From the Streets to the Belly of the Beast. A Journey Through Art Basel Miami Week

The Arrival

The 2015 edition of Art Basel week has just ended. For me, coming to Miami has become an annual journey that I love to write about. In the last couple of years, I have written about my accounts of coming to an international art fair from the gallery’s perspective and sharing my day-by-day experiences and challenges. Being behind a booth for six or seven days in a row is a daunting task. So much so that I have created an online course titled “Everything You Need to Know About Participating in an International Art Fair.”  If you are planning to take your gallery or participate as an artist, you might want to check it out to avoid unpleasant surprises.

This year, I decided to return to Miami with press credentials since I write for online and in-print publications. It was an interesting adventure that began with eating Cuban empanadas in a local joint at Wynwood and ended with an incredible opportunity to access the most exclusive VIP room inside the Collectors Lounge in Miami Art Basel. Yes, there is such room behind the two big security guards at the end of the hall. I invite you to join me in this post as I share with you my journey. And, don’t miss my final thoughts on this year’s experience.

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The Wynwood Scene

Coming to Art Basel as PRESS takes some work before hand. One has to apply to each and every fair to get the Press status. Once that is cleared, the road ahead is good to go. As I arrived to Miami, I headed to Wynwood and midtown first to check out the art fairs there and eat some delicious Cuban empanadas. It’s a must stop for me! If you have never been to Wynwood, this is the neighborhood known for its lively urban night scene and the amazing walls painted by hundreds of street artists that gather there year after year to paint outdoor walls of almost every standing structure. It’s amazing! A must see during daylight and experience at night time. Pop up galleries and live music performances are a big part of the daily scene during Basel week in Wynwood.

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I first visited Art Miami and Context art fairs, both in Wynwood. Each had a lot to offer from emerging galleries and experimental spaces to more robust and seasoned galleries placed in Art Miami. There, I found some great works and a number of exquisite surprises. However, nothing really scandalous or over the top in-your-face type of work that I have seen in previous years. Overall, both fairs were beautifully curated and offered a wide variety of works at various price points starting from a couple thousand to a number of six figure works. A couple of Chicago based galleries had booths at both Art Miami and Context. I always make a point to stop by and cheer up our very own Chicagoans. To me, coming to Miami is as much about the art as it is about the people and the relationships that I have been building over time. It is great to run into artists and gallerists I know personally. I love that! A newcomer to Context I was excited to see was Bluerider Gallery. Mainly because I attended their grand opening a couple years ago in Taipei. Since then, they have been moving forward at a rapid speed. For their Context booth, they feature a number of Chicago-based artists including InJung Oh, Rine Boyer, Mario Gonzalez Jr and Amy Van Winkle. Way to go Bluerider!

Chicago’s Zolla Liberman was also there with works by Deborah Butterfield which has made repeated appearances with Zolla over the years. Additionally, works by Dan Ramirez and René Romero Schuller were also on view among other artists in its booth. One Chicago friend I always enjoy visiting his booth is Elias Martin, Director of Gallery FW working in collaboration with Yufuku Gallery. Elias brings to the international art fairs exquisite Japanese master sculptors working in glass, metal and other materials. No wonder his booth is always full of people admiring the sophisticated craftsmanship of the work on view.

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My next stop was Spectrum and Red Dot in midtown. These two fairs formerly across the street of Art Miami were moved further south to midtown Miami. Both of these fairs present a mix of galleries and independent artists. ArtSpot curated by former Chicagoan Aldo Castillo was back for its third year as a fair within a fair. Aldo’s commitment to bring Latin-American art and artists to Miami is something I personally appreciate. There, I met a number of artists from Venezuela and Cuba. Within Spectrum, Irreversible Projects curated by my good friend Noor Blazekovic featured a selection of artists from Venezuela, Miami, France, Germany, Austin, NYC and Miami including Alejandro Mendoza, Luis Martin, Natalie Dunham and others. An important part of my coming to Miami was to facilitate a talk for artists with Irreversible Projects. Noor kindly invited me to speak and I gladly accepted. The talk was a great success with amazing attendance at the booth and over sixty-five virtual attendees who saw it via live video stream using my phone and Periscope. I spoke about what artists need to do to face the ongoing changes in the art world. I mentioned a number of resources which you can download from this link. Also showing along Spectrum was Chicago based gallery Griffin Fine Art showing a number of artists including Joyce Owens. It was also great to see works by Chicago artists Sarvin Haghighi Culley, Victoria Fuller and Carol Brookes at Spectrum Mimi.

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A new kid on the block this year was X Contemporary. A brand new art fair only a few feet away from Mana Contemporary. A small fair with a mix of conceptual and experimental works. Including in the inaugural show was an expansive curated exhibition of Cuban artists. In this fair, I was excited to visit Project X from NYC. Directed by Luis Martin, it featured a beautiful curated booth of conceptual works by Thomas HammerSamantha Robinson, Annesta Le and Luis Martin himself. Certainly interesting will be to see how this fair positions itself from the rest of the pack.

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While in Wynwood, I also visited Pinta (located inside Mana Contemporary), known as the Latin-American art fair. The space was beautiful and very well curated. The fair included strong conceptual works and hybrids such as a Formula One race car completely covered by the Huichol artisans from Nayarit, Mexico. This group of about 10 artists worked for six months adding tiny beads to cover the entire surface of the vehicle with beautiful Mexican motives. The fair was small and easily manageable to view without feeling overwhelmed. I particularly enjoyed the quality of the work and the element of surprise as you walked through an open fair layout. Showing adjacent to Pinta and within Mana Contemporary, was a wonderful selection of works from the Frederick Weisman Art Collection.

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The Exclusive Parties

“It’s no secret that scoring a coveted Art Basel VIP card is a Herculean task mastered only by true art-world greats and majorly moneyed collectors. The only thing more difficult? Making sure you’re on the list for all of the week’s most exclusive dinners and parties. We’ve assembled a list of some of the week’s hottest tickets, but beware: Unless your name’s on the list (and sometimes, even if it is), you’re unlikely to make it past the iPad-wielding door attendant.” says ArtNet News in a recent article. If you have a friend who knows a friend of a friend, you may get into one of these highly exclusive Miami Beach parties. So, I have a friend and ended up in party #16 of the ArtNet list. In attendance at this exclusive party were many collectors, gallery owners, curators and museum directors mingling around with each other. Often, their cellphones becoming like portable catalogs of what they were buying or selling to each other. Exchanging information and making deals while drinking martinis is the name of the game that everyone there knows how to play. Even though the rain kept falling on and off, the party continued as the DJ played and the connections continued to happen around the beautiful hotel pool.

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Besides the never ending parties, local galleries and museums host openings and events as well. On Saturday night, I attended the opening of “What’s Inside Her Never Dies” at Yeelen Gallery. The exhibition featuring excellent works by a number of realist painters I admire and many whom I have worked with in the past was a smashing hit. Getting into the show required to wait in line for quite some time but the long wait was worthwhile the effort. The beautifully curated exhibition which is also featured in Didi Menendez’s PoetsArtists publication included works by artists I personally admire such as Debra Balchen, Nick Ward, Tim Okamura, Patrick Earl Hammie, Victoria Selbach, Judith Peck and many more.

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Miami Beach

Once in the Miami Beach side of town, I rushed to visit Untitled. There was so much talk about it in the art news posts and casual conversations among art fair attendees. Untitled was an absolutely beautiful fair. Perhaps my favorite one in terms of location, light, floorpan and just plain gorgeous. The attention to detail made it feel approachable yet distinctive. There, I had great conversations with dealers from Mexico and Peru who were showing excellent works by Latin-American artists. Chicago galleries Aspect/Ratio and Carrie Secrist presented excellent booths located towards the middle of the fair.

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In case you did not know, there were 22 art fairs in Miami showing simultaneously. Visiting all of them is an impossible task so you have to be selective. After days and hours of walking around from fair to fair, my last stop before heading back to Chicago was the daddy of the fairs, Art Basel itself located in the Miami Beach Convention Center. By then, consuming art was more like an indulging experience. How much more one can take? For as much as I love art, I had enough of it for one weekend. However, I could not skip Basel. After all, it is the reason we are all here to start with. What made my Art Basel experience memorable was the fact that I had been given access to a special room within the fair. Again, a friend who knows a friend kind of thing made it happen and I was not about to blow that away.

The Art Basel Beast

“Back at Art Basel Miami, to and from the Collectors Lounge (there are lounges within lounges according to net worth, no sh*%^) like a yo-yo with clients (and hopefuls)” commented Kenny Schachter in his latest ArtNet News article. It is true! I was told to look for the private lounge inside the Collectors Lounge of Art Basel and show my “special” pass to the security guards. Getting in the VIP lounge itself is already difficult but to pass beyond that into the next level is almost impossible by mere mortals. Once I got passed the beautiful VIP lounge, I saw way in the back a long white corridor with two big security guards at the entrance. Once I passed them, I was escorted to the white reception area where I received a fabric wrist band and a complimentary iPhone charger. Once in there, the approximately 8,000 square foot of open space featured a full bar at its center, seating stations with white beautiful couches and dinning tables. the white walls were decorated with beautiful paintings as well. Along the sides, a number of buffet style stations featuring astounding hors d’oeuvres and desserts. Once stationed, the service staff attended to every need of the guests by offering unlimited drinks and an array of delicious hors d’oeuvres that continued to come endlessly. So there I was. Sitting in the same room where the multi-million dollar deals are made and the top gallerists concur during Basel. The room many stories are written about. The belly of the beast is, after all, a beautiful place. Bathed with every touch of attention fitted for the lifestyle of those whose net worth exceeds the eight figures.

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Art Basel was, well, Art Basel. Lots and lots of highly expensive art. Some good, some bad and some strangely in-between. I will not say more than that. Just about every art magazine and online journal will talk about it and it’s useless for me to repeat any of that. I ran into Chicago’s Kavi Gupta and Corbett vs. Dempsey Galleries. Both shared with me excitement for the turnout of this year’s fair. All I will say next is that I got into the belly of the beast and saw the “other side.” Being here and doing business here is a game. A big game of big pockets fighting to get what’s hot and get rid of what used to be hot. A big strategy game that in a strange way, trickles down to the guy selling the Cuban empanadas in Wynwood. This wave of tourists comes like a hurricane to flood Miami because this giant monster called Art Basel is here feeding its hungry ego. Is it about art? Yes and no. The whole thing is as strange as it can get.

By far, this was my most interesting Art Basel Week ever. As I walked away from the Miami Convention Center after my experience, another reality hit me. In the back of the building a group of homeless people were sleeping on the floor leaning against the colossal convention center. Such is the great divide between two separate worlds breathing the same air but separated by a big wall. These two worlds will never meet. When it comes to the art world, I can say that I have seen both sides and the gap is increasingly large.

Sergio Gomez

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  1. Hi, Sergio, well written and interesting! I hope to make it there next year, if only as a spectator.
    See you around the Zhou-B-Center sometime and have a wonderful Holiday Season with your family,

  2. A very professional and well organized essay. I was there and could remember a lot of art Sergio showing, but I do remember seeing them when Sergio presented here. The Miami art market is overwhelming and only very professional people like him pulls out the significant works that need to be remembered.
    Thank you Sergio, you made my Miami trip double pleaser !!!!

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