In the Mag: The Birth of Basel Miami Beach

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Supporters and organizers of the upcoming Art Basel Miami Beach explain how the “little sister” fair evolved into, arguably, the biggest art happening on the planet.

For four days in December, Art Basel Miami Beach will celebrate its lucky 13th year, bringing world-class art from 250 galleries across five continents to 70,000 attendees at the Miami Beach Convention Center. But, in truth, it should be celebrating 14 years.

The art fair was scheduled to debut in December 2001, but when terrorists struck the Twin Towers three months earlier, the shock reverberated globally. The prompt cancellation of the inaugural Florida version of Art Basel was one of the countless examples of collateral damage.

“People weren’t flying. You couldn’t insure artwork that was being sent,” recalls Bob Goodman, who has been the Florida representative for Art Basel since the fair’s inception. “For a whole host of reasons, they decided to postpone from 2001 to December 2002.”

The catalogs already had been printed for the 2001 show, and, by Goodman’s estimation, the decision to postpone one year cost the company that owns Art Basel, Switzerland’s Messe Schweiz, “millions of dollars.”

C’est la vie. The country re-bounded, and so did Art Basel Miami Beach. These days, according to figures released by the City of Miami Beach, Basel provides an economic boost of $500 million to its com-munity, with some estimates placing that figure in excess of $1 billion. By comparison, consider that the five-day SunFest, our area’s biggest music/art festival of the year, has an estimated economic impact of $15 million on Palm Beach County. Basel, on the other hand, draws more private jets than a Super Bowl, and by its second year, the New York Times had dubbed it “the hottest contemporary art fair in America.”

Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine is especially effusive about the way Basel has helped to transform his city.

“It’s a part of the renaissance of Miami Beach,” he says. “All the offshoots of Basel—the events, the parties, the various cultural contributions that have sprung from it, the galleries that have opened—the whole arts scene has exploded because of Art Basel coming to Miami Beach. I equate it to the turn of the century, when Henry Ford built his first factory. It was like the beginning not just of the Ford automobile but all the companies that supply Fords, and all the ripple effects.”

For many of its principal collectors, it even has eclipsed its big sister fair, Art Basel in Switzerland. “At the beginning, it was a junior partner, but now it’s a child that’s surpassed its parents,” says automotive magnate Norman Braman, a collector at Basel Switzerland for more than 20 years. “Think of the fact that in addition to having the success of Art Basel here, [the Miami area has] 26 additional fairs. Art Basel has 220 or 230 galleries [within the Miami Beach Convention Center], but during that week there are over 1,000 galleries in Miami.”