Art Basel’s Marc Spiegler will be a hard act to follow
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As Art Basel’s executives gear up for this year’s 20th anniversary of their Miami Beach fair, they can look back on two decades punctuated with drama. Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s outgoing director of 15 years, and his replacement, Noah Horowitz, acknowledge that the ride to this landmark year has not always been smooth.
From the outset this fair was buffeted by events beyond management’s control. Its opening was planned for 2001 but was cancelled after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which meant people were not inclined to travel, let alone buy art, and there was an accompanying economic downturn too. There were already huge doubts about whether the Swiss fair, then directed by Sam Keller, had made the right decision to take its weighty Swiss brand to an unlikely US city. “I thought it was a crazy idea. I had never been there, apart from via Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” Spiegler says, referring to the video game set in a fictional version of Miami.
Others shared his caution — Miami was seen by many as a crime-ridden, cultural desert, at best a sunny retirement city, and a far cry from the real US art market action of New York and Chicago.
Like many of us, Spiegler admits he was proved wrong. He remembers visiting the first Art Basel Miami Beach in 2002 when working as an arts journalist based in Zurich. Ushered into a party in the garden of the collecting couple Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz, he says he was struck by two things that went on to define the fair’s success: the overlooked sophistication of the city’s highly engaged collectors, and the draw of events that now seem intrinsic not just to Art Basel Miami Beach (where they do a poolside party pretty well) but to the whole of the contemporary art market. “It wasn’t the done thing at the time,” Spiegler says.
Miami’s other advantage, Spiegler realised, is how close it is to Brazil, a major collector base and a booming economy in the fair’s earlier years. And, of course, the weather helps. “Those first biting days of winter [in New York and Europe] make Miami appealing,” he says.
At the time of the Miami launch, it was unusual for any fair to take its brand overseas, something that became de rigueur for the bigger companies in the intervening 20 years. “Art Basel Miami Beach proved that there was something about Art Basel’s success that could be exported,” Spiegler says.
This laid the ground for Art Basel in Hong Kong, a fair he opened in 2013 and, more recently in Paris — both launches among his highlights of his Art Basel career, which began in 2007. In both instances, the fairs replaced existing events rather than venturing into the complete unknown, as Keller had done in Miami. Art Basel bought out ArtHK, which had launched in 2008, while in Paris the fair group ruffled some feathers when it took the slot of the Fiac fair that had run for nearly 50 years. Increased institutionalisation is not to everyone’s liking in the nuanced art world, but has been an inevitable trend as the market expands in popularity, accompanied by soaring prices for art.
“I started out at a company that had two events and one office in Switzerland with a staff of 22. I am leaving a business that runs four fairs, has more than 100 people in offices around the word and a significant online presence,” Spiegler says. The growing international stature of Art Basel during Spiegler’s reign attracted the media scion James Murdoch, whose company Lupa Systems bought a controlling stake in Art Basel’s parent company MCH Group in 2020.
While Miami has helped Art Basel grow, the fair is certainly credited with helping to power Miami’s cultural scene — and gives a post-Thanksgiving boost to its hotels, restaurants and Uber drivers. “The city was ready for it, but the fair brought more great collectors, more great galleries to town. It delivered an audience, it was showtime,” Spiegler says, with characteristic zeal.
The more understated Horowitz, who worked for Spiegler as Art Basel’s director of Americas between 2015 and 2021 and now rejoins the fair group after a year at Sotheby’s, also saw the city change. “There were a handful of galleries in 2001 and more than 100 in 2019, though what I find more incredible is what has happened since,” he says.
The Covid pandemic brought more people and businesses to Miami, sunny, libertarian and low-tax, as real-estate moguls and sun-seeking snowbirds gave way to crypto bros and high-rolling financiers. The art scene jumped at the opportunity. “It’s not just the absolute numbers that have grown, but the depth and ambition of the galleries that are now here,” Horowitz says. He cites new entrants such as Jupiter gallery in North Beach, as well as the growing influence of longer-time locals such as Nina Johnson and Central Fine. The evolution has not just been commercial: Horowitz notes cutting-edge and influential exhibitions at institutions such as the ICA Miami and The Bass Museum.
Horowitz and Spiegler have presided over some eventful editions. At Horowitz’s first show in 2015, there was a violent, though non-fatal, stabbing during the fair (many of us initially thought it was an artistic performance). The following year, the Zika virus threatened to ruin the fair, and then the Convention Center, which has always housed the event, went through a complex renovation, which cut into the exhibition space and was finally completed for the 2018 edition.
Just when everything seemed back on track, the Covid-19 pandemic hit and forced the cancellation of the 2020 fair. Like the other Art Basel fairs that year, Miami had an online edition — which benefited from Horowitz’s experience at the ahead-of-its-time, digital-only VIP Art Fair — and kept business ticking over. Just before last year’s in-person return, by which time Horowitz had left Art Basel, the Omicron variant began to rage. “It was up to me to make Floridians wear a mask,” Spiegler semi-jokes.
This year, Spiegler — who hasn’t said what he is doing after a six-month transition — is handing over the reins, just as an economic recession looks to bite. Horowitz has a bigger company to run than his predecessor inherited in 2007 and comes in as the group’s first chief executive. There is a management structure to finalise — while the plan is for each of the fairs to have an artistic and managing director, the Miami and Basel events still lack direct leadership. Vincenzo de Bellis, until now a curator at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, and formerly artistic director of miart (the Milan International Fair of Modern and Contemporary Art), has been appointed to oversee all four fairs and to unlock new ways to expand the brand.
Horowitz has what he describes as a “bird’s eye view” and sees several opportunities to grow the “engine that is Art Basel”, not least in Asia. His year at Sotheby’s has helped him get a broader understanding of some of the commercial facets of the art business, he says. Now, his priority at Art Basel is to maintain Spiegler’s legacy of “an exceptionally strong baseline” of fairs, he says. As the Miami fair opens its biggest edition to date, in a relentlessly international and fragile market, the role is — Horowitz adds — “a high threshold to step into, at all levels”.
November 29-December 3, artbasel.com