DC Arts Head South for the Winter

Eva and Adele and all other photos by Max Cook

I recently traveled to Miami to experience what is probably the most important contemporary art fair in North America.  As the sister event to Art Basel in Switzerland, Art Basel Miami Beach is held annually in early December, a time when many of us here in DC are ready to escape the chill of winter.  Sometimes called “the Olympics of the art world”, it brings together a vast quantity of art from all over the globe, more than you could ever hope to fully appreciate in four days.  The main fair in the convention center alone consists of thousands of works of art, or at least what galleries are hoping to sell to you as art.  And by “you” I mean you the celebrity, the oil tycoon, or the granddaughter of the guy who built a railroad back in the 1800’s.  Many of these buyers are looking to decorate their houses with art — that costs as much as our houses.

Some of the artists who have work on display may seem familiar, especially if you’ve been to recent exhibits at such places as the Hirshhorn Museum, the Tate Modern, or the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  If you’ve had your heart set on buying work by Damien Hirst or Louise Bourgeois, you could have found the perfect piece at Art Basel to go right next to the Lamborghini under your Christmas tree.  If a C-Class Mercedes is more indicative of your budget, the main fair is more of a “look but don’t touch” affair, much like a museum.  Luckily there are several incredible satellite fairs selling more affordable art, such as PULSE, SCOPE, and Aqua, and it was here that you could find several DC galleries selling their work.

Jayme McLellan of Civilian Art Projects at SCOPE with work by Trevor Young

It’s a bit of a gamble for any commercial art gallery to set up shop at one of these art fairs.  The hope is that the cost of planning, transporting artwork to the fair, and paying for a booth (> $20K in total), is outweighed by sales.  A few DC galleries cut costs by sharing a moving truck, and I’m happy to say that every gallerist that I spoke to reported extremely good sales making the trip to Miami worthwhile. “It was the fourth time I’ve done the fair and the first sell-out, ” said Jayme McLellan of Civilian Art Projects.  “The work (by Trevor Young) was very strong.”  The artwork at these side fairs was mind blowing, and it was exciting to see the work by some of my artist friends hanging in such a prestigious setting.

Leigh Conner of Conner Contemporary at PULSE with work by Leo Villareal

Work by Jason Horowitz at the Curator’s Office booth at PULSE

“Mostly I see art fairs as a big 3-D advertisement for the gallery,” says Andrea Pollan who owns Curator’s Office on 14th Street NW.  “I feel it is important to do the big annual Miami PULSE fair because it is an opportunity to have more people see some of the artists that I work with in one week than will come through my gallery in DC all year.”

Work by Jessica van Brakle at the Hamiltonian booth at SCOPE

Not only is it an opportunity for local galleries to show and sell their artists’ work, but to learn about new artists and to meet potential collectors as well.  “I also meet a lot of DC and Baltimore collectors who rarely go to DC galleries but go to the art fairs in NYC, Miami, Chicago, and in Basel.  So it’s a way of extending my contacts even with the very local base.  It’s a bit ironic that one needs to go to Miami or NYC to connect with DC collectors, but it’s a reality, too.”

If you ask anyone who has been to Art Basel, whether they are a gallerist, a collector, or simply someone who appreciates art, they will undoubtedly say, “It was so much fun!”  Fun?  What’s that you say?  How can someone say that they had fun looking at art with so much enthusiasm?  The answer of course is the other reason (and in some cases the main reason) people travel to Miami: the parties.

Like the art on display, the caliber and exclusivity of the parties at Art Basel varies greatly.  Much of your experience there will depend on who you know, and who they know.  It’s best not to have a rigid itinerary while you’re there because you never know who you’ll run into or where you will end up at the end of the night.

Within hours of landing in Miami I ran into Tony Curanaj, a realism painter from New York who was showing work there.  After exchanging numbers we made a pact to keep each other informed of the parties we were going to.  It sounded like a great plan on day one, but by the end of my stay in Miami, chaos overruled reason, and I never did meet up with Tony.

A typical day at Art Basel consisted of the following.  Wake up at 9AM, grab coffee and breakfast at the 11th Street Diner, spend the next six or so hours soaking up as much art as my brain could withstand, eat sushi at some point, and then hit the best parties I could find, which in most cases were nothing short of epic.  Throughout the day I would receive texts from friends either saying, “What’s going on tonight?” or “NADA party at 8PM – the place to be tonight.”  Luckily my press pass got me into places that I would have had trouble getting into otherwise, but there were some events that I had no chance getting invited to such as a day of fishing on Kehinde Wiley’s boat (luckily I have several VIP friends who I can live vicariously through).

This being my first trip to Art Basel, I knew to expect an overload of art much like I’ve experienced at other art fairs such as Frieze in London.  However what I couldn’t predict was how much fun I would have zipping all over town each day, running into great friends who had made the trip from DC, making new friends from around the country, and soaking up the Miami experience.  I hope the photos to follow give you a sense of being there and I will end on this: December 2011 won’t come soon enough.

The Art

The Parties

Miami Life

Hailing from the Mile High City, Max has also lived in Tinsel Town, the Emerald City, as well as the City of Brotherly Love. Now a District resident, he likes to write about cool photos by local photographers, the DC restaurant and bar scene, or anything else that pops into his mind.

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