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This past weekend, Miami hosted Art Basel, the largest art fair in the country. The annual event draws people from across the globe: this year, 269 galleries from 29 countries participated. While the Zika scare may have suppressed attendance slightly, the festival drove plenty of discussion, including about politics and the dramatic sales growth of very high-end art. Jeffrey Brown has more.
Finally tonight: It is North America's biggest art fair, with big money at stake, but who is it for and how does it work?
Jeffrey Brown visited Miami Beach to find out what Art Basel is all about, which just wrapped up this weekend.
A family reunion for the international art tribe, a trade show, but one that includes some up-to-the-moment political commentary, Art Basel Miami Beach is all of that and more, art of all shapes and sizes and colors and kinds, and all for sale.
It can be head-spinning, or, if you're a prominent gallery owner like Jack Shainman, nightmare-inducing:
JACK SHAINMAN, Jack Shainman Gallery:
A lot happens the first days or the first few hours. In fact, one of my anxiety dreams that I have when I travel is that all these collectors show up at my booth at the same time at an art fair, and I can't talk to all of them at once.
Here at the Miami Beach Convention Center, 269 high-end galleries from 29 countries around the world take part in the main art fair, last year attracting 95,000 viewers and collectors over six days.
Fred Bidwell was back this year.
FRED BIDWELL, Art Collector:
This is crazy. This is more art than the human mind could possibly perceive.
With billions of dollars on the line, including new money from abroad, New York gallery owners James and Jane Cohan have a lot at stake.
JANE COHAN, James Cohan Gallery:
We really know the kinds of things our clients are looking for. So, when we have something that's spectacular, they have been interested in a certain artist, we have a spectacular work, we're going to let them know that we're bringing it to the fair, and then they can come and see it.
So, a little bit of this is sort of precooked?
Absolutely. But I still really believe that you have to see a work of art in person to fall in love.
Collectors come in all forms, trophy hunters, speculators, and actual lovers of art.
This fair, an offshoot of one in Basel, Switzerland, is known for attracting Latin American art and collectors, including Tiqui Atencio, who's just written a book about collecting art.
TIQUI ATENCIO, Art Collector/ Author:
I walked into a gallery that I love, which is the Brazilian gallery from Sao Paulo, Fontes de Deloya.
And I started looking around, and I saw these two wonderful Latin American artists from Brazil in their 20s. And I thought, oh, my God, these are fantastic artists.
And did you buy?
I'm thinking of it.
Fifteen years in, Art Basel Miami has spawned more than 20 additional local fairs, catering to different styles and wallets, including one titled Untitled.
There's a lot to see, yes.
With so much to see, art advisers have become big players here and elsewhere in the art world, counseling individual, corporate and institutional clients.
Kerri Hurtado is an adviser with San Francisco's Artsouce. At Untitled, she showed works to Jaya Kader, a Miami-based architect who designs homes with contemporary art in mind.
JAYA KADER, KZ Architecture:
You get exposed to so much. There's no way that — it would take you a whole year to get to see as much as you get to see in a few days in Miami. And I like to work with Artsouce because the art world is so vast.
Art everywhere, but also other kinds of excess.
Art journalist Janelle Zara.
JANELLE ZARA, Journalist:
Because we're in Miami, things sometimes get a little out of hand. There's a lot of showiness, you know? Everyone in the world is here. And so that involves a lot of fancy cars, a lot of dressing up, you know, a lot of hopping from party to party.
And, increasingly, people who are not in the art world want to participate.
But even in what Zara described as a subdued year, possibly owing to the Zika scare, the spectacle went on, a psychedelic electronic dance party in Collins Park, complete with a robot bouncer, droning guitars played by women standing on amplifiers, and burgers grilled under the hood of a limousine.
There were the behind-the-scenes dinners and parties galore. Also on display, the rise of homegrown museums and collectors like the Rubell family, who during the Art Basel fair, held an opening in their own enormous private collection space.
You're market makers in a sense, right? If you choose an artist, you have the power to make people.
MERA RUBELL, Rubell Family Collection:
I know people say that all the time, that we make markets and stuff like — but I can tell you that that's not the way we live our life.
We don't wake up in the morning and say, oh, we make markets. This is really like the outside world. The inside world is very, very basic. It's a family that is constantly talking about the art. We have the privilege to curate it and hang it. The market is not so interesting to us.
The growth of art fairs has given more buyers access to the art world, less power to auction houses.
But there's a strict hierarchy here, several tiers of VIPs who get in first, ahead of the general public. Most of the work here is actually sold before the fair even opens to the public.
Clare McAndrew is a cultural economist who studies the art market.
CLARE MCANDREW, Arts Economics:
The high end has done extremely well. I mean, I looked at auction sales, for example, and the segment over a million has grown about 400 percent over the last 10 years. If you look at the segment over $10 million, it's grown at over 1000 percent.
And if you look at the lower-end segments, they have grown very slowly. In terms of sales growth, it's a very top-heavy marketplace.
But that sort of fits with the whole inequality discussion we have politically.
It's exactly paralleling what's happening in the wider economy and in wealth distribution.
And, as with other markets, those with the best information gain advantage.
Josh Baer is an art adviser who writes the industry newsletter "Baer Faxt."
JOSH BAER, Baer Faxt:
Having more information about who's doing the show at the Tate or who's going to be in the Whitney Biennial or whose work is sold out and who's buying it or what's going on gives you momentum information.
Momentum, which you can take to clients or others and say…
Time to buy now because next year it's going to be twice as much and there's going to be something else going on. Art fairs are like auctions. They're about forced urgency. They're about the illusion of you better decide in the next 20 seconds, because some billionaire from China is coming in two minutes and he may take what you want.
Amid all the buying and selling, what's an up-and-coming artist to do, especially one like Hank Willis Thomas, who works in many different media, often tackling difficult political issues of the moment?
He says artists need to imagine a better future for society, even if part of the present deal here is lucrative.
HANK WILLIS THOMAS, Artist:
So, there's no way to get out of this system. What I'm really most interested in is how we can use the system to improve it. And it's always a positive improvement. I don't want to alienate myself from anyone.
A bit more politics and smaller crowds this year. But sales, the true bottom line, were said to be holding steady.
From Miami Beach, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."
My favorite was the hamburgers grilled under the hood of the car.
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Frank Carlson is a general assignment producer at the PBS NewsHour, where he's been making video since 2010. @frankncarlson
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