Sun, Dec 16, 2012 - Page 12 News List

Scenesters take over Art Basel

America’s hippest art fair has a reputation for pool parties and hedonism, even as the serious collector base has grown in recent years

By David Batty  /  The Guardian, Miami

Paintings of children are seen on the wall of the Wynwood Walls art project.

Photo: AFP

Half an hour into last Wednesday’s VIP preview of Art Basel Miami Beach, the largest contemporary art fair in the US, P Diddy sweeps in with his entourage. In aviator shades and dressed all in black, bar the Gucci logo on his T-shirt, Diddy is famous enough to turn heads even among the hip and wealthy visitors milling up and down the aisles. Now in its 11th year, ABMB remains the art event to see and be seen at.

For the uninitiated, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and exhausted by ABMB. If you think London gets too crowded with events during its annual Frieze fair, stay away from Miami: this year there were at least 17 art fairs happening simultaneously. Art envelops the whole city with pop-up exhibits, new museum shows, film screenings, public sculptures (including a King-Kong-sized black dog) and street art by the likes of Shepard Fairey, the creator of the famous Hope Obama poster.

Then there’s the parties, which attract musicians such as Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, movie stars including Will Ferrell and Demi Moore and reality TV star Kim Kardashian.

On the opening night, Wendi Deng (鄧文迪), Rupert Murdoch’s wife, co-hosted a Chanel event at Soho House in South Beach, while an afterparty at a pop-up recreation of the Club Silencio from David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive attracted queues into the early hours outside the Delano hotel. Judd Tully, a writer for the magazine Art + Auction and veteran of the fair, says: “Miami is a party city. You either have to be young or a glutton for punishment.”

At the Delano late last Tuesday, crowds were streaming from a party at its beach club to the next happening. At the White Cube gallery’s soiree in Soho House, the uninvited, hoping to get in, jostle behind the barrier ropes. Inside it’s a scrum as punters squeeze through packed bars to get to the beach and poolside DJ sets. Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and White Cube owner Jay Jopling are apparently ensconced in an undisclosed VIP section.

Making the scene

Status anxiety infects the conversation. At the poolside disco, a young Canadian collector complains that he may as well party to the early hours because “all of the good stuff is pre-sold. I’ll probably get there and find some 80-year-old woman has bought what I want.”

The often hedonistic vibe has prompted criticism of the fair, including accusations that it attracts scenesters with little real interest in contemporary art. Wendy Cromwell, an art adviser and regular visitor based in New York, says the serious collector base has grown in recent years.

“The kind of people who used to come down in the first few years just wanted to party and hang on to the coat-tails of the art world. But the fair has gained legitimacy with collectors. Even New York [art fairs] can’t compete. The Armory show’s lost its luster, and at Frieze New York last year people were complaining that it wasn’t as good as Miami.”

Gimme the money

This year, ABMB’s commercial significance has been heightened by the damage suffered during Hurricane Sandy by many of the participating New York galleries. Tully says: “Some of the dealers are really counting on this fair to make money to survive.”

Nichole Caruso of the Wallspace gallery in Manhattan says that its basement unit -- containing hundreds of drawings, sculptures and paintings -- was submerged. “It was like a swimming pool. Some of that work will be with conservators for months, even years.”

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