All art, all show

Art Basel Miami Beach seems as much about a groovy vibe as about fine art. But don't let the party atmosphere fool you; this is serious business.

Published November 27, 2005

In just three years, Art Basel Miami Beach can rightly claim to be the premier modern and contemporary art show and sale in the United States.

In some part, the four-day event, which opens Thursday, has ridden on the coattails of its older sibling, Art Basel, a 36-year-old show that draws thousands of collectors to Switzerland each summer.

But Samuel Keller, Basel's savvy director, has worked hard to establish a special, youthful vibe for the South Beach venue.

The Miami Beach Convention Center is Basel's heart, packed with booths representing about 200 prestigious international dealers who pay thousands of dollars for space, along with thousands more for shipping and insurance. They bring with them millions of dollars' worth of fine art ranging from early 20th century masters to the most provocative current artists.

For a $22 ticket, you can spend the day roaming, gawking and getting a fast-track education on important trends in contemporary art. Many visitors treat it as a giant gallery show, but Basel's about currency - lots of it - changing hands. Organizers do not release numbers and say they don't know exactly how much dealers rake in, but the presumption is the amounts are sizable, judging from the jostling for space among the purveyors. The choicest works are often snapped up by collectors arriving for private viewings before the show opens to the public.

It's a fun place to people-watch, too. The crowd always includes flamboyantly attired arts types along with those wearing discreet designer labels that cost more than some of the paintings and sculptures. And you'll hear a polyglot of languages, since dealers and their patrons come from every continent except Antarctica.

Though it's serious business, Art Basel Miami Beach feels like one big, groovy party much of the time, with collateral events surrounding the show. Near the water's edge in Collins Park, across the street from the center, shipping containers the size of trailers are set up for artists considered edgier and emerging. A video lounge features continuous viewings of prime examples of that medium. Art Basel Conversations hosts daily talks by art world luminaries.

New events have been added at Collins Park. Art Perform will showcase performance artists. Art Sound Lounge, also in the park, is a collaboration with P.S. 1 in New York, the oldest arts center in the nation and an affiliate of the Museum of Modern Art. For that feature, acoustic hoods will be planted among the palms to pipe out "audio" art.

On Saturday, several blocks in Miami's design district will be transformed into a big street party with the feel of a civilized Mardi Gras.

The public can tour collections owned by the Rubell and Margulies families, both routinely included in lists of top collectors, who have established museum-quality galleries in Miami.

Area museums such as the Wolfsonian, Bass, Museum of Contemporary Art and the Miami Art Museum have special exhibitions on view, and the famed Fairchild Tropical Garden in nearby Coral Gables has a large installation of Dale Chihuly glass sculptures to show off.

You can't buy your way into some of the exclusive parties hosted by individuals and businesses, but you might spot a celebrity or two in town for them.

Art Basel Miami Beach is the kind of affair that can be taken as frivolous or fanatic, where even the most resolute outsider can feel in.

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com


Art Basel Miami Beach opens Thursday and continues through Sunday. One-day passes are $22; two-day tickets are $34. Admission is free for children under 16 accompanied by an adult. Tickets can be ordered through Ticketmaster, 305 358-5885. For more information, go to www.artbasel.com