September 24, 2021 • Basel • Sarah Thornton at Art Basel
“LET’S JUST SAY that the Italian Ambassador is a great friend,” said Isa Lorenzo, owner of Manila’s Silverlens Gallery, from her Art Basel Features booth, when asked how she managed to get into Switzerland from Asia. “We self-quarantined for a week on the Amalfi coast. Luckily, we can sell art from the beach.”
With so many borders closed, many knew that this edition of Art Basel would be less international, perhaps even a return to the early demographics of the fifty-one-year-old fair. “In the 1970s, there were hundreds of people in the art world,” said Francis Outred, a London-based art consultant, with an involuntary glance at the ginormous knockers on a Sarah Lucas sculpture. “Now there are hundreds of thousands. The art world is so big that even people who’ve been collecting for thirty-five years are seeking help to navigate it.”
Art Basel was quiet but satisfyingly social, full of quick mask-drops, revealing grins that exclaimed, It’s me! “To be back in the circus again, it feels fantastic,” said Bruno Brunnet of Berlin’s Contemporary Fine Art while standing in front of a magnificent painting of a half-nude hunk, a topless Che Guevara from 1967 by feminist filmmaker and Pop artist Ulrike Ottinger. I couldn’t help but agree, having emerged from retirement to revisit my old Scene & Herd beat.
Despite the pandemic and nerve-racking Covid-related paperwork, fewer than a dozen galleries pulled out of the fair. The Art Basel brand is a powerful endorsement and its attendees usually account for a sizeable chunk of annual revenue. So, compromises were observed. With the exception of the bewitching Barbara Gladstone, many august New York dealers stayed home and we saw booths of Blum without Poe, Kuri without Manzutto, and no Kordansky at David Kordansky.
“Look how many galleries from outside Europe have turned up. Art Basel is not just about the collectors. It’s about engaging with our colleagues,” said Thomas Dane, a London gallerist, who’d been discussing a watercolor-and-gouache girl with hot pink skin by Dana Schutz with his pal, Ivor Braka, a collector married to nineties supermodel and Instagram empress Kristen McMenamy. An Art Basel attendee for forty years, Braka added that the “biggest lacuna” was still the late Ernst Beyeler. “He made Basel a place of pilgrimage. Before him, Basel was not on the map, at least not since Erasmus died here in 1536.”
“I judge an art fair by how many new people I meet,” said Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, owner of New York’s Salon 94, with a goody-two-shoes look at head honcho, Marc Spiegler. The Art Basel director takes morning swims in the Rhine, a routine made evident by his magnificent pectorals. As a gender studies scholar researching a book on chests titled Uplifting Sagas: The Top Half of Women’s Liberation, I am duty-bound to comment on this world-famous torso.
A man of big brain as well as brawn, Spiegler presented two persuasive talking points about the fair in this difficult year. First, the European collector base is “broad and powerful” and, second, long-term business relationships are “about trust,” which requires experiencing the aura of art and meeting human beings in the flesh.
So, when it came to collectors, who exactly was in Basel? “Endless Germans,” said Philomene Magers with delight. Although some dealers greatly missed their American clients, others relished the more thoughtful, less aggressive pace of acquisition. As far as I was concerned, the thinner crowd made it easier to encounter all the sophisticated Swiss, Scandinavian, British, and EU museum people I so admire . . . and to spot from afar her petite highness, Miuccia Prada.
Basel has been the premier location for taking the temperature of the primary art market. But it has its skeptics. “Art Basel is no longer reflective of it,” explained Alex Logsdail of Lisson Gallery. “The market is extremely robust, but it is not here, right now, today. The vast majority of our clients are at home.” Logsdail, his sales director Courtney Plummer, and I then enjoyed musing about two mounds of light pink freshwater pearls, a munificent work by Ai Weiwei.
The year Lisson Gallery first participated and the second edition of Art Basel, 1971, is also incidentally the year that women finally got the vote in Switzerland. As part of the fiftieth anniversary of women’s Swiss suffrage, the Fondation Beyeler hosted an exhibition of “Nine Female Artists” curated by the lovely Theodora Vischer. In another act of zeitgeist-catch-up, the Swiss are having a referendum on gay marriage, this Sunday, September 26. This time, the LGBTQI+ community is actually going to win the right to love each other until death do us part. (On an art-market note, I heard Amy Cappellazzo described with painstaking accuracy as “four power lesbians in one.”)
Has the pandemic ushered in a paradigm shift in the art industry? Many collectors are now comfortable buying off iPhone snaps and FaceTime studio visits. Having sold container loads of art without the fairs, dealers are grumpier than ever about their high costs—not just the price of the booth and the “extra charges for the walls, lights, and cold tea,” as one dealer griped—but the shipping, flights, hotels, dinners, meals, extra hours, etc.
More important, perhaps, dealers are tired and emotional about the vagaries of fair club membership, the random rules, the lazy or nepotistic or sexist admission committees, and, in the case of Art Basel, the two-tier system wherein “downstairs is allowed to make more money than upstairs,” as a gallerist opined. “It’s too segregated. We need better equity. The system is punishing and wasteful.”
I also wondered: Will a world of roving pandemics re-regionalize the art world? And if 80 percent of the art market is in Asia and the Americas, can Basel maintain its position as the fulcrum? Personally, I really hope so, because I love my annual ethnographic expedition to this little pharma town with notable museums, where in response to a question about the location of the city’s main employers, I am told: “Novartis and Roche? They’re at the end of the river in the direction of France.”
Truth be told, I adore the Swiss, perhaps the last peoples who think they’re normal and that the rest of us are entertainingly weird. And what better way to celebrate the Swiss than to attend the “Kunsthalle Basel Fundraising Dinner 2021”? After wolfing down two Kunsthalle exhibitions curated by Elena Filipovic I headed down to the museum’s Artist Canteen, whose 1872 murals are replete with painted torsos.
Sitting at a long table with a white tablecloth and plenty of Ruinart champagne, I was elated to be near guest of honor Matthew Angelo Harrison, an artist I know well through Jessica Silverman, his gallerist and my live-in girlfriend of ten years. (Note: conflict of interest.) The event felt like a happy family gathering, full of bankers born in Basel who now live in Zurich, and biotech investors born in Zurich who now live in Basel. In a feat of affective kinship, an array of international artists was also there, occupying the social role of successful cousins. Leading the tribe was Martin Hatebur, president of the Kunsthalle, who thanked his life-partner, Peter Handschin, for donating two-and-a-half gallons of Siberian caviar. What a revelation for the Mrs. Dalloway in me; every year, they serve the same menu—baked potatoes smothered in mountains of caviar! “Everything we do, we strive to be unforgettable,” explained Filipovic. And, indeed, it was.