Over the last twenty years, I’ve missed only one edition of Art Basel Miami Beach, in 2004, and am therefore convinced that 2004 was the best edition: the best parties, the best dinners, the best art, the best people. Back then, the parties and dinners were in hotels along the beach like the Shore Club, the Delano, and the Raleigh. Wynwood, across the causeway, wasn’t yet a thing. The “young” galleries were set up in shipping containers parked on the sand.
The fair has grown up alongside an increasing awareness of climate change in a city widely considered ground zero for its disastrous effects. Every year feels more like partying at the end of the world, the edge of the world. We’re not quite there yet. As a friend of mine says (optimistically!), “Some people won’t pay attention until there is a substantial loss of wealth.” Everything in Miami is, to varying degrees, moist. The best hotels have a hint of mildew that the fanciest HVAC system cannot dispel. To remediate would be to tear the whole city down.
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ABMB, as it is more familiarly known, is the American offspring of its 30-years-older Swiss parent fair. Conceived in 2000, the fair was meant to begin in 2001, but September 11 put the kibosh on that. The first edition, the following year, was tentative and bizarre. The art world was out of its element in the heat; lots of black was worn; no one knew if it was ok to have fun yet. In 2003, things got more comfortable; a satellite fair, NADA, started.
But 2004, the year I missed, was an inflection point of sorts.The Art Newspaper launched its daily Art Basel newspapers in print and, online, Artforum inaugurated its “diary,” Scene & Herd. The former by reporting and the latter by gossip, the publications made Miami the art world’s town square, a place where it could hang its members in effigy or happily gaze inwards, with outsider readers aspiring to that inward gaze. The dailies and the Diary marked time in this town square, registered the town’s milestones, set the tone for the Miamification of the art world at large.
In 2006, art critic Ossian Ward coined the term “Bling Conceptualism” in The Art Newspaper, giving a name to the art of that early boom cycle. Two years later, in Scene and Herd, David Velasco, now Artforum’s editor-in-chief, wrote that a fellow art journalist told him there was no caviar at the UBS dinner, marking the end of the boom. That art journalist was me, and I remember precisely where David and I crossed paths along Collins Avenue in the humid nighttime air. Scene and Herd, whose founding editor was the great Brian Sholis, understood that the best — and perhaps the only — way to write about Miami was in the first person, which is why I’m using it here.
There have, from time to time, been predictions of ABMB’s demise. In October 2013, there was briefly a rumor that, with the convention center being renovated, the fair would take a break from Miami, alighting instead in the more refined environs of San Francisco. ABMB’s most eloquent and least accurate Cassandra was art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who wrote in the New Yorker in 2006, “One day, perhaps soon, someone in a convivial group of money guys at a bar will say, ‘I just got back from [name of art fair]. It was fantastic!’ Another will drawl, ‘You still into that?’ In the ensuing embarrassed silence, the bubble won’t burst; it will vanish.” His prediction came true as a joke in 2011, when collector Adam Lindemann urged readers in his column in The New York Observer, where I was his editor, to boycott the fair. Then he showed up on VIP day. I can’t hold it against him; that was one of our best-read articles. In a way, it captured the spirit of the place: say one thing, do another, shrug, buy some art.
ABMB didn’t vanish. It changed. It grew, expanding outwards from the dense downtown of art into the suburbs of pop culture and fashion, starting with more art: satellite fairs with names like nightclubs or streetwear brands. NADA, Aqua, Pulse, Scope. Where to go from there, but into different genres of creative expression? In 2019, Dior had a runway show across from the Rubell Museum and no one blinked. Fashion had been making inroads into ABMB for years. There had been music from the very beginning, too, brought to you by downtown impresario Jeffrey Deitch (Kembra Pfahler, 2008) by uptown macher Larry Gagosian, who handed the reins momentarily to his younger directors (In 2006, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah—a band that has aged quite a bit less well than ABMB), and even some offerings from Art Basel itself (Iggy Pop, on the beach, in 2007). In more recent years, the concerts have become more official, less art world, and more stand-alone. The Miami-in-early-December thing, whatever sprawling entity is now signified by the word “Basel,” is, arguably, no longer dependent on artworks shown in a convention center. The fair could disappear, the rest would keep going. These days, the common refrain is that the “serious” collectors and their “serious” advisors don’t go to Miami anymore, because the fair has become a sideshow to a sideshow. But, then, like Lindemann, they turn up. They just decide, at the last minute, to fly down. Why not?
I could tell you my memories of Art Basel Miami Beach, but they would be disappointing. Too glamorous or not glamorous enough. I was not at the dinner party on a boat that had a tiger on it or, if I was, I missed the tiger. I remember an art dealer who rented a stretch limo to take him and his friends one block, from the Delano to the Raleigh. I remember having a capital D-discussion about capital A-art over burgers at 4 a.m. In 2003, a man climbed a wall to get into a party at the Versace mansion, or claimed that he did. He told me this at a concert for a Jeff Koons sculpture that came with a Taschen book —or maybe it was a Taschen book that came with a Jeff Koons sculpture. In 2005, as I sipped martinis at the Raleigh with my mentor, the late Bruce Wolmer, editor of the late magazine Art + Auction, I said, “Remember that guy who didn’t want anyone to see him here? He’s right upstairs!” In 2007, I called art critic Dave Hickey to tell him, “Dave, you’ll never believe this: now the galleries send out press releases saying what they’ve sold, with prices.”
There was the year Collins Avenue flooded and everyone walked barefoot to spare their designer shoes and Uber fares surged 9X. There was the year a party featured a monumental outdoor ice sculpture drenched in vodka. In 2013, I made a list of every brand that had a presence in and around the fair; the list went on for paragraphs and I remember being impressed by the variety of brands and how it wasn’t all liquor. In 2009, on my way to the ocean for a late-night swim with a group of dealers and artists, I passed a (now famous!) young artist who was sitting—meditatively, alone—in the poolside hot tub at the Deauville Beach Resort, where the NADA fair was.
If you ask me what was the best artwork I’ve ever seen at ABMB, I’m likely to say something like, “Remember the year there were all those Yoshimoto Nara dog sculptures and everyone was talking about the Rubell Effect?” I wouldn’t mention the banana because everyone knows about the banana and I didn’t see it. Which is to say, I didn’t go look at it. Which is to say, I can’t tell you about my favorite this or that, because everything blurs together. Miami is not the ideal venue for the contemplation of the art object.
I’m not a snob. When I say that the art world has, in general, over the past twenty years, been Miami-fied I don’t mean it as a proxy for decline. I mean many things, but chief among them might be an opening up of what was once closed. One might trace a direct line from the packed parties of Art Basel Miami Beach to the nightclub-ifying of the Ye Olde 17th century Les Trois Rois hotel in Basel to, this year, the presence of the hotel’s insignia on a bill cap brought to you in Miami by Vanity Fair’s Nate Freeman and art advisor Ben Godsill, who co-host the Nota Bene podcast.
No one really cares about the history. Anyone talking about ABMB’s past sounds like LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy complaining that he’s losing his edge. (But I was there!) At a dinner in Miami in 2019, I was seated next to art dealer Gavin Brown and there were some young people sitting across from us. I said to the young people, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if a gallery put nothing in their booth but a crushed cigarette pack being pulled around in circles by a length of fishing wire attached to a motorized mechanism in the booth’s ceiling?” The young people agreed that this would be amazing.
Once, before going to ABMB, I interviewed Mickey Wolfson, for whom the Wolfsonian Museum is named. He told me all about the Miami of the 1950s, and every other decade between then and the aughts. The conversation didn’t make much of an impact in my perception of the place. Neither did Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago, but it’s a great read, and you should read it. Miami is not about the past. The past is sliding into the ocean. The Deauville Beach Resort was demolished two weeks ago. NADA is in the Ice Palace, where Pulse once was. Miami is about the future, or what of it remains.
Miami, or Basel, or however you want to shorthand it, is, as a former editor of mine once said about a certain art dealer, profoundly shallow. I write this on the plane. I can’t wait to land.