Art Letter


What's it about when one collector owns 8000 works of art?

I've just returned from 4 days Art Basel / Miami - an incredible mardi gras of an experience, situated on Miami Beach, the doormat to Dante's Inferno.  Hedonism abounds and the art market is thriving.

We have a brilliant contrast here on a numerous levels - the differences between 2 art fairs and the differences between 2 cities. 

Art Basel / Miami succeeds on so many levels because it encourages others to participate.  And then they think of absolutely everything; shuttle busses running every which way, VIP passes for everybody and their plastic surgeon, video series, book signings, and on and on.  Professional from top to bottom. 

The show itself is glorious and odd. The art is awesome, the dealers exemplary. And it isn't about the art at all. It is all about commerce.  I rather felt as if the art was demeaned, that it was looked at for its dollar value and not first or second for its intrinsic merit. Just about everything belongs in a museum and here it is in the bazaar, denuded.

The NADA Fair (dealers of new art) was on the mainland because last year's location flooded in the recent hurricanes. This show totally contrasts with the big show. Perhaps one quarter the number of galleries, all allocated identical size single booths, present new art by new artists. The only thing that is different from booth to booth is the art - each booth even has the same number of lights. And the art has no provenance, no auction records, and nothing to give you an independent sense of value.  It's all about the art. I like that.

So were the Scope fair and the Frisbee Fair, but they take over a hotel and each exhibitor has a guest room in which to hang their art.  One invariably feels captive walking room to room and compelled to make a moment's small talk even if you want to exit post-haste.  The phenomenon gets old after a bit.

As a city, Miami is incomplete and sporadic. The climate is hot. There is a lot of skin.  More conspicuous consumption than Chicago, and a much higher percentage of new money.  The museums need a hand and a larger support base.

Two collectors have amassed separate holdings, ├╝bercollections and have scant interest in benefiting their communities even though they give lip service to it. One major collector even took out a full page ad in the newspaper to defeat a bond proposal for a new museum facility (it passed) saying they didn't have enough of a collection to merit a new building.  The hotels near the Miami Beach Convention Center are competing to amass the most ostentatious collection of lobby art, and paintings sold at Wednesday night's opening could be seen hanging in several hotels by Thursday.  Art has many purposes: in Miami it is an indicator of which hotel has the deepest pockets. Oh joy.

The success of the Basel / Miami Fair is completely attributable to the remarkable competence of the organizers, and the failure of Art Chicago likewise lies solely in the hands of those who put it on.  Art Chicago has suffered from a thorough lack of vision and bad manners.

Many are prone to laud Miami and blame Chicago for the fairs' relative success or lack thereof, but that's not really the truth. It is however safe to say that the Miami extravaganza is easily 4 times larger than Art Chicago in a city less than one quarter the size - so of course it's going to have a greater impact there.

This is not to say that Chicago blew it, or that we can't have a kick ass fair here. But it damn sure says that none of the existing players are sufficiently competent to pull off a good Chicago show. There are certainly many collectors who want to come back to Chicago, but I'm not sure this country's increasing population of philistines will support 3 fairs (the 2nd being the
Armory show in New York).

Next May, at least in theory, we will have two, mediocre at best, "art" fairs. Thomas Blackman Associates is no longer welcome at Navy Pier, for good reasons, and he says he will be putting a show on in tents, but I don't know a single one of his former exhibitors who wants to leap his burnt bridge.  And Ilana Vardy's Pfingsten Publishing Group, which does have Navy Pier's endorsement for next May, has a history of a financially viable (for the organizers) show that is neither cutting edge nor innovative, just lucratively bland.

Here, look at the numbers. Approximately 150 galleries with take 4 booths, each at $5000 per booth, yielding the organizers Three Million Dollars. Even if they charge as much as $20 to enter, which they never have, and get 30,000 attendees, which they won't, the attendance figures only generate $600,000.

In other words, as Chicago's two organizers go forward into vaporland they really don't care about the quality art that brings in quality visitors; they care about the number of exhibitors.  Hey, they may succeed economically, but we're going to be screwed.

My hope is that both shows cancel, admit defeat and slink away.  They don't care if they are an embarrassment. Heck, the Old Town Art Fair will probably be better - at least they care. I would prefer a void.

With a void we have a need and maybe we will be lucky enough that the Basel group steps up and does a real show. Or Mark Lyman, but the Basel group has already raised the bar so high that only they, I think, could do a successful show here, because only they can draw the right exhibitors.

I'm not holding my breath.

Chicago has so much more substance than Miami. Our collectors don't need to collect 8000 works of art to compensate for anything. And we support our institutions. And if you don't agree, let me buy you lunch at Millennium Park and then we'll head over to the Art Institute for additional discussion.

Bon Appetit,

PS:  Other good articles can be seen at: