Despite an inauspicious beginning that involved canceling its 2001 debut following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Art Basel Miami Beach has become, in just two years, the premier contemporary art fair in the United States. The third edition, scheduled for December 2 through 5 at the Miami Beach Convention Center, will feature at least 190 galleries. That number would be even greater if the fair’s director, Samuel Keller, was willing to make room for more. “For every booth, there are three galleries that would like to have it,” says Keller, who also directs Art Basel, the 35-year-old parent event held every June in Basel, Switzerland. “Look at the list of galleries [for Miami Beach]; it’s a dream list. There are fewer than 10 galleries that I’d like to have that are not there.”
Having attended the first two Miami Beach fairs, Stefania Bortolami, director of New York’s Gagosian Gallery, agrees that it is the best in the country for modern and contemporary works. “The business is different,” she says of Art Basel Miami Beach, contrasting it with the June fair, which she also attends on behalf of the gallery. “[Visitors] spend half the day at the beach and half the day at the fair. It’s also smaller than Art Basel. You can see it in a day comfortably, which is nice.”
The fair’s location indeed has played a large part in its rapid rise to prominence. In addition to the beach and the fair itself, patrons will find a variety of events hosted by local museums, arts groups, and others. Keller notes that the 2004 slate includes more than 80 exhibits, parties, and performances. “So many want to contribute, I have to say no, because it’s only five days long,” he says.Keller credits the fair’s success to local collectors, Miami’s arts community, and city leaders. “They kept their promise to support it,” he says. “We were unlucky with 9/11, but we were lucky that they gave us a second chance.” Although the city has embraced the fair, Art Basel’s stewards initially were not nearly as receptive to the idea of conducting a satellite show in Miami Beach. Former Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman, who has lived in Miami Beach for 35 years and now chairs the Art Basel Miami Beach Host Committee with his wife, Irma, recalls a cold response when he first suggested such a fair to Art Basel officials in the early 1990s. “They’re very practical, and Swiss,” says Braman. “They do not jump at things quickly.”
Eventually the Swiss assented, thanks in part to the interest of collectors such as the Bramans, who, along with several other Miami-area residents, invite select fair attendees to view their private collections. Last year, more than 200 visitors made appointments to see the modern and postwar paintings and sculptures that the Bramans keep at their Indian Creek Village home.
“The fair has elevated our entire community from an art perspective,” Braman says. “It has made us better, and it has made the museums better. And it’s not just one individual [driving its success]. Scores of people banded together to make this special.”
Art Basel Miami Beach