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My Trip to Art Basel Miami Beach, or Please Like Me, Please!

Dan Gunn reveals more about the gritty realities of a massive-scale Art Show.

"Warmer than Chicago" is my cop-out answer to people who ask me about my trip to Art Basel Miami Beach, as that is the simplest answer to a complex question.  To get into the multifaceted nature of the fair referred to by the Mayor of Miami Beach as the "Superbowl of art fairs," one must sift through a number of mixed emotions.

Initially, there is the euphoria of seeing so much new art in one place, which includes thousands of artists of all types from around the globe.  You feel as if you are glimpsing the cutting edge, and for an industry so close to fashion, that is exciting.  Plus, being from an art school where we get trained to "look at people," to "study" artists X, Y an Z, to finally see some artwork in person gives the object a strange "celebrity" status. The interesting thing about art-stars is that, for the most part, we don't know what they actually look like. We can pick out a Wilhelm Sasnal painting from a Jutta Koether, but we could stand next to them in line at the cafe without having a clue who they are.

The thing about Art Basel Miami Beach is that everyone is there.  Everyone. The “art world” condenses itself into the space of one city and, over the course of several days, one convention center.  At Art Basel, you can meet the artists (or at least gaze at them from afar).  I was close enough to Jeffery Deitch to take a swing at him, had I so chosen.  This proximity to spectacle raises the stakes for anyone who has a hand in the money/fame game that is the art world.  Like I said, everyone is here. They might not know you yet, but they could.

Another great thing about the Fair is that you can have a stake in the art game.  Another problem with the Fair is that you can have a stake in the art game.

Let's be clear.  I have NO status in the art world so far.  I am completely anonymous, which is both frustrating and liberating.  It is frustrating within an art fair context because the images of power and wealth will continually let you know that you aren't worth talking to, i.e. that I'm not going to buy something, or write meaningful articles about their artists or include them in my museum shows.  To describe how it can be liberating I have to describe how I acquired the smallest of stakes and what consequence that had for me:

I traveled to Art Basel with "press credentials" from Fnews, our illustrious and award-winning school newspaper.  This press pass got me into the press briefings, the press brunch, the official sneak preview of the fair, with champagne and shrimp cocktails. I dressed in character as a reporter too, with a notepad, a pencil behind my ear, a blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to my elbows, and a leather briefcase.  Fancy. Most times the gallerists were unable to figure out just how important I was.  Not that they weren't trying, mind you.  During our conversations, they would glance down at my badge, wrinkle their brow upon seeing FNews because they weren't quite sure how influential that made me.  (One thing that a large art market does do is conceal your true status. This is a GOOD thing.)

Next said gallerists asks what Fnews is, a question I tried to avoid because it inevitably led to me having to say "school newspaper" and thus ending the conversation.  As the fair progressed I fixed this problem by simply flipping my badge around to the back.  That way they new that I was press, but often wouldn't ask "who I was with." In any event, it was great to talk with these people, for a while at least.  But what did this do to me?  I became aware that I had to guard my stake.  I liked the access that the press pass offered.  I had great discussions in the booths with gallerists and curators about art (no, really, they were talking about art.)    The conversations and the fair itself weren't about commercialism in content, they were really about the art.  Yet the foundation or substructure of the whole process was monetary.  That formed the "ground" upon which these rarefied and interesting art conversations could take place. 

My stake was, in my mind, a compromised one, and so I was afraid of being "found out" and losing my access.  Surely such speculation on my part was paranoia, but it is the psychology of the situation that is primarily to blame. The thing about having a stake in the game is that you become afraid to act in such a way that someone will take it away from you. You don't want to piss off daddy, so to speak.  Now the art world can absorb a lot of divergent and quasi-rebellious activity; for instance there was a John Bock performance at the Moore Space during the fair.  At a certain point during the performance, Mr. Bock threw a mannequin into the crowd, hitting the collector that had purchased the piece site unseen, and breaking her finger. No scandal resulted. The only type of rebellion that can matter is the exit, i.e. to not participate.  If you are a participant then you are inside.  They can kick you out, but you can't get kicked out.   So by going to the biennial/art fair complex for your "stake", that group gets to dictate to you the rules of your engagement with “them.”

The only way to go about making artwork and maintaining any sense of self-determination—and the minute possibility of a critical stance—is to make them come to you.  This is incredibly liberating to realize, because it removes the practice of art from the world of the "professions".  (And that is really what Art Basel Miami Beach is in the end, a professional art world convention.)  In a profession, you enter one of the already pre-determined jobs and then move up the ladder to the next job.  But hopefully art work can be more than that.  It can be a self-sustaining, self-regulated profession, where nobody else gets to dictate the result.