Art Basel Miami’s Most Important Exhibition Isn’t What You’d ThinkArticle by: Amanda McHugh|@amandakmchugh
Thu December 01, 2016 | 10:30 AM
Between the US election having happened recently, Native Americans fighting for their basic rights in North Dakota, and this year's epic Brexit vote, it seems as though we are more divided than ever. Enter Art Basel Miami, a four-day arts and culture festival featuring works from 29 countries with over 100 participating galleries, drawing around 70,000 participants from all over the globe each year. Although it’s 2016 and the world terrain is unpredictable, this year is no different for Art Basel Miami. Here, art prevails and not only incorporates but celebrates diversity in medium, culture and message.
A festival's power to bring people together is undeniable. Take the World’s Fair, for example: It began in 1851 in the UK, and Prince Albert declared it the “The Great Exhibition of the Worlds of Industry in All Nations.” Since its inception, the World’s Fair has done more than simply connect nations through its exhibitions of technological inventions and industrialization. It has helped drive society forward with the introduction of art and design education, international trade, tourism and cultural exchange on a massive scale. While the World’s Fair made its name bringing cultures together through showcasing technology, Art Basel is the first of its kind on this massive scale to do the same, only with international art.
Starting in 1970 in Basel, a city on the triangular border of Switzerland, Germany and France, the “World’s Fair” of art was started by three passionate and driven gallerists, and has since expanded to Miami and Hong Kong. The festival has grown from 16,000 visitors and art representing ten countries in its first year, to Basel's most recent exhibition in June showcasing works from roughly 33 countries with over 90,000 in attendance. In the 29 countries represented in this week’s Miami edition, there will be a number of galleries for the first time. To name a few, according to Noah Horowitz, Art Basel director for the Americas, we can expect to see works from Mexico’s Gaga Fine Arts, China’s Leo Xu Projects, Belgium’s Galerie Greta Meert, Italy’s Galleria d’Arte Maggiore G.A.M., New York’s Di Donna and Calicoon Fine Arts and California’s own Marc Selwyn Fine Art and Various Small Fires.
The festival itself, divided up into eight sectors, curates a range of art that often juxtaposes itself. When exhibiting art from all over the world it’s natural that, from piece to piece, one would find differing techniques, mediums and messages. Instead of dividing these such disparate pieces into categories, however, the sectors intentionally bring differing pieces together.
Sectors known to present the most diversity are Nova, Kabinett and Survey. Nova features works that have never been seen before, created within the last three years at 35 younger galleries. Survey features solo presentations and thematic exhibits representing a range of cultures, generations and artistic approaches. Kabinett galleries get to choose which artists to present, which enlarges the art ecosystem showcased at Art Basel even further. It's as if Art Basel has intentionally set up these guidelines to give attendees varying points of view in order to get us outside our cultural comfort zones, think more deeply about the world around us and all the different points of view in it.
Pushing the festival's international agenda even further are its more twenty satellite fairs and countless parties from all over the globe that pop up in the city. These satellite fairs and parties not only bring diversity in medium and representation, but also offer more free opportunities for the public to explore, in addition to the “Public” sector offered by Art Basel Miami itself. Most of the satellite fairs offer contemporary works from emerging artists from all over the world and also pop up in places like NYC, Germany, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and all over California. Pinta Miami offers works from every continent with a special focus on galleries from Latin America, Spain and Portugal; Art Africa Miami, in its 2016 theme “Afrotopia,” looks to a future without segregation and colonialism. Both are free. Conception Art Fair is the first art fair at Art Basel to be owned and produced exclusively by women. To further accessibility, Superfine was specifically created to offer lower costs to both exhibitors and attendees alike, making bringing artwork home tangible.
With art on the walls, on the beach and in the streets, it makes you think about the cornucopia offered by the world at large in terms of perspective, experience and culture. But where is "festival" part of the equation comes in is the celebration of it all. There’s no shortage there, as parties featuring every music genre, usually featuring some kind of visual or performance art as well, pop up all over the Miami Beach area. For deep house, check out All Day I Dream; for dirty bass, there’s Dirtybird BBQ; for GHouse, check out GHouseClique coming in from NYC (it’s free!); and be sure to keep an eye out for the Hobo RoadShow, an interactive “traveling rogue medicine show” installation on wheels. For fans of live music, III Points will return fresh from their October fest with a full lineup on Thursday and Saturday (Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, Nick Murphy, Young Thug and more), Kendrick Lamar will perform at the Faena Art Dome (accessible to American Express card members only) and the free, city-block-long Traffic Jam CARnival created by Steve Parker, featuring TailGate Trivia, mixed-ability dance performance and a live musical score created from and recycled parts of wheelchairs.
To top it all off, Art Basel Miami is held in an area of the states that is culturally very diverse. While Basel has a major focus on European influences and Hong Kong has Asia, Miami truly covers the vast diversity found in the Americas. The 2010 U.S. Census reports that 34.4% of Miami's population is of Cuban origin, 15.8% shared a Central American background, 8.7% of the population was of South American descent and those with African ancestry accounted for 19.2% (which includes African American, Afro-Caribbean American, Haitian and Jamaican). This brings a decidedly unique flavor to not only Art Basel Miami's attendee base, but overall vibe and presentation.
By the same token, what’s so eye-opening about the Art Basel experience is the fact that you will without a doubt meet someone who is not from where you are from. There are 6,500 spoken languages, 195 countries, roughly 4,200 belief systems in this world, and from all of this, countless points-of-view, value systems, modes of expression and, above all, different perspectives on what is right and what is wrong. But we all feel, for the most part, that we want to live and not perish; we all drown in loneliness and thrive in love. We all have the same basic human needs.
So how do we remember these basic human conditions when the division between us feels more palpable than ever? Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt responded to the divide deepened by the recent presidential election by declaring, “We need a new type of empathy.” Standing there staring at a painting, climbing on top of a sculpture, dancing to a DJ’s set, all provide us with experiences that can start conversations with strangers, whether it's literally talking about a piece's meaning, hoisting a stranger onto a piece for you to both see from the same literal point of view, or seeing that beats are felt the same way in all languages and cultures. Here, in the midst of so much division across our planet we have the opportunity to connect with people from all over the globe through conversations held in the language of art, at Art Basel Miami.