Would you marry someone you only met online?" asks Marc Spiegler, global director, Art Basel. I’d asked him if virtual fairs could replace physical fairs in the foreseeable future. It’s unlikely, says Spiegler, a former art critic and art market journalist who likes to speak in dating-related metaphors.
Established in 1970 in Switzerland, Art Basel has become the world’s premier art sales platform. The fair launched editions in Miami Beach and Hong Kong in 2002 and 2013, respectively. Under the leadership of Spiegler, who took over as global director in 2012, the fair has transcended its identity as a trading platform to become an art event.
Spiegler continues to innovate with new programmes such as Art Basel Cities, an initiative launched last September in Buenos Aires. Art Basel Hong Kong was flagged off on Friday (it continues until 31 March), bringing together 242 galleries from 35 countries. Six Indian galleries have a presence at the fair this year: Gallery Chemould, Experimenter, Vadehra Art Gallery, Gallery Espace, Jhaveri Contemporary and Tarq. The last two were selected for the Discoveries section, which focuses on emerging artists.
Ahead of the public opening, Mint spoke to Spiegler about the evolution of the fair and the findings of the just-released Art Market 2019 Report, co-published by Art Basel and UBS, the fair’s partner for 25 years. Edited excerpts:
What have 10 years in Art Basel taught you?
One of the most interesting aspects of my work is sitting in on the selection committee meetings. When you sit with six to seven really experienced gallerists and talk about other galleries, you recognize a deeper level of gallery work. One of the things we focus on is who is originating an artist—who is doing the spade work of bringing an artist into the art world?
Or are they what’s called an “import" gallery—the type of gallery that’s very well connected within its market and brings in big names artists who they didn’t develop. That type of gallery is really valuable for that market but it doesn’t add much to a fair like Art Basel. Like if you had a gallery in India that was bringing in Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol... it’s great that these galleries exist but it doesn’t have the same impact as a GallerySKE or Gallery Chemould or Experimenter because they are bringing Indian artists into play on a global stage. I learnt that without those galleries, the region wouldn’t have an international relevance.
Art Basel Hong Kong happened under your watch. Any expansion plans or smaller formats that you’re exploring, perhaps in the Indian subcontinent?
We launched Art Basel Cities. In terms of events, I don’t see the need to do a fourth Art Basel fair with the dimensions of this one. I also don’t see us doing a boutique fair under the Art Basel banner. Art Basel implies a sense of scale. It implies a range of artworks, and when you bring that kind of fair to a particular art market you really better be sure it’s going to work.
Any plans to bring the Cities programme to India?
We are open to possibilities. India is a key part of Art Basel: a lot of Indian gallerists have been on selection committees. Vadehra Gallery is doing Basel for the first time this year. It’s a rich market. There are some issues like getting currency out of the country, but then you have all the NRIs who are some of the most influential in tech and finance. We see India as well as the NRI population as a great driver. India has its own culture but it also has strong ties to Western cultures, especially British culture, so there’s a certain type of work that doesn’t need to be explained in India, the way it might need to be in some other places in Asia.
While Europe is the flagship, you have been developing the Miami Beach and Hong Kong editions actively. What are the key differentiators in terms of audience, content and spend?
It’s important that every fair have its own personality. The thing that’s common at Art Basel fairs is the rigour of the selection, the execution, the ways in which we treat our gallerists and VIPs. But it’s important that every fair is rooted in its region.
In addition to this, outside the halls, these are very different cities. Hong Kong is a great commercial platform and the galleries very much drive activities outside the fair. Miami Beach has got itself a name because private collectors open up their homes. Basel, of course, has its legendary museums.
Luxury brands often find that in India, while they have domestic stores, their clients would rather shop the same stock in New York, Milan or Paris. Does this translate to the art market?
To an extent. While galleries don’t come to fairs to sell to clients they already have back home, obviously if a client shows up, they will pursue that. The greater risk is in developing a new client base. I remember David Zwirner telling me that a few years ago when he had an important set of paintings by one of his artists, he sent the preview list only to Asian clients. He could sell them to anybody but he wanted to use this fair to meet Asian clients and build that relationship.
Luxury and art have been intersecting for a while. You have brands like Audemars Piguet and BMW here. How do the luxury brands serve art, beyond the direct commercials?
They might bring in people who otherwise wouldn’t be at the show. But I also see a massive change. A decade ago, it was what we called the logo and the lounge era. A sponsor would be happy to be given a logo on the wall and a lounge to receive their guests. Now brands want to be much more involved. UBS is very happy to be involved with the art market report. Audemars Piguet is doing artist commissions, as they see themselves not as a luxury company but as a technology company. BMW does this art journey award; they want to be directly engaged with the art world. When you start to work with a luxury brand, one question is, does it fit at all? The other question is what will they do? HTC is doing an interactive VR booth at the fair this year.
Aggregated online sales now account for 9% of the total value of global sales. I believe you have been exploring augmented reality (AR) for previews…
AR previews don’t tend to work out that well. If all you’re doing is sending out glorified versions of a PDF it doesn’t change anything. You might date, but will you marry? The difference between the art market and other markets is that the art market deals predominantly, especially at the highest end, with unique objects. It’s not 17 Dior bags and everyone knows what it looks like, so you can go to the store and see what it looks like and buy at half price on Amazon. Buying art is a very personal thing.
I don’t see us switching to digital fairs unless the market is for digital art. When I started out, there was a lot of fear of digital (but) we’ve seen digital as a way to build momentum ahead of the show, to keep people informed during the show and then to give a long tail after the show. I don’t see digital as a challenge.
The number of international fairs has gone up from 50 in 2010 to over 300 in 2018. However, your parent company MCH divested its shares in Art Dusseldorf and India Art Fair. Do these numbers and this development couple to imply that the number of art fairs has peaked?
That has to do more with issues that MCH faces as a company than any lack of belief in art fairs. I think the question has less to do with “is there a market for fairs" and more like “are there enough galleries who want to become regulars at certain fairs or do they want to do new fairs?" Probably not.
The galleries that have experience are doing fewer fairs and getting pickier. They’re doing the fair once and if it doesn’t work, they pull out, whereas conventional wisdom is that you have to give at least three years in a row. Now it’s like you’re on a first date and the appetizer course did not work out, and you’re like, I don’t think this is going to work out, bye. Fairs are heavily time-consuming. It’s not just the time you spend at the fair, it’s weeks before preparing and the weeks after following up.
You are going beyond the commercial trappings of a fair to make it a cultural event. Does this risk weakening its core identity?
For the first 20 years, Art Basel was more or less a trading platform. In the mid 90s, with the advent of sponsorship and especially accelerated by us going to Miami Beach, we got a broader notion of Art Basel.
Art Basel has a broader responsibility. It’s why we publish the market report. It’s why we have a long-term project with Kickstarter to crowdfund for non-profits around the world. We’ve realized that our long-term relevance depends on an ecosystem that can’t be fed only by what we do at shows.