Dubbed “the world’s premier contemporary art fair” by Artspace, Art Basel is a hybrid art fair, nightlife curator, and epicenter of the international party scene. (As one gallerist told Departures, “When I found Paris Hilton in an elevator drunk…I thought, ‘This is not about art anymore.’”) Today, Art Basel has three locations across the globe—the eponymous Basel in Switzerland, as well as offshoots in Miami Beach and Hong Kong—and draws hordes of artists, art collectors, nightlife hoppers, celebrities, Instagram influencers (look no further than mega-couple Hannah Bronfman and Brendan Fallis, who met at Art Basel Miami), and probably more than a few Hiltons.
Ironically, Art Basel got its start in the 1970s as a reaction against that kind of extreme decadence. Concerned by the overt consumerism of Art Cologne, a popular art fair in Germany, Ernst Beyeler, Trudl Bruckner, and Balz Hilt founded Art Basel as an intentionally thoughtful market, where sellers and buyers with an affinity for the cosmopolitan could gather and engage with the best in contemporary art—then, take some of it home.
Over the 1980s and 1990s, the fair expanded in both popularity and scale. The Beyeler, Bruckner, and Hilt trio spent ten years scoping out locations for an American offshoot, eventually landing on Miami, which they saw as a “neutral zone” (just like Basel in Switzerland) between North and South America, due to the city’s majority Latinx population. Launched in 2002, the Miami fair was specifically tailored to tap into the city’s vibrant club scene as a way to draw in younger artists and audiences. The first fair featured 160 galleries from 23 countries, drawing in some 30,000 visitors, and quickly exploded into an annual spectacle of art, celebrity, and debauchery. It’s also a major economic engine: Artsy reported in 2014 that the Miami fair, which takes place annually in the first week of December, “generates an estimated half-billion dollars of economic activity during its week-long stay.”
As its Miami and Hong Kong outposts indicate, Art Basel is a global brand looking to increase its impact. In 2016, it announced plans to launch a global cities initiative, through which cities can collaborate with Art Basel and produce smaller-scale events that support their burgeoning arts scenes. In an interview, Marc Spiegler, the director of Art Basel Global, explained that the initiative would focus on sharing Art Basel’s mission on a larger global scale. “Art Basel creates as many possibilities for as many artists all over the world as possible,” Spiegler said. “That’s our job: to build patronage, private and public, for as many artists as possible.”
In this respect, the plan, called Cities—Art Basel loves a good noun—is indebted to economist Richard Florida, who argues persistently and, in some circles, infamously, that because creativity fuels economic expansion, cities should restructure their development opportunities to appeal to the “creative class,” a category that includes anyone who aims to “create meaningful new forms.” (According to Florida, this encompasses 30% of the US workforce, in what one imagines might be news to some of the US workforce.)
But even as Art Basel looks to expand its global presence, art remains the core of its focus; it’s what draws over 70,000 visitors to Miami each December. Art Basel Miami has something for everyone, whether you’re looking to buy art from one of the more than 250 participating galleries or run into a celebrity (inebriated or otherwise) in an elevator; it’s a place where ambition is a given and desire runs naked.