As Art Basel opens, we talk with the organization’s great Global Director, Marc Spiegler. He speaks very openly about his vision of his job, the Art Basel fairs, the market and its evolution, about art and the people making it. Marc Spiegler: the art market architect.
Marc Spiegler, 48 years old, has always been a very fine analyst of the art market. He simply loves to understand it; and because we love that too, it is always a pleasure to speak with him.
How do you feel at the eve of your fair, a decade after taking on the job?
I absolutely love the job and it’s tremendously rewarding, so it certainly doesn’t feel like ten years: it feels like yesterday. At the same time, this fair is my 26th with Art Basel. And if I look back, it feels like a lot has changed. Our organisation has certainly evolved enormously. When I started, we just had the Basel and Miami Beach fairs, we were solely coordinated from Basel, our digital presence was negligible… all we did was the two fairs. Ten years later, we’ve added an extremely strong fair in Asia, and built an extensive online presence – we now have an online catalogue with more than 20,000 artworks from past fairs, not to mention our very large reach on social media, with more than 2 million followers: eight times the 250,000 attendance across our three fairs. And the leadership structure shifted from being exclusively in Switzerland to spanning across three continents, with more than 80 staff making all that happen. When I started we were barely 20.
At the same time, the business has changed greatly. The expectations for fairs continue to evolve. 10 years before I arrived, fairs were exclusively trading platforms. Now the international fairs are required to be events in the art world calendar. That means talks, panels, special exhibition platforms, working with local public and private institutions, etc. More recently, in the last five years, the shift has been towards having a strong online presence and being able to educate and reach people before, during and after each event. We’ve moved from being open for five days in a convention hall to being a year-long support structure and catalyst for galleries and their artists.
How would you define the Art Basel identity?
We’re now much more than just a fair. If you take the Kickstarter collaboration for example, it brought more than $1.5M in funding for projects all over the world: Bogota, Lagos, Sidney, Thailand, Detroit, etc. When we launched that, there were a lot of questions about our motivations. But the reality is: we helped raise that amount of money for real projects, because when we put the “Art Basel” label on something, we are shining light and focus on it. The same thing is true for our talks programme. We produce well over 100 hours of conversation each year across our three fairs. As we decided to record and publish those online for free, there are now available more than 1,000 hours of conversation with artists about the world, art and the market. We’re not just helping galleries put their artworks on sale for a few days; we’re disseminating ideas to the whole world, for their consumption, reflection and creativity. We see one of our biggest roles as being market builders for the great artists of the 20th century and of today: not just helping galleries sell great art a few times a year, but delivering to them today’s and tomorrow’s collectors, so that we can broaden the market, and grow and support the eco-system.
How has the market evolved during your ten years at Art Basel?
I would say that the biggest change in the art market has been the rapid shift towards new models. We have to accept that we’re living in a constantly dynamic, evolving and changing world. Take, for example, the core notion of the role of a gallerist – this has evolved tremendously. Likewise, digital technologies have also had a huge effect on the way we do business. Though there’s still no equivalent to Uber or Airbnb for art transactions and consumption, a huge amount of the momentum that builds up before the fair comes through digital platforms; the same applies for all the business done after the fair. Even though the physical event of the fair remains central, a lot now happens digitally. Another dramatic shift is that we now – more than ever before – live in a truly international art world. The traditional notion of developing the career of an artist through local galleries and museums is now completely outdated. Young collectors of today have expanded their area of interest far beyond their own local market, region or even continent. And this is the case even when they have just started collecting. Artists are not limited anymore by the taste of the local galleries. They can easily explore education, life and work in other countries; there are galleries all over the world. I believe art is now in a post-movement era. At any given moment, there are successful figurative painters and successful abstract painters; there are successful young artists and successful experienced artists; there are people working in digital art and people working in a handcraft mode. The good news is: Today any art that is compelling can find a market somewhere. It’s just a question of being in the right place at the right time. What hasn’t change though is that, for most galleries and artists, it is enough to work with a handful of collectors. This is true even for major galleries. The overwhelming majority of them conduct the majority of their business with less than 10 buyers. The identity of these collectors may change with time, but it is never a mass market. It remains a market strongly built on personal relationships, on trust, on seeing things in person. We may be shifting from atoms to bytes but we’re still on some level cavemen: we need to smell, to feel, to see how the other person moves, look into their eyes, in order to decide whether we trust them or not, i.e whether we’ll buy from, sell to, or exhibit with them. That’s why fairs, biennials and gallery weekends remain essential to the market. These are the moments when people decide if they’ll work together or not.
How does Art Basel keep up with all the rapid changes happening in the art world?
I think “trends” exist more within the media than in galleries, more in galleries than in fairs and more in fairs than in cultural institutions. For example, if a journalist, a fair director and a museum director were to simultaneously discover an artist that they all agreed was important, the journalist could write about it the next morning; the fair director would have to take some time to figure out if any of the galleries he’s working with will be showing that artist; while the museum director would have to wait and see when there would be room in the schedule for a new exhibition – at least a year and a half down the line. Focusing more specifically on Art Basel: I don’t believe it’s our job to be trend spotters. Our job is to bring great art to the public and to build new platforms – such as Unlimited, Parcours, Film, etc. – when it’s necessary to show great works. With almost 300 galleries in total, we can have both: the most established galleries showing historic works alongside younger galleries, exhibiting internationally for the first time.
What about the historical works?
Art Basel is a fair that tries to represent the trajectory of art history, from the early 20th century to the present day. Five years ago, both galleries and collectors for historical material told me they felt Art Basel did not value such works. I was shocked by that, because to us they are extremely important! Historical works have always been part of the fair and that’s what makes it unique. When we looked at it, we found there were two reasons for this feeling: a lot of galleries representing pre-1970 works closed, so the period was generally under-represented, and the ones that were at Art Basel were scattered across the ground floor. So we really looked for the next generation of dealers in historical material; and now you have galleries like Tornabuoni, Applicat-Prazan, Borzo, Luxembourg & Dayan, Di Donna, Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois present in the main section of Art Basel. These are galleries that are actively searching for and developing markets for historical pieces. We also started rethinking the floor plan – as you know, always a sensitive issue – to consolidate the more historical artworks. Now it is clearer: you get the more contemporary galleries upstairs, the classical contemporary ones on the left side of the ground floor, and the more historical ones on the right side. When you move through these areas, you see the type of material you would see at an evening auction: historical masterpieces.
How do you approach the new initiatives that you are regularly adding to the fair?
First off, I believe that the galleries and artists at the fair give us plenty to talk about. Therefore we only launch new initiatives because we think they can bring something meaningful to the table. As you can imagine, every time we put the “Art Basel” label on a project, it has inherent momentum. For example, going to Asia was heavily discussed, as it also involved huge risks. But you have to take risks. If we hadn’t done so, Art Basel in Hong Kong wouldn’t be thriving today. At Art Basel we are not afraid to risk failing from time to time. You know, I’m a snowboarder. And I fall a lot every day I ride! But I know that when I don’t fall it means I’m not trying hard enough or that the terrain is too easy…
How does the team work on the different fairs?
Parts of the team work primarily on one fair: these are the ones that work directly with the galleries to understand their needs and build the exhibitions. Most of the other teams work on a global basis: for example, the VIP team, as collectors attend all the fairs; much of the marketing department as we operate under only one website, etc. The two regional fair directors – Adeline Ooi and Noah Horowitz – are mainly responsible for the delivery of one event, but also the promotion of all of Art Basel’s activities on each continent. About a year ago we finished the process of regionalizing the organization. Before that, the majority of big decisions were made in Basel, and it made us slow and prevented us from reacting quickly and maintaining the regional perspective needed to make the right calls for each fair. So we intensely analysed which decisions could be taken regionally and which ones could be global. When both were a valid option, we went with regional decision-making.
Who would you say is your first client?
At every level, it clearly is the galleries. Galleries are the key stakeholders of Art Basel. If they don’t believe in the fair anymore, the quality will drop quickly, collectors won’t want to come to the fair, and artists won’t want to be part of it. We listen deeply to the galleries to understand what they need. In essence Art Basel is an exhibition platform that doesn’t own any art. So we rely on the galleries to deliver a great fair – let’s not forget that Art Basel was founded by gallerists after all. Every year, before we start the application process, we sit down with the committee to discuss what worked the year before, and what didn’t, in order to fix what wasn’t perfect and amplify what was successful. Our committees are not there just to select galleries; they also help us steer each fair in the right direction.
Coming from journalism, do you still see yourself as an analyst of the art market?
In some ways, yes! I’m still studying how the art market operates and evolves: new players, new models, etc. What has changed is that, when I was a journalist I was delivering my observations to my readers. Now I use my observations to think about how we can react to changes in the market, for the benefit of our galleries and their artists. Unlike at many fairs we – the directors – don’t vote at the committee meetings. The committees’ job is to analyze individual dossiers, our job is to think about the broader perspective; it is to understand how the art world is evolving and make sure Art Basel reflects this. So at the key stages of the selection process, if we feel that some interesting aspect of art today is lacking visibility, we can say “The committee’s vote tells the world that X is important and Y is less important. Is this truly how you feel about it?”. That often starts new debates.
What excites you about the art market and art creation today?
I’m fascinated by how globalization and digitalization has facilitated interaction between galleries, artists and collectors. Artists from all over the world work with galleries from all over the world, selling to collectors and museums from all over the world. And this all is to the benefit of artistic creation. People talk about the “good old days”, but the reality is that there are more artists living solely off their own work now than there have been at any point in history… and this is evolving exponentially. I find this truly great, a triumph of our art world era. We’re at an inflection point in the history of creation, probably as important as the revolution of the printing press. The printing press allowed for mechanical reproduction; digital innovation allows for mass, seamless, free distribution without any degradation in quality. Children being raised now spend a huge portion of their life interacting with technology. This will have a profound impact profound impact not only on the digital world, but also on the analogue world. On one hand, moving from molecules to bytes allows for radically new types of work to be made – and made well; on the other hand, it also means that the hunger for real experiences in the real world, in real life, will be tremendous. How artists will play with that balance between analogue and digital is going to be a fantastic thing to witness…
Art Basel, from 15 to 18 June. “Collectors” preview on 13 and 14 June.
Messe Basel. Messeplatz 10. Basel. www.artbasel.com