MIAMI BEACH - Art Basel Miami Beach, on the surface, was one huge celebration of art and celebrity. But behind all the parties and posturing, it was about cold cash. And a lot of it traded hands during the four-day fair.
Just 2 years old, Art Basel, which was open from Dec. 4 through Dec. 7, drew an estimated 30,000 visitors from around the United States and Europe, some from South America, a few from Asia. It's a spinoff of the venerable 32-year-old Art Basel held in Switzerland every summer. Although a bit smaller than the original, the Florida show is huge nevertheless.
The majority came to see the art exhibited by 176 galleries on Dec. 6 and 7, but the big business was done before the fair opened to the public. A select group of high-end collectors and a few tire-kickers like me were admitted to the Miami Convention Center's vast display areas Dec. 3. These people knew what they wanted, aiming straight for the dealers showing art they coveted. Buyers and sellers sat quietly at tables, talking in genteel tones and poring over notebooks of slides or studying paintings, sculptures and installations, but the steely-eyed determination on both sides was apparent. By the time the opening reception rolled around at 5 p.m. Dec. 3, most of the best had been bought, including Tony Oursler's Coo, a video projection of a face onto three fiberglass balls that showed up the next day as a new addition to the Margulies Collection.
Miami Beach was a wise choice when the Basel organizers decided to storm the North American continent. South Florida has become the locus for serious collectors of contemporary art, and some of the largest and best collections are based there. Donald and Mera Rubell, with their children Jason and Jennifer, are among the most visible, as is Martin Margulies. Both families purchased warehouses in a rundown area of Miami and turned them into the equivalent of museums with curators and staff, open to the public, to display holdings so vast, they're frequently rotated.
"We only show about 2 percent of the collection at any time," said the Rubell curator, Mark Coetzee, during a tour the day before the show's public opening. "We try to give the art a lot of space."
The Rubell Family Collection includes some of the edgiest contemporary artists such as Jake and Dinos Chapman, short-listed for the just-announced Turner Prize in Great Britain, who gained notoriety for their erotic, disturbing sculptures of children, several of which were on view. The Rubells also own work by Jeff Koons, Paul McCarthy, Jenny Holzer, Keith Haring and many others.
In a performance piece, Mona Lisa Live, by Jean-Pierre Khazem, a nude woman wearing a Mona Lisa mask and wig (I wasn't sure if she was another molded mannequin until I saw her breathing) stands on a platform under a spotlight in a large, darkened gallery. Such work raises a problematic issue in collecting contemporary art, that it's often not permanent - the woman has to go home at some point, right? - so how does one archive it?
Videos are another issue. Ideally, they are given their own galleries to provide the isolated environment required for appreciating them, as the Rubells did for a hauntingly beautiful video by Jan Nguyen Hatshushiba, Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam, in which men labor across a rock-strewn ocean floor pushing rickshaws, eventually abandoning them, as the camera pans to shroudlike tents stretched among the outcroppings.
Like the Rubells, the Margulieses have a comprehensive contemporary collection in all media, but publicly they mostly show photography, room after room filled with the best practitioners in the world. Their collection of videos seemed to draw the most rapt attention, including one of an ingenious Rube Goldberg-like setup that transferred a ball of fire using tires, pulleys, chutes, fuses, whatever, during a loop that lasted at least 20 minutes.
There were lots of A-list private parties and dinners, including one in the historic, three-story Moore Building in the Design District. Outside, two blocks of Second Avenue were closed for a raucous street party populated by several thousand mostly younger folks.
The only reason I scored an invitation to the party (limited to 800 guests) was through a lucky coincidence. Beth Dunlop, architecture critic for the Miami Herald, is the mother of my son's college roommate, and she and her husband Bill Farkas got me into the event after we passed through a Maginot Line of security checkers.
Hans Ulrich Olbrist's installation of moody lighting and glowing cubes made visibility a little iffy, but I think I spotted Tommy Tune in the crowd, mainly because he was about 2 feet taller than everyone else. At ground level, there was tremendous competition for the three inadequate food stations, so most people skipped the foie gras terrine and ceviche shooters and concentrated on the free-flowing champagne and martinis.
Along the beach, 16 air-cargo containers were converted into mini exhibition spaces for new, cutting-edge galleries from around the world. These were much more casual than the setup in the convention center; one gallery was transformed into a karaoke lounge as performance art, wherein visitors were encouraged to sing, thereby becoming the art themselves.
Perhaps unintentionally, the Video Lounge, set up in the old library near the convention center, was a respite from so much frenetic activity. A long, plush-covered foam mattress curved in front of the large screen projecting videos, forcing you to recline among strangers while you watched. (But I confess, I remained standing.)
By Saturday, everyone was looking frazzled. Dealers no longer hopped up when people strolled in. A lot of the art was "on hold," sometimes with multiple backup buyers.
"This was our first year," said David Patterson, a senior director at New York's Marlborough Gallery who seemed only mildly interested that someone was interested in a Tomas Sanchez painting (asking price, $180,000). "We wanted to see how it did. We've been happy and will definitely come back next year."
By the last day of the show, fewer Hermes handbags and Rolex watches were in evidence, replaced by more average shoppers carrying canvas totes and shopping bags.
By then, my favorite bag was the red plastic one in the corner of the Jiri Svstka Gallery that was actually an installation by Kristof Kintera, bulging with chips and a long cucumber. It periodically rumbled and belched impatiently.