MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- At 11:45 AM on a Saturday, lines were forming in front of the Miami Beach Convention Center and the crowd's excitement was growing. They had shelled out $42 each to attend a much-hyped event, and the eclectic crowd -- from mothers pushing strollers to nattily dressed older gentlemen to twenty-something hipsters in skinny pants -- were anxiously awaiting for it to begin. Only this wasn't a concert or a sporting match. It was an art fair: essentially, a trade show in which row after row of cube-like booths are filled with paintings or sculptures that often cost six figures.
It wasn't just any old art fair: it was Art Basel Miami Beach, a 10-year-old annual convention that showcases work by contemporary artists. The most recent edition opened on December 5 and closed on the 9th, and drew more than 250 top art galleries from 31 nations around the world -- up from about 160 in 2002. That's despite growing competition in similar trade-show style art events around the globe.
Art galleries are loyal to Art Basel Miami Beach, an offshoot of a nearly 43-year-old namesake fair that takes place in Basel, Switzerland. One reason why is the strength of the Art Basel brand. "Now there are so many important art fairs, such as frieze in London or emerging fairs, also in Asia, such as in Singapore. There are so, so many each year," Lorrain Liu, a gallerist with Shanghai-based ShanghART, told me at the fair. "But we keep coming here, to Art Basel Miami Beach, to show Chinese contemporary art to collectors in the Americas."
Piggy-backing on Art Basel Miami Beach for the past seven years is a sister fair known as Design Miami, which is much smaller in scope. For instance, only 36 designers, mainly of high-end furniture and sculptural jewelry, exhibited this year. Art Basel Miami Beach's little sister has been growing in size, though; the inaugural fair in 2005 only showed 15 galleries. And, it seems, influence; the concept of high design -- in other words, stylish, rare, yet functional objects -- was clearly a presence at Art Basel Miami Beach and the many new satellite fairs taking place during the first week of December in South Florida. In many respects, the ways that the art, design, and business worlds intertwined in Miami can be seen as a model for marketing art and design in the context of each other for maximum commercial advantage.
Consider the scene at Design Miami, which took place (also between December 5-9) in a large temporary tent in a parking lot beside the Miami Beach Convention Center. During the fairs, a typical day saw balmy breezes blowing, offering pleasant relief to the area's humidity. And crowds gathered and lined up long before Design Miami opened each day, just as they did at the generic-looking Convention Center nearby for Art Basel. Only at the design fair, people waited under a curious canopy of large, white, balloon-like tubes. These were inflated to near-bursting plumpness and suspended overhead and clumped together, like stalactites in an ice cave, only from a plastic canopy.
The tubes were part of a display by the New York-based architecture collective known as Snarkitecture. Did the tubes have any purpose besides being lovely and decorative? Well, yes. They shaded the fair goers on sunny days, waiting in line to buy $25 admission tickets. In other words, the installation was both artful and practical, poetic and pragmatic.
In many ways, the striking design by Snarkitecture was the perfect mood-setter for Design Miami, a symbol of the types of high-end, high-concept pieces of furniture and home accessories on display inside. Stand-out pieces that could easily be understood as sculpture, such as a lamp that literally blew soap bubbles (in a very minimalist, sophisticated way) by Swedish design studio Front, or a breathtaking marble chair and ottoman (that bore a haughty sign that said it wasn't to be touched) by designer Satyendra Pakhalé.
There was a large corporate presence by sponsors Swarovski, Audi, and Fendi, each of which had some of the biggest displays -- of a crystal-encrusted structure designed by architect Asif Khan that looked like a small house; a new, ultra-lightweight chair designed by Clemens Weisshaar and Reed Kram, inspired by a race car (which was also on view); and a beautiful design performance by Belgian designer Maarten de Ceulaer in which he placed planks of sumptuous leather on walls and seating, respectively.
Were these objects art? Or were they design? Were they extremely stylish physical "ads"? Did it matter? Some gallery owners didn't see the boundaries between the genres.
"We are working with contemporary designers and artists, we're doing something called 'design art.' It is both," Thais Hourbette, a manager of Carpenters Workshop Gallery, located in both London and Paris, said to me at the gallery's booth.
"Someday, there will be no difference between design and art. These are pieces with stories, with stories that the designers want to transmit to other people. It's not just about shape," she said in a lilting French accent as she gestured to stunning chandeliers featuring LED lights ensconced in delicate -- and real -- white dandelion heads, by Dutch designers Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn.
"Many of our gallerists have been working on presentation methods that are closer to museum shows," Marianne Goebl, the energetic director of Design Miami since 2010, told me at the fair. In this sense, she acknowledged that the proximity, both physical and intellectual, of Art Basel Miami Beach to Design Miami has affected the aesthetic awareness of the design galleries, and quite possibly sponsors, participating. The result: eye-catching presentations that could translate into other commercial environments, such as stores.
The artful displays could very well appeal to the wealthy art collectors in town to buy...art. "For us, we are a design fair, so we attract a design audience. But we happen in the context of the leading art fair," Goebl said. "Our goal is to educate these cultivated people to also look at functional objects. Design is a creative discipline in its own right, and should be given attention."
At Art Basel Miami Beach, design is consistently a presence, too. This year, the fair's organizers offered chic, sculptural video-viewing pods designed by the Dutch architect Tom Postma (who has been designing Art Basel Miami Beach's physical environment for years now). And in the gallery booths, there were some functional objects for sale, such as crafty-looking suspended, swinging chairs by artist Andrea Bowers at the booth for New York's Andrew Kreps Gallery. In conjunction with the fair, Art Basel sponsor Absolut (as in vodka) commissioned Los Carpinteros, a Cuban artist collective, to create a curvaceous temporary bar structure on nearby Miami Beach. It was just heralded by the magazine Architectural Digest as one of the highlights of Art Basel Miami Beach.
And design was clearly an influential factor in the character of the satellite art fairs that took place, and are multiplying, around Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach and Design Miami. Pop-up architecture, a trend in the design world, seemed to be a running theme. A new fair, Untitled, was featured in an eye-catching behemoth of a tent with an impressive pedigree. The firm K/R, an architecture practice that counts former Museum of Modern Art curator of Architecture and Design Terence Riley as a partner, designed the Untitled fair tent's slightly off-kilter layout. It had large, temporary doors and windows that offered breathtaking vistas of the Atlantic Ocean and its turquoise blue waves. Along with works by up-and-coming artists, of course.
And in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood, in Miami proper, a series of temporary white tents lined Northeast First Avenue and housed a series of fairs, some of them making their debuts this year. The roster of fairs presented in these clean-looking structures included Art Miami, Context, Red Dot, and The Miami Project, among others. The white tents slightly echoed the aesthetics, or at least the basic concept, of the 2012 London Olympics earlier this year, and the convenience and efficiency of ephemeral architecture. Even on a grand scale.
A CULTURAL AND COMMERCIAL SUCCESS
The impact of the fairs, in terms of reviving Miami and spurred by the presence of Art Basel Miami Beach and Design Miami, was recently noted in a December 8 report in the New York Times that illustrated how the Wynwood district has evolved from an isolated, gritty neighborhood into a hip one.
"I have been coming to Miami for art fairs since 2005," Walter Maciel, owner of Walter Maciel Gallery in Los Angeles, told me at his gallery's booth at The Miami Project. "Miami has definitely changed. There was a lot of development before the recent real estate crash, and then everyone thought this area, the Wynwood District, would be empty for a while. But now there is good food here, which is a sign. It's an up-and-coming neighborhood."
And just what was the impact of this year's high-art, high-design fairs? Design Miami drew 31,000 attendees, including musicians Kanye West and Pharrell Williams (pictured above) and domestic guru and publisher Martha Stewart. (And for the record, I saw fashion designer Donna Karan wandering the aisles.)
The attendance for the much-larger Art Basel Miami Beach reached 70,000 over five days (including glamorous celebrities; I spotted Padma Lakshmi, host of the Bravo cooking competition Top Chef, for instance, making her way through the booths). The presence of bold-faced names at both shows emphasizes the pop-cultural significance of the fairs and their reach beyond the rarified art and design worlds.
At Design Miami, some galleries saw sales that parallel those of top contemporary art pieces at Art Basel Miami Beach. A wooden lamp designed in 1970 by U.S. designer Wendell Castle, for instance, sold for $450,000 at the booth for R 20th Century, and a 1950s sofa set by Le Corbusier sold for $115,000 to a Swiss collector at the stand for Galerie Patrick Seguin, as reported by The Art Newspaper. For anyone who missed the show, works on view at Design Miami will be documented on the commercial website Art.sy, which usually shows contemporary art. This year, the start-up struck a partnership with the design fair.
While total sales figures aren't disclosed by the organizers of Art Basel Miami Beach, they released, after the fair's close, a few prices for pieces that sold at the booth of Sean Kelly Gallery, a prominent art gallery based in New York. A work by U.K. artist Antony Gormley sold for about $483,286 and a piece by Los Carpinteros for $143,022 (the press release did not specify the works or what medium they were).
Even though sales might not be quite as high for other dealers at the smaller fairs, it simply can be enough to be showing work in Miami during Art Basel and Design Miami because of the high concentration of collectors, in every sense of the word "concentration."
"Typically, I always do the fairs in New York or Miami, the go-to places, where I get the most impact from collectors. Miami is now the big American city for art fairs," Maciel explained to me on the last day of the fairs.
"I like coming here to meet with New York collectors, though, more than New York," Maciel continued. "That's because New Yorkers are out of their daily life, not taking kids to soccer practice or have to go to a meeting. Here, they're focused on buying. They've made the commitment to travel here to look at the fairs."
Clearly, the Miami model is an attractive one: one part big-ticket art; one part boldface names; one part, let's face it, lovely beach. It's so popular that fair organizers are betting on recreating similar excitement in other areas of the world. After all, in 2006, Design Miami created a sister fair in Basel, Switzerland, which takes place each summer alongside Art Basel. And last year's edition of Design Miami/Basel, as it's called, featured 43 galleries, more than the number on the roster this year in Miami, proving that such an approach can work. Art Basel will spin off an Asian version, Art Basel Hong Kong, to take place May 23-26, 2013, based on the momentum of Art Basel Miami Beach. Goebl told me that there are no plans yet to create a Design Miami for Asia, but that, of course, the fair's organizers are carefully watching the Asian market. The satellite fairs -- and the gallerists, collectors, and corporate sponsors -- could very well follow.
Images: photo of crowd at Design Miami and photo of Pharell Williams, courtesy Design Miami; photo of video pod at Art Basel Miami Beach and photo of Design Miami entrance/Snarkitecture installation by Reena Jana