Art Basel in Switzerland is where art directors and curators go to scope out new talent
BASEL, Switzerland -- Behind its old world charm and multitude of museums, Basel is the place where the contemporary art world gathers to get down to business.
Once a year the city, which borders Germany and France, hosts Art Basel, one of the world's best known art markets. Contemporary artistic awareness runs through the heart of this small Swiss city with as much power as the Rhine. The wheeling and dealing are couched in dinners, cocktail receptions, casual lunches and high-profile gatherings. One hot spot for private collectors and well-heeled gallery owners is Les Trois Rois, a five-star grand hotel. Whether seated on the terrace overlooking the fast-moving river or in the dark paneled bar, patrons take care of business with smiles and toasts. After all, Art Basel is the most prominent of the art markets.
"Someone is getting rich" was the message on a neon artwork in one of the gallery stalls. You can be sure it's not the art museums that are getting wealthy. If anything, they suffer as art becomes a popular investment vehicle and is branded as elite.
"It is grossly inaccurate to think of us as elitist," said Lynn Zelevansky, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art.
She was in Switzerland in June to attend Art Basel with the three curators for the Carnegie International: Tina Kukielski, Dan Byers and Daniel Baumann, who is Swiss and lives in Basel. The Carnegie International opens Oct. 4, 2013, and was very much the reason they were in Switzerland.
"Art museums are for the public. It is a public good. We are an essential fiber of the civic aspect of Pittsburgh. I think it is important that people understand that the high prices at auctions do nothing for museums. They hurt us," Ms. Zelevansky said.
It makes the insurance go up and makes it harder for museums to buy things. So even while art museums fight the elitist label, they must court the private collectors, galleries and wealthy art philanthropists.
"Business gets done in Basel in the sense that you are looking for things to buy and your whole world kind of meets there," she said. "I think Basel is run by the dealers. They are putting together dinners that are melding museum people with collectors."
One of the dinners was for artist Jeff Koons at the Fondation Beyeler, where his work was being exhibited.
"It was a huge dinner to celebrate him," she said. "It was all directors and this is the first year I was invited, I think, because I haven't been a director very long."
While working as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Ms. Zelevansky met Ernst Beyeler. Pittsburgher G. David Thompson sold his large collection of modern art through Mr. Beyeler.
"That was a great disappointment to us," Ms. Zelevansky said, "but he sold it and Ernst Beyeler kept a lot of it. ...
"I think someday they would be wonderful partners for us," she mused.
Such connections are a big reason to attend Art Basel. "I think it is as Woody Allen says: 'Eighty percent of it is just showing up.' And what showing up means is that if you show up it gives the opportunity for luck to happen," she said.
The director's days started early. She would have breakfast meetings with her curators, then scour the show, meeting with colleagues she might consider doing exhibitions with or want to borrow artworks from. "You get to talk to them face to face about it and pitch them the idea that they really should lend you this work. There are also donors there who could become supporters of the museum."
She sees Basel as an opportunity to raise the profile of Carnegie Museum of Art and to make sure the museum and Carnegie International are on everybody's radar.
There was a time when Ms. Zelvansky tried to see absolutely everything when she attended Art Basel and other fairs. But her methods have changed:
"First, I look at the list and note the galleries I know I want to go to because the galleries send lots of information beforehand about what they will be showing," she explained.
Being in the art world it is inevitable that you will have friends who are artists, so along with the galleries she looked up friends and artists she wanted to see. She also coordinated with her curators about meeting at various galleries to see certain pieces. Ms. Zelevansky is very happy with the trio of talent she has chosen to shepherd next year's International. She wanted to escape the homogenization of contemporary art by making the International unique.
"I wanted to give it some real heart and soul. It needed to be really anchored in the city in a sense of place and in its own history. ... I had to find curators who were interested in that."
She had many meetings in the art world. "Daniel [Baumann] came along and was really interested. He was very interesting to me because he is not only a very cutting-edge curator of contemporary art, but he was also the curator of the Adolf Wolfli Collection at the Kunst Museum in Bern [Switzerland]," she said.
Dan Byers, who originally thought he would be the assistant curator for the 2013 exhibition, was already running a museum department. "It seemed perfect to get Dan in there, and then I was looking for someone with more experience with major publications and installations and Tina was perfect.
"I think we are very lucky," noted Ms. Zelevansky. "I think they jelled because they all do share the same values."
One of the reasons she decided to use three curators for the International was the importance of collaboration. "I thought a conversation was more important than a monologue at this point in time."
During Art Basel there were lots of conversations among the three of them and Ms. Zelevansky. All of them have been traveling, going in different directions to shows and galleries looking for the right combination of elements to make this International one of the best.
"Basel has the highest quality of art compared to all the art fairs. Even if we're not looking to buy at the fair, it's instructive to see what the galleries are bringing -- especially on the modernist vs. contemporary side of things. You'll see major works that will only be viewable to the public for a few days before they enter a private collection," Mr. Byers said.
"We are almost complete in terms of the artist list we are going to show at the International but not the works," she said. "Some works will be commissioned for the show and some will be existing works."
Some works to be exhibited were shown at Art Basel, but which ones is a well-kept secret.
The Friends of the Carnegie International is a high-profile group that raises funds, especially for the International. "It was founded in 2004 when the Pittsburgh corporations that took turns sponsoring the show dropped out.
"They are absolutely crucial," she acknowledged.
The museum launched Corporate Friends of the International this year so corporations could be part of the International without having to make a major commitment.
Helping to recruit more donors was Swiss pharmaceutical heiress and philanthropist Maja Oeri. She hosted a luncheon in her Basel guest home following a tour of the Schaulager Satellite -- a temporary pavilion on the exhibition square -- for Friends of the Carnegie International and new friends. Ms. Oeri's Emanuel Hoffman Foundation stores its collection at Schaulager.
The Schaulager Satellite was set up for 14 days to introduce the public to the work of art storage and preservation, a sort of modern art archive for scholars, curators and researchers. The main facility is undergoing enhancement construction, but in March 2013 it will open an exhibition to the public. The mantra of Schaulager is "preserve, study, share." Because museums only display a small percentage of their collections at any time, this is one place the works reside while waiting for their close-up. Ms. Oeri has also lent her guesthouse to the three Carnegie International curators to stay and convene after their travels.
"For Daniel, Tina and I, Basel is an important opportunity to remind curators, gallerists, collectors, critics and artists about the International," Mr. Byers said. "Being there together reinforces that it's a team curating the exhibition, and it gives people the chance to understand our collective attitude and approach."
Ms. Zelevansky agreed. "Basel is the most established and is considered the premier art fair I think partially because it is situated in what used to be the middle of Western Europe.
"You know, there are other very big fairs like Frieze in London," she said, "but Basel is a place where business gets done."
First Published July 17, 2012 12:00 am