greg Allen has been checking it out.

GREG ALLEN: It's one of the largest commercial art events in the world. This year, Art Basel is expected to attract some 40,000 visitors who are coming to get a look at and consider buying works by artists like Warhol, Rathko, and Rauschenberg, as well as emerging talent. But what about the economic downturn? Recent auctions in New York and London have turned in disappointing results. Marc Spiegler, one of Art Basel's co-directors, said it already had an impact.

Mr. MARK SPIEGLER (Co-Director, Art Basel): The art galleries only brought the best possible work because only the best possible work will sell. The things that are really attracting buyers right now are pieces that they feel they will not have a second chance at anytime soon.

ALLEN: During yesterday's preview, hundreds of VIPs got a first look. Collectors Irving Sten(ph) and Judith Rock(ph) were in from Chicago for the third year running. Sten said he's mostly interested in contemporary art from the 1950s and 60s, and had already visited a few of his favorite galleries.

Mr. IRVING STEN (Art Collector, Chicago): I have bought things in the past. It's always exciting to see what the young people are doing because that's - that's always new.

Ms. JUDITH ROCK (Art Collector, Chicago): And what the world is doing.

Mr. STEN: Yeah.

Ms. ROCK: Because it's all here under one roof.

ALLEN: Across the street from the convention center is Art Basel at its most fabulous. It's a jewelry exhibit sponsored by Cartier, with an interior design by filmmaker David Lynch. Without a VIP ticket, I couldn't get in. But Miami Beach jewelry collector, Nicole Lozano, could. And she told me about it when she came out.

Ms. NICOLE LOZANO (Owner, USA Bouquet and Twenty First Century Events): It was an amazing experience. It was floating diamonds and descending diamonds and jewels and rotating, and their new collection is just amazing. It's a very hot ticket to get.

ALLEN: Art Basel has become so big, it spills out from the convention center. Across Miami Beach, small hotels turn their premises over to galleries for satellite art fairs. On the beach, Art Basel sets up its own alternative show in shipping containers. Across Biscayne Bay in the city of Miami, Art Basel has helped transformed the Windwood neighborhood, a former warehouse district, that in recent years has become home to dozens of galleries and restaurants. Helen Allen says Windwood has changed a lot in the last few years.

Ms. HELEN ALLEN (Founder and Director, PULSE): I've only seen one chicken this year walking down the road. Yeah, I used to see a lot more.

ALLEN: Allen is the founder and director of PULSE. After four years now, one of the better known satellite art fairs. She said sales may be slower this year, but visitors are engaged and interested in learning about the work.

Ms. ALLEN: There seems to be this kind of renewed interest in return to connoisseurship. You know, people are - they are much more thoughtful. It's not like I have to have one. You know, they really want to learn about the work. They want to discover it. They want to really understand it.

ALLEN: At Art Basel, there have already been some big sales. But the consensus seems to be that the show is a little more restrained than in recent years. But that's done little to dampen the enthusiasm of Norman Braman, a multimillionaire and well-known art collector who helped bring Art Basel to Miami.

Mr. NORMAN BRAMAN (Former Owner, Philadelphia Eagles): This is akin to having a Super Bowl here.

ALLEN: There are estimates that Art Basel generates a half-billion dollars in economic activity. But Braman says its impact on Miami goes far beyond that. It spurred interest in contemporary art, inspiring local collectors and institutions. Florida International University has just opened a new art museum. The city of Miami recently unveiled plans for an ambitious new museum of its own. Art Basel, Braman says, has turned Miami into an international arts destination.

Mr. BRAMAN: We have groups coming to our home this week from China. Who would we have dreamt that we would have collectors and museum people coming from China? Richard Nixon would be very proud of you for a lifetime.

ALLEN: It's a prestige event, attracting celebrities and high rollers from around the world. That's one of the reasons UBS, the beleaguered Swiss bank that sponsored Miami's Art Basel since the beginning, said despite the tough times, it's renewing it's commitment for at least the next three years. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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