At the first hints of Hurricane Irma back in early September, Miami’s Faena Hotel braced for impact by encasing its most prized attraction—the $15 million, gold-plated woolly mammoth skeleton by Damien Hirst that greets guests on the hotel steps—in a weatherproof glass case. The gilded woolly survived the storm’s relatively benign lashing unscathed, but the need for such protections illustrated the seemingly paradoxical fact that Miami’s growth as an economic and cultural playground dances on, even as intensifying weather and political drama gathers around the city.
Never is the giant metaphorical bubble around Miami more airtight than during Art Basel Miami, returning for its 16th edition on December 7 through 10. Miami art week’s tent-pole bacchanal will bring 268 galleries representing 4,000 artists to the Miami Beach Convention Center, along with a head-spinning array of parties, pop-ups and satellite exhibitions across the city—all part of a sociocultural flashpoint as tough as any weatherproof glass.
From the outside, art fairs can appear to be citadels of blind wealth and excess. After all, “There are more private jets in Miami in December than anywhere else in the world at any one time,” gallerist Michael Kohn once said. But despite the bells and whistles, Art Basel Miami Beach remains one of the greatest energy sources for contemporary art today—if you know where to look. Here, we break down the fair’s most anticipated attractions and speak to those closest to the action—from the fair’s president to a gallerina who took her first steps at Art Basel.
The art inside the walls of the MBCC is only a sliver of the citywide apparatus that is Miami art week. Timed to the festival, two major contemporary arts institutions in the city will introduce public-facing expansions: a $10-million renovation at The Bass and an all-new home for the Institute of Contemporary Art in the recently designated, $22-billion Miami Design District neighborhood.
ICA, opened in 2014, will unveil a new permanent home in the landmark Moore building in Miami’s Design District—a sleek crush of cultural and shopping destinations located in downtown Miami. In addition to Rag & Bone, Prada, Aesop and Alexander Wang outposts, the neighborhood will offer a rotating outdoor sculpture program, beginning with two 20-foot high sculptures by Minimalist godfather Sol Lewitt to be unveiled in November. The Bass, in addition to its renovation, will debut an exhibit by Argentine artist Mika Rottenberg, and conduct tours on its front lawn, a.k.a. Collins Park, which will be occupied by large-scale outdoor installations selected by Art Basel’s new public arts curator Phillip Kaiser. “The public exhibition, entitled ‘Territorial,’ will be ambitious in scale, focusing on works that claim space or territory through size, scale, intensity or sound,” Kaiser says of his curation, which includes a piece by Manuela Viera-Gallo that incorporates the testimony of 12 domestic violence survivors.
Public art is integral not both the city of Miami and to Art Basel at large, according to Art Basel Americas Director Noah Horowitz. “Each fair either has its own sector or special projects dedicated to public art,” he says. “Our fairs accommodate [both] the ways artists work and how the public realm plays an important role in artistic practice today.”
Art Basel Miami, the American offshoot of the Swiss original begun in 2002, unfolds from one man: Noah Horowitz. As Art Basel Americas director, a position he originated in 2015, the 37-year-old historian and art fair veteran has worked to expand the fair’s scope beyond the New York and Los Angeles art markets to those across North and South America. As such, contrary to conceptions of the fair as insular and inaccessible, Art Basel Miami Beach has lately began to take on global events, and virtually in real time.
“It was certainly interesting to witness the extent to which many galleries at the 2016 show in Miami Beach were responding to the current political climate at that time—particularly the U.S. presidential election—by bringing works to the fair that addressed these issues head on,” Horowitz tells us.
As the political events of last year continue to reverberate in 2017, it’s safe to say ABMB will reflect even more potent social and political themes this year—particularly those around immigration and globalism. Mexico City gallery Proyectos Monclova, for example, “will present a new video and performative work [that explores] how the political promises of modernity within Mexico and Latin America are perpetually unfulfilled,” says Horowitz, while New York gallery Tyler Rollins Fine Art will show “new works by Manuel Ocampo exploring the interconnections between immigration and colonialism.”
Art on view will also tackle domestic issues—from racial and gender equality to the President. Peter Saul’s “Donald Trump in Florida,” for instance, on view at Mary Boone Gallery, directly references Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, and the political powers that be, just two hours north of the fair. Meanwhile, L.A.-based gallery The Box will show the early paintings of Judith Bernstein, whose work explores power and aggression associated with masculinity (and whose recent Drawing Center solo show, Judith Bernstein: Cabinet of Horrors, was in response to the Trump administration). Other hyper-relevant highlights include three historic works by Judy Chicago: Bigamy (1964), a one-of-a-kind precursor to the iconic Dinner Party ceramic series; Submerge/Emerge (1976), an example of Chicago’s famous “central core” imagery; and Childhood’s End #1 (1972), an abstract grid representing “gendered voids.”
In addition to politics, a healthy dose of levity will also be on display. Galerie Gmurzynska’s booth will showcase the work of photographer and playboy philanthropist Jean Pigozzi, who was dubbed the “Undisputed King of the Celebrity Selfie” in a September Vanity Fair profile. “He’s always in the places where everybody, from Mick Jagger to Elton John, goes,” says the gallery’s third-generation owner Isabelle Bscher, whose booth will offer some of Pigozzi’s most exuberant works yet. The series of canine portraits entitled Charles and Saatchi, the Dogs was inspired by Pigozzi’s friendship with advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, who “wrote a text about wanting to be reincarnated as one of Jean Pigozzi’s dogs,” Bscher explains.
For 40 years, Pigozzi, a Harvard-educated heir to an Italian motorcar fortune, has pointed his lens at his own high-rolling social scene, interlaced with celebrity, excess and an animal-esque hedonism (one exemplary shot shows Naomi Campbell leading two dogs named “Mick” and “Bono” after his two famous friends). “He’s able to take photographs because people are not cold [around him]. They’re very natural,” explains Bscher. An art collector himself, Pigozzi has also photographed the likes of Larry Gagosian and the late Leo Castelli—architects of today’s high-flown transcontinental art market.
While Pigozzi’s photos may embody the latter-day glamour and glitz of Art Basel Miami, Galerie Gmurzynska, one of two galleries to have participated in every Art Basel since its founding in 1967, defines the fair’s international history. “The gallery was started in 1965 by my grandmother who came from Poland to Cologne, Germany, without a lot of business knowledge,” says Bscher, who today handles the estates of everyne from Yves Klein to Wifredo Lam, among others. “One of her friends was the legendary gallerist Ernst Beyeler, who founded Basel and asked her to take part.”
“When it started, it was a really small club of dealers and was, my mother tells me, very much unlike today,” continues Bscher, who took over the family business in 2015. “There was less competition. There was more of an environment of friendliness and people trying to help one another. It was like a small club of gallerists and collectors—who you would never suspect of having the most phenomenal collections at home. They would arrive with Birkenstocks and the most low-key clothes.”
But by the time Art Basel reached Miami Beach, Galerie Gmurzynska was a well-connected, international enterprise itself; the first year in Miami, the gallery brought Karl Lagerfeld as its guest of honor. “We did this party with him at a club called B.E.D. At the time, it was very fashionable,” Bscher recalls. “It was a new concept—people lying down. And Karl walked in with Ingrid Sischy and said, ‘I don’t want to eat here.’ He didn’t want to eat lying down. So we had to bring him something.”
Fifteen years later, Bscher says, the gallery intends for the art to be higher concept than the parties. “We’ll have an opening party at the Faena Hotel—mostly it’s friends coming to support their friends,” she says. “[But] I’m sure there will be some interesting people coming to see the art.”