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Art Basel 2007: Events Rundown And Travel Tips

December 03, 2007 By Matt Meltzer in Miami: Travel News  | 2 Comments

ABOVE: An areil view flying over Miami Beach, Florida.

Miami is known as a lot of things. A tropical paradise, a hedonistic playground, a third-world country. But one thing we have never really been lauded for is our high-concept culture. In a place where a new performing arts center loses a million dollars a month and five people can correctly locate the art museum, many in the “more-culturally-sophisticated-than-thou” northeast scoff when people say they are going to Miami Beach to check up on the latest in contemporary art. But for one week a year (okay, five days, but we gotta milk it for all it’s worth) the eyes of the art world grudgingly set themselves on South Florida for the Spring Break of Art Fairs, Art Basel.


Yes, even high-fallutin’ art snobs need a few days where they can get plastered, spend lots of money and hook up with people they’ll never see again. Of course, in this case Natty Light is replaced by 80 year-old Bordeaux, the money they’re dropping is often into the 8 figures and, well, as far as the sex goes, I’m not too up on the secret sex lives of art snobs. Perhaps that is another article altogether. And since America is the pariah of the Western World when it comes to art, many of our visitors will be coming from that land of chocolate, wine, and condescension known as Europe. And to make matters worse, for the first time in a long time their money is worth more than ours. By a lot.


So this year, when we see that the official sponsors are BMW, Cartier, and something called NetJets (more on them later) it is not simply because promoters are trying to cater to a market with more money than God, it is because people from Europe can pay for this stuff with the same passing indifference most Americans give to buying breakfast at Waffle House. For our newly-rich European friends, or Americans begrudgingly headed to the “stupidest city in America” for a cultural event, or just to some locals who are curious who exactly this Art Basel guy is, I’d like to give you a few pointers to make your stay here in the beach a little easier.



For a local, it is understandable to be confused about Art Basel. Once you’ve lived in South Florida long enough, you just assume certain types of events don’t really meld with this part of the country. When the World Championships of Dog Racing come to town, nobody is really all that confused. But an art festival? Surely this can’t be that big a deal. Otherwise they’d have held it in a city where people actually enjoy art that does not come out of a spray-paint can.

But no, dear Miamian, Art Basel most certainly is a big deal.  The original festival started in, believe it or not, Basel, Switzerland 38 years ago. In 2000, festival director Samuel Keller realized that dark and overcast Europe in December made it difficult to see all the fabulous art he was hocking for 20 million Swiss Dollars, and thought maybe if people could see things in the sunlight he would have better sales. So that year, he held the first annual Art Basel Miami Beach. Most people in Miami though it was another big-shot personal-injury attorney with a funny name opening an office in South Florida.

Since that year, the number of participants and attendees has grown considerably, this year attracting an estimated 40,000 visitors looking at 200 galleries with works by over 2000 artists. Eight of which you may have heard of.



The main exhibition hall is inside the Miami Beach Convention Center and will open on Wednesday for invited guests only. How does one get invited to be an invited guest? I can’t say for sure, but throwing down 7 figures for one of the galleries’ offerings is generally a good start. The rest of the hoi-palloy is allowed in from Thursday to Sunday. And while the art itself may send those of us not packing Euros into personal bankruptcy, tickets to look at it are not a steep as one might expect. A one-day ticket is $35, two days are $45, and a permanent pass is $65. And,  in a move that is the marketing equivalent of giving free Motley Crue tickets to everyone at Leisure Village, children under 16 are free.



When a typical miamian strolls by the beach around 21st and Collins and sees hundreds of people crammed into shipping containers washed up on the sand, your first reaction is to go inside and look for family members. Or perhaps firearms.  But such is not the case this week. No, festival organizers were looking for a vehicle for 20 newer galleries to display that was not inside the exhibition hall.

And what venue could capture the flavor of Miami better than a shipping container? Not only is it the entry vehicle of choice for a large segment of our population, it is also the single most important vehicle to our local economy. If it weren’t for the shipping container, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of local “narcotics entrepreneurs” would have their supplies considerably diminished, and much of our population would not be able to arm ourselves the way we see fit.

And what is more South Beach than forcing large amounts of people into a small, crowded space? So once you leave your Lilliputian hotel room in the Deco district, you can go to a cramped restaurant with a two-day waiting list, fight your way to the bar of whatever club you happen to attend, and then shoehorn yourself into a shipping container to look at some hot, new artist. Somehow, I just don’t think this is what they do in Switzerland.


And what festival in Miami would be complete without a sculpture devoted to “Scarface?” Yes, it seems that even European art snobs feel the need to invoke SOMETHING involving Tony Montana when they come to South Florida. If you venture over to the front of the Jackie Gleason Theater, Claude Leveque has modernized his 2000 sculpture devoted to the 1983 classic. This may be the only piece your 16 year-old will look at if you drag him out for the free tickets.



You can find a variety of live performance art along the beach during the festival. Visitors, this may prove to be a bit confusing to you.  If a scraggly old man who smells like urine is shouting monologs at the top of his lungs on the beach, THIS IS NOT PERFORMANCE ART. This is a homeless man and you can enjoy his show 52 weekends a year in South Beach absolutely free. This year the festival is offering up some interesting performance art, one of which involves two actors with headsets that repeat things the audience tells them to do via a microphone. Personally, I think this would be a lot more fun if they set it up at Dolphin Mall.

Slovak artist Roman Ondak will be performing a homage to the treacherous journey that Cubans make to the United States by transforming the performance art stage into a landing zone for a Cuban parachutist. Now I certainly respect the creativity and determination it takes some to reach this country, but having some Slovak pass your immigration attempt off as “performance art” is definitely a new one. Kudos to you, Cuban immigrant. When the Coast Guard tries to stop you, old Roman can just say his first amendment rights are being violated and you’re good as gold. No wonder Fidel puts artists in prison.



Immediately outside the exhibition hall sits the Botanical Garden, which will host to the “Art Sound Lounge.” This year’s theme is “Decked Out: A History of the Turntable.” The festival provides the listener with a 90-minute audio recording to enjoy as he or she strolls through all sorts of tropical flora. Be prepared for an eclectic mix, though. The first track is “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The second is from Grandmaster Flash.


The fabulous, exclusive Seafair Yacht will be docked at the Miami Beach Marina during Art Basel. This 228-foot megayacht features restaurants, galleries, coffee shops, a wine bar, and pretty much everything else you’d expect from a yacht designed to sell art. The boat is running its own art fair, called ArtMB, which began November 29 and runs through December 9. But not just any Joe off the street can stroll up to Seafair and rub elbows with art’s elite. Boarding is limited to those invited by galleries, people holding VIP passes, and those privileged enough to have internet access and a printer.



By the time you read this, most of you will either be on your way to Miami or already here. But let me give you all one VERY important piece of advice: Rent a Car. Miami offers more “exotic” car rental businesses than we do traditional ones, allowing our European visitors to pay substantial markups to drive the same car they do at home.


I know in Basel or Prague or London, you have very sophisticated and efficient public transit systems, as you love to rub it our collective American faces every chance you get. Woo-hoo, good for you Europe. You may have a train that people ride, but when was the last time any of YOU got to watch a re-run of “Full House” for FREE? HA! HA! HA!

Some of you, I am sure, went to our local civic website and saw that we have an extensive bus and train system in Miami. This is true insofar as we do have trains and busses, but go ahead and ask anyone in Miami to tell you where any of the busses go, and they’ll just give you a blank stare. Then you can ask in Spanish, and they’ll tell you they don’t know. And you may notice our lovely Metrorail going overhead should you choose to drive through Kendall or Allapattah. Most of us who live here don’t. There are more people in Miami who own Kevin Federline’s album than have ridden the Metrorail, so don’t think for a second that this might be a viable transportation alternative.

The city will be running some shuttle busses to events throughout Miami, and if you are hell-bent on not renting a car you can try and rely on the world renowned efficiency of a Miami-Dade County government agency. And if you choose not to stay at the Delano, or a hotel near the convention center, you are going to be walking or taking a cab to the pickup spots anyway.

And when you rent a car, don’t get off the freeway or stop for any reason until you get to South Beach. If you have any question as to why, read this.



If you read through your Art Basel calendar of events, you may notice that a good deal of them are held in this place called the “Design District.” Sounds trendy, right? Like a sort of upscale-urban artsy area full of bohemians and intellectuals. But, dear art lover, this is Miami. And the word “intellectual” doesn’t exactly resound with what we’re all about.


The few square blocks where you will be going to your events, at the Moore Space or the Collins Building, or maybe some other lesser-known gallery, may appear a bit deserted. While these spaces, and some galleries, are doing quite well, this up-and-coming neighborhood has yet to fully up-and-come. Do not be afraid, the neighborhood isn’t that bad. Just make sure you don’t park more than a block west of wherever your event is located. And don’t get out of your car until you get there. And if anyone offers to help you park your car, again, they are not performance artists.



On opening night, Miami’s own Iggy Pop will lead his band “Iggy and the Stooges” in a performance at the open-air space on the beach between 21st and 22nd streets.  They have been referred to as “punk rock pioneers” by festival organizers. At first glance, one might think “Why on Earth would they want to have a punk band opening an international art festival? They are nothing alike!” But, like so many things at Art Basel, you have to look a little deeper to see the meaning. You see, punk rock and art have a lot of things in common: There is a fine line between “good” and “terrible,” they are perpetually over analyzed, and, generally most people can’t understand a friggin’ thing they’re looking at.

The beautiful, historic landmark home Vizcaya will be hosting “The Ball of Artists” on Thursday night. This event is being billed as “An evening conceived by artists for artists.” Artists, apparently, who are VIP invited guests only. Last I checked, most artists are not exactly buying summer homes in the south of France, but with the devalued dollar it is not entirely out of the question that a guy renting loft space in the worst part of Paris can ball it up when he comes over to the devalued States.


The last scheduled event of the festival is something called ‘Art Basel Conversations” which features a panel of guys with names like Heinrich and Franz criticizing art criticism. That’s right, not satisfied simply spend five days analyzing various works, true art scholars must then analyze the analysis. I will be writing an article critiquing this event next week.



The official hotels for Art Basel read like the “spotted in Miami” page of the Herald. If you are into art, you must apparently also be into outlandishly expensive hotel rooms. The official hotels, Delano and Shore Club, have been contracted for special “discount rates.” These discounted rates start at $520 a night, or roughly the cost of a Diet Coke in most of France.  Those earning higher incomes from Europe, such as bus drivers and sewer repairmen, may want to opt for the slightly classier Sagamore or Setai, whose rooms start at about $21 and go all the way up to about $90. An hour.

The slew of renovated Art Deco hotels in the beach are going for around $300 a night, and may be a better choice for us hard-luck American art-types. Even the hedge fund managers down here investing people’s pensions in canvas have to cut corners this year, and not going for the $899 room at the Ritz Carlton is probably a good start.


You could always slum it and stay at the Doubletree ($249) or the Days Inn South Beach ($142), but really, when you’re sipping on 50 year-old single-malt scotch and examining a painting that costs more than your house, do you really want to be talking with the guy next to you about how you got a free continental breakfast? Not that art folks are snobs, it’s just that……okay, yeah, they’re snobs.



This year’s main sponsors for Art Basel are BMW, Cartier and NetJets, known collectively as “Shit you can’t afford.” This lets any potential casual festival-goer know the theme of the event right off the bat. “This event is sponsored by, and is mostly made up of, shit you can’t afford.”

BMW seems an appropriate contributing company, since a BMW lease is the only contract signed more commonly in South Florida than a fraudulent power of attorney.

Cartier is a world-renowned jeweler whose items can be rented by any aspiring hip-hop star at many locations throughout South Beach.

NetJets is sort of like a timeshare for airplanes, allowing people to buy an interest in a private plane. While an art festival seems a logical place for this company to hock its product, it would probably be better served to sponsor the lines at MIA security.

The official liquor sponsor is Hennessey. I’m not sure if the Swiss have caught on that drinking Hennessey in the United States might have a slightly different connotation than it does in Europe. Before next year, I suggest the organizers go out to a few high-end clubs to see who is drinking what. Somehow I think Hennessey may not be making an appearance in Art Basel’s VIP lounge next year.


Much as I would love to say that Art Basel will be a key element in transforming Miami from a center of hedonism and sin to a center of culture and advanced thought, you and I both know that is never going to happen. But, like so many who come here to visit for a few days, we can pretend we are something else as the discriminating eyes of the art world all focus themselves on South Florida. Then, after craning their necks, squinting, and taking a sip of their martinis, they’ll straighten up and say “Mmmm, I’ll pass,” and make the trans-Atlantic flight back to the art world.

Related Categories: Miami: Travel News,

About the Author: Matt Meltzer is a featured columnist at Miami Beach 411.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer.

See more articles by Matt Meltzer

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2 Comments on

"Art Basel 2007: Events Rundown And Travel Tips"

Donna says:

This is a pointless and unoriginal piece of crap “article” if I ever read one. Not only are you a little late for the ironic/sardonic comment-on-Art Basel game (its been 4 years already) but you assume that every person in Miami is an uncultured hick like you. Most of those art collectors artists gallery owners who’ve been attendidng this and concurrent fairs actually enjoy the energy this city has to offer (of course, you have to be part of a more hip and sophisticated circle to understand.) I have had the privilege of attending various fair related events which offer anyone who works in the arts an incredible opportunity to network and rub shoulders with the movers and shakers of the art world, and yes they happen to be incredibly fun and can party better than any cheesy Set or Cameo bound Kendalite (or resident of Gainsville like you are) could ever dream of and yes the sex is VERY good and the people better looking. Sorry to dissapoint you but Art Basel has transformed Miami’s arts scene for the better, and will continue to do so until at least 2011 when their contract with the city expires.

Posted on 12/03/2007 at 9:55 PM

John says:

Well Matt, it looks like you forgot to mention that most of the attendees have no sense of humor (see “Donna says” above)

Posted on 12/04/2007 at 6:33 PM

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