Big money and high art mix in Miami Beach
Wall Street money, edgy art and party-hopping scenesters have turned Art Basel Miami Beach into a culture-driven Davos.
(Fortune Magazine) -- On a strip of South Beach behind the Delano Hotel, investment bank UBS plans to erect an air-conditioned tent to welcome 1,500 people to Art Basel Miami Beach on Dec. 5.
A spillover pool and 12 ficus trees, exactly what you might expect at a UBS event, lie between the tent and the hotel. Except each tree seems to have been trimmed to, well, resemble a woman's breast - a 12-foot-wide woman's breast.
It's the perfect setting for the orgy of conspicuous consumption that is ABMB, now the largest contemporary art fair in the world. But ABMB isn't just a place where colored mud, skillfully applied to canvas just weeks prior, sells for nearly $100,000; it's much more. It's a corporate marketing opportunity, tourism magnet, cultural pacesetters' retreat and celebrity hangout all rolled into one.
Where else could you see A-Rod mingling with septuagenarian artist John Baldessari, tastemaking collectors such as South Beach boutique-hotel developers Don and Mera Rubell, dropping tens of thousands of dollars on artists no one has heard of from countries few had considered (last year's Rubell special: Poland), and, in the middle of it all, people whispering at parties about whether that skin color comes from "tan in a can" or UVB lights?
At ABMB, art world figures are elevated to tabloid fodder. "Dealer Mary Boone was spotted on the terrace of the ultra-swanky Delano Hotel, dressed to kill in a daffodil-yellow dress and clutching a shiny red cell phone that matched her bright-red heels," Artinfo.com reported last year.
Culture flies south
"The combination of art and beach was new," says ABMB director Sam Keller, trying to explain the fair's success. "Who wouldn't want to come here from up north in winter?"
The fair was born in the late 1990s when Miami collectors approached privately held MCH Swiss Exhibitions Ltd. about coming to their town. Since 1970, Swiss Exhibitions had run Art Basel, one of the world's two grandest fairs (the other is TEFAF Maastricht).
After dignitaries from both camps partied together at a Miami Beach bar called Big Fish, and the Miami Beach contingent visited Basel to make a pitch, Swiss Exhibitions agreed to launch a second fair.
"We told Sam we'd buy all-in," says collector and Florida venture capitalist Dennis Scholl. "We said, 'We'll do whatever it takes to get you here.' And Sam said, 'Okay, we'll do it. But all of you collectors will have to open up your homes.' We said, 'Whaaaa?!' But we did it."
That was Keller's masterstroke: Collectors like to show off what they own - and they want to know what their rivals have that they don't. When the fair started, Miami Beach was just enough out of the New York/Los Angeles mainstream of the contemporary art world that South Florida collections were a bit of a mystery.
"I think that the first really important event in the recent history of Miami was the restoration of South Beach," says developer and collector Craig Robins. "It gave Miami an international identity. Art Basel has had a similar kind of impact."
During the fair, many of the best invites are meted out not just by Art Basel Miami Beach but by supersponsor UBS (Charts) too. Over the course of six days UBS entertains about 4,000 clients and potential clients, making ABMB a UBS event nearly as popular as the America's Cup yacht race. After all, the nine-figure-net-worth crowd flocks to art fairs like groupies to hair bands.
"When you think about the C-suite and the hedge fund managers - the amount of money that these clients are putting into the art market is astounding," says Melanie Wright, UBS's head of U.S. sponsorship. "There's a lot of interest among our client-relationships folks to entertain their clients at events such as this."
Most of the other ABMB sponsors are luxury brands. BMW will make 25 chauffeured 7-Series cars available to VIPs. NetJets also helps contribute to the $1.7 million that ABMB attracts in sponsorship fees - convenient, since only flights to a handful of events like the Super Bowl and the Masters are more requested by its clients.
As with almost everything at ABMB, the real action is at the high end: Morgans Hotel Group (Charts) will charge $25,000 for five nights in the Delano's penthouse. Big galleries such as New York's Gagosian and Zurich's Hauser & Wirth will spend well into six figures to rent a booth, put up staff and insure art. It's worth it: Several dealers say they do 30 percent of their annual business over the long weekend.
So while buzz and luxury drive the fair, is the art any good? Yes and no. There's enough high-quality work here that top museums find things to buy. A version of a striking Olafur Eliasson prism sculpture from the booth of Berlin gallery Neugerriemschneider ended up in the collection of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden a few months later. But there's an abundance of kitschy paintings of fat folks available too.
Smart fairgoers know that not all of the best deals are at the "main fair." A dozen satellite fairs have sprung up during ABMB weekend, providing venues for a total of 600 galleries. Collectors of the newest art, like Leonard Nimoy and his wife, Susan Bay Nimoy, focus on the satellites.
By the end of the weekend ABMB will have turned the $9 million it costs to put on the fair into what economists and local officials estimate at $400 million to $500 million worth of art sales and related economic impact.
With the fairs gone, Miami Beach will return to normal. The city's grit will no longer be obscured by BMW 7-Series glare, hotel vacancy rates will skyrocket and tables at Joe's Stone Crab will once again be available.
At least until next year.