The Art Basel guide for normal people, 2009 edition

art basel guide

This is for folks who are in Miami this weekend but don’t really know from art. You’ve heard of Art Basel, and thought about maybe checking it out, but you’re really not sure what exactly it is, and it all sounds very expensive and intimidating and complicated, right? There are like 20 different fairs, and a million different events, traffic is crazy, and there are sneering art people and punk kids everywhere. Also, who understands art today?

But the fact is that you should go. You don’t know anything about biology, either, but if the best zoo in the world came to town, you’d check it out. Same situation. Don’t worry, in a minute I’m going to teach you to look at art. But first, the question is what to do, and the answer will depend on your budget. If you’re broke, you can go to NADA, check out some of the stuff at Oceanfront (pdf), and maybe hit up a couple of the smaller fairs. The de la Cruz Collection will be in town after this weekend, but it’s free for Basel, so I guess that’s an option. If you have a little money to spend, you could try to do some of that, and spend a few hours at Pulse. It’s the best non-Basel fair I’ve seen so far this year, and there are interesting performances, and lots of little areas and things to discover. But if you can swing it at all, by far the best value is the $35 admission to the Art Basel fair at the convention center.

You can easily spend an entire day at Basel and not come close to seeing everything. The contemporary weirdness there is a notch above what you’ll see anywhere else, and there are plenty of Big Name artists thrown in. And it’s more fun to walk around in than the other fairs; because of the layout, you’ll almost immediately get lost, and walking through the same areas always reveals things you missed before. (This is not an easy effect to achieve — every other fair seems like rows of boring stall-shaped booths in comparison.) Pick a day, go early, and plan to spend all day. Bring the kids! (There’s arty childcare onsite if bad comes to worst.) Dress up (serious or zany — your choice!), prepare yourself to fight some crowds, park in the garage (or better yet, spring the $20 for valet parking), sneak in a camera (they check bags, but you can figure it out), and make a day of it. Take a break and wander over to Collins or Lincoln Rd for lunch. Grab an Oceanfront program and wander over there if something interesting-sounding is happening (there are also talks at the Art Salon, right inside the fair). Pick up a Showguide (a free fat brochure they hand out at the counters by the entrance) and see if you can figure out what the different color-coded booth signs mean (most of the booths have white signs, but there are also yellow, teal, and orangeish ones).

How to look at art

Ok, so what the hell is this stuff, do they really consider this art, and do people really pay thousands of dollars for it? The first thing to understand is that there’s nothing necessarily to “get.” If something has an explanation and a reason for existing, it’s a tool, not a piece of art. That said, we can come to understand something about any given thing, and I suggest the following strategies when confronted with something that looks pointless, impenetrable, and maybe stupid:

  1. First, really look at it. Almost everything here rewards close inspection, even if does not seem so at first glance, and very little about what you’re seeing is arbitrary. Pick up on as many details as you can.
  2. Imagine it in your living room. Imagine living with it there for a year. Now imagine it in an empty room. How does it transform a space?
  3. Think about a collector who would pay lots of money for it. (By the way, few galleries post prices, but you’re allowed to ask.) Everything in Basel is there because someone thinks it has a good shot at selling, so imagine why someone would want to own this thing you’re looking at.
  4. Think about the artist that made it. They are, by at least one definition, successful at what they do. How and why did they make this particular thing in this particular way? Most artists have a somewhat cohesive body of work, so what sort of things might they have been making that brought them to international prominence? Remember that they are not trying to make an easily articulated “statement” with any given piece, but it should evoke a unique sensation and intangible realization. Go with that.
  5. Think about the actual process that would have been required to create it. Lots of artists have outside help; how do they imagine the final product, and how might they have communicated that image? Is the piece meant to show how it was made, or is it all about the final physical object?
  6. Think about the gallerist. Very few galleries at Basel specialize in only one genre or style, so the juxtapositions of works often seem haphazard. However, lots of thought actually goes into laying out the booths. Why is this particular combination of things together? What is the aesthetic common thread between all these pieces. (Hint: this is not the point on which you want to spend the least amount to time.) Feel free to ask questions — keep it open-ended. Most of the people working the booths have something they can say about any piece, and a simple, “what’s the story here?” will get it out of them. Sometimes there’s an interesting tidbit that will really help.

Good luck! Here are some links:
Google Maps link to the location of the Convention Center
Art Basel website
Yelp search for nearby restaurants
List of fairs and other things going on


3 thoughts on “The Art Basel guide for normal people, 2009 edition

  1. Gen Art’s Vanguard at Aqua is really incredible this year, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I was really disappointed with Pulse last year but I will give it a shot.

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