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29 June 2012
In this city they sell and buy
And nobody ever asks them why.
But since it contents them to buy and sell,
God forgive them! They might as well.
You can tell Basel is a wealthy city. Making our way down to the city’s international art fair just after noon on Friday 15 June, we find our attention caught by a stand outside wine merchant Paul Ulrich at the junction of Hutgasse and Schneidergasse near the Marktplatz (Market Square). A wine tasting! And so early, the day having hardly begun. They were offering a free dégustation not of some bog-standard plonk to be off-loaded on an undiscriminating public, but of decidedly upmarket Ruinart Champagne. What most impressed us, however, was that the wine was being offered in echt glass champagne flutes, not in the plastic cups that you would be offered at most such promotions in northern Europe. I can’t see Welsh champagne being handed out gratis in glass goblets by the vintners of Aberystwyth…..Welsh champagne, Mmm….Now there’s a thought!
You have got to hand it to the burghers of Basel – they do things in style.
This year the annual Art Basel fair, open to the public from 14 to 17 June, attracted 65 000 visitors. The 300 galleries present offered works produced in the 20th and 21st centuries by more than 2 500 artists. The galleries were from 36 countries, those with the greatest number being the United States (73), Germany (54), Switzerland (31), the United Kingdom (29) and France (28).
Artists who attended included Marina Abramović, the ubiquitous Tracey Emin, Douglas Gordon, Mike Nelson, Gavin Turk and Theaster Gates. Representatives of more than 70 museums and art institutions rolled up, as did major private collectors from North and South America, Europe and areas with emerging art markets. According to the organisers, there was a noticeable increase in the number of collectors from Asia and, in particular, from Hong Kong and mainland China.
Sales? Now we are getting to the nitty-gritty. To what it is all about.
The post-fair Art Basel press release says: “Collectors from all over the world confirmed that excellent material and booth presentations spurred great demand, creating strong sales throughout the week and across all levels of the market.”
Well, to paraphrase English courtesan Mandy Rice-Davies, they would say that, wouldn’t they?
Anyone who has bought or sold a house knows that the one thing you can never trust is information from a middleman on the volume or value of the sales they have achieved.
In any case, it does not look as if the painting bruited to be the highest priced work at the fair – a 1954 orange-and-pink Rothko priced at $78 million – had sold by close of play on 17 June. Although offers were reportedly made for it, the comment made by the dealer – Marlborough Fine Art (Barcelona, Madrid, New York and Monte Carlo) – to Art Basel for its final press release failed to say whether a sale had been concluded.
Similarly, while the local press reported that a $20 million 1986 painting by Gerard Richter had been sold, the dealer in question, New York’s Pace Gallery, again failed to confirm this in the post-fair Art Basel press release.
Other sales reported included a 1981 Donald Judd, supposedly sold for $2.6 million, and a Picasso paper work for a reputed $300 000.
Sprueth Magers (London and Berlin) sold works by Alighiero Boetti, George Condo, Thomas Demand, Cyprien Gaillard, Andreas Gursky, Jenny Holzer, Sterling Ruby, Ed Ruscha, Andreas Schulze, Cindy Sherman and Rosemarie Trockel, while artists sold by Hauser & Wirth (Zürich, London and New York) included Louise Bourgeois, Philip Guston, Paul McCarthy, Phyllida Barlow and David Claerbout.
The least that can be said is that there must have been a lot of money about. Between Monday and Wednesday during the fair, some 220 private jets landed at Basel Airport – so many that, after dropping off their clients, some were forced to fly on to Colmar or Zürich to find space in which to park while waiting to return to Basel later to pick up their passengers, post-fair, for the trip home.
However, not everyone is happy with the focus on money. Thus, in the local newspaper Basler Zeitung on 14 June, Gilli Stampa of Basel’s Garlerie Stampa newspaper said: “As used to be the case, the fair should concentrate not only on money but also on [attracting] opinion formers.”
This is a theme taken up a fortiori by Basler Zeitung’s own commentator Christoph Heim. In a hard-hitting article on 15 June, Heim lashed out at the fair’s commercial bias.
He suggested that, in essence, Art Basel was no different from a motor show. As at a motor show, dealers exploited posses of hot young totty in short skirts to bring art works and pocket-books into closer proximity. In fact, he alleged, some visitors – we suspect he means men – came to the fair to ogle not the art but the talent. The bottom line at this event, said Heim, was just that – the bottom line, aka wonga. There was no market, he said, where the goods on sale had less use than an art market and yet there was no market that was more capitalist. Some visitors thought that many of the works exhibited were daubs and scribblings – they could do better themselves. The truth was, said Heim, that much of the work on display was crap, even if there were some pearls amid the dross (“…in der Tat, nicht wenige Werke lassen bei einem die Idee aufkommen, dass dies doch keine Kunst sei im Sinne von Können, was hier herumhängt. Vieles is Mist, um auch das mal zu sagen. Einige Perlen gibt es, darauf möchten wir aber gerne bestehen”). However, the market didn’t give a toss what the public thought. At the point of sale, said Heim, there was no democracy, no public discussion of what a work was worth. The only thing that counted was money.
Antigone1984: Was it about dealers they were thinking when someone suggested that they know the price of everything but the value of nothing?
Heim also had it in for the duo that run the fair, Annette Schönholzer and Marc Spiegler.
Every day during the fair, UBS, the giant international Swiss-headquartered bank that bankrolls Art Basel, ran a full-page advert on the back of the trade paper, The Art Newspaper. The advert simultaneously puffs UBS – the bank that “will not rest” – and Schönholzer and Spiegler, who, it is stated, “will not rest” either in their task of “devoting themselves to the unrivalled success of Art Basel”. “Passion,” says the advert. “It’s what we share with the directors of Art Basel.”
Writing in the Basler Zeitung on 16 June under the mischievous headline “Wanted: passion”, Heim goes for the jugular. Comparing the present directors unfavourably with their predecessors, first Lorenzo Rudolf and then Sam Keller, Heim does not mince his words: “For five years now the fair has been run by Annette Schönholzer and Marc Spiegler. They are two trade fair technocrats who take rational decisions but who are virtually incapable of arresting the loss of warmth, heart, charm, originality and artistic zaniness that has been evident as the art business has become commercialized.” Ouch!
To be fair to the Messe directors, it has to be emphasized, all the same, that Art Basel is the Agora, not the Acropolis. As Heim himself pointed out in his article on 15 June, while museums do everything to give meaning and mystique to a work of art and to convey the impression that it is not a marketable commodity, the market brings art back down to earth with a thump.
You can argue that artists would do well to cut out the middle man and sell directly to buyers. But as long as the sales system depends on dealers, if the dealer does not sell, up in his garret the artist starves.
Moreover, this being Switzerland with its stratospherically upvaluing currency, it is not cheap to pitch your tent at the Basel art fair. In the Basler Zeitung on 14 June, Stefan von Bartha of Basel’s Galerie von Bartha pointed out that galleries had to pay between 100 000 and 300 000 Swiss francs for a stand at the fair (today, according to Reuters, 1 Swiss franc = 1.046792 US $). And that, presumably, excludes the cost of transporting and insuring the art works and designing and erecting the stand. In other words, if you come to Basel and you don’t sell, you’re dead – unless you are a very big beast indeed.
And even with the wind behind you it’s not always easy to bring home the bacon. A common complaint at the fair was scarcity of supply. Dealers are having trouble getting their hands on modern 20 C works of art, most of those of any quality being already in museums or with private collectors and most of the artists in question having died off by now anyway. Another worry was increasing competition from new fairs, which are proliferating like rabbits, and even from biennali, where cutting edge works are supposed to be for admiration only but where deals are now also increasingly cut.
Before concluding our coverage of Basel art week, Antigone1984 has a few complaints of its own to air.
We have been coming to this fair for 22 years, mostly as art lovers but occasionally to buy as well, though not at headline prices. Accordingly, as far as the fair organisers are concerned, we fit into the category of the bog-standard public. We are now beginning to feel part of a persecuted majority. When we first started coming to the fair, the VIP previews and vernissage took place at the start of the week and the fair was open to the public from Wednesday to Sunday inclusive. Then the rules were changed and the public had to wait till Wednesday afternoon to be admitted. This year hoi polloi were excluded till Thursday. VIPs had Tuesday and Wednesday to mull over potential purchases at a safe and hygienic distance from the great unwashed.
According to the fair organisers, on the whole this has gone down well with dealers, who have apparently appreciated the extra time available to ingratiate themselves with the high rollers.
It makes sense.
However, if this goes on, at some point Art Basel will have to decide what it wants to be. Does it want to be simply and solely a trade fair with attendance limited strictly to professionals, with the public being admitted only on the last day (as with the Milan furniture fair) or even excluded completely? Or does it want to retain the massive media coverage with exposure well beyond the art world that is made possible by the presence of 65 000 visitors from around the world? Much of the public is already excluded by the sky-high admission prices, which naturally rise every year. We are not too happy either, on the days when we are admitted, to find that the VIP contingent – supposedly already departed with their booty on their private jets – still have significant areas of the fair complex reserved for their exclusive use. Horace obviously sets the tone here: “Odi profanum vulgus et arceo” (Odes, book 3, Ode 1, Line 1). The fact is that you can kick the public in the face just so much – at some point they will vote with their feet and stay away. We confidently predict that an art fair attended in semi-secrecy by a mere handful of top-whack collectors will not attract the thousands of journalists that cover Art Basel today.
Another of our complaints concerns catering in the city. You can eat very well in Basel outside the periods of the major fairs. However, the 65 000 visitors who enlarge the city’s population during Art Basel and, even more so, it is to be assumed, the 104 000 that attend the watch and jewellery fair in the spring put an intolerable burden on the city’s catering resources.
Every year we have booked a table well in advance for at least one night during Art Basel in the White Room at the legendary Kunsthalle restaurant. Every year, on occasion in the teeth of resistance from the maître d’, we have managed to secure our table. This year, despite our longstanding patronage of this restaurant and regardless of our reservation, we were sat unceremoniously at table in the adjacent empty and ambiance-free Weinstube with a magnificent view not of the legendary floral epergne that is the glory of the main restaurant but of the inside of the Kunsthalle kitchens!
On another evening we had booked a table, again well in advance, for a party of four at Chez Donati, the Italian restaurant overlooking the Rhein that is a perennial favourite with fair-goers. The service that night was the worst we have ever experienced at any restaurant anywhere on earth. A waiter hovered over our plates throughout the meal and made at least two attempts to take away each plate before any of us had finished eating. But it got worse. After dessert, we declined the waiter’s offer for coffee. A few seconds later he was backing asking whether we wanted coffee. No, we did not want coffee, as we had told him earlier. The bill arrived travelling at the speed of a Mars probe. We paid it promptly. A split-second later the waiter was back: could he call us a cab? Well, as it happened, no, we did not need a cab. At this point the waiter resorted to direct action. When one of our party got up and went to the bathroom, her chair was immediately spirited away and relocated at another table! The result was that on her return from the bathroom our fellow diner had no chair on which to sit. Before we could recover from our stupefaction at this unparalleled rudeness, the mask finally dropped and we were curtly ordered out of the restaurant. No doubt another batch of serial dinner victims was waiting in the wings. At no time had we been told either during the booking process or afterwards that we would have the table for a limited period only.
Moreover, it is not as if, during the fair, the menu either at the Kunsthalle or at Chez Donati is particularly enticing or extensive. People go there, in our view, not for the food, which is extremely expensive, but rather to enjoy a continuation of the arty-farty ambiance of the fair, packed as these restaurants usually are with dealers and clients.
Okay, okay, the world did not end, we hear you say, and worse things have happened at sea. But, hey, this is just not on. Basel is not going to continue to garner accolades for hospitality if it goes on treating its visitors like this. Either it ensures that existing facilities can cope adequately with the number of visitors it wants to attract or it invests in expanded tourist infrastructure.
The art fair was founded in 1970 by three Basel dealers: Ernst Beyeler, Trudl Bruckner and Balz Hilt. It now has offshoots in Miami and Hong Kong. Besides UBS, its sponsors include Swiss cigar merchants Davidoff and vodka firm Absolut. Private aviation company Netjets and insurance firm AXA are also partners. VIP cars are supplied by BMW and the official media partner is the Financial Times.
We conclude our coverage of the Basel art fair on a mouth-watering note. Readers who can remember as far back as the beginning of this article – well done! – will know that our day started with a champagne tasting at the Paul Ulrich wine-shop near the central Marktplatz. It ends nearby with the out-of-body sensation produced by ingesting the largest, softest, spiciest, most ambrosial amaretti ever created this side of the Dolomites. Made in the wood ovens of Basel’s Bio Andreas corn-mill bakery, they are sold from a stand outside the Globus supermarket in the Markplatz. The amaretti of other bakers may be divine, but it is those of Bio Andreas that take the biscuit! In our first post on Basel on 13/14 June, we told readers that this was not a Swiss but an Italian city. Try these amaretti and you will know that we were right.
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
2. Das Vierte Reich/The Fourth Reich (6 Feb 2012)
3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
4. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
5. What would Gandhi have said? (30 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.