In Buenos Aires, Art Basel Tests Its Ability to Mint New Cultural Capitals

Alina Cohen
Sep 12, 2018 5:40PM

Pia Camill, Gaby’s T-Shirt, 2016, as part of “Hopscotch (Rayuela),” at Art Basel Cities: Buenos Aires,  2018. Courtesy of the artist and Art Basel.

A breezy, sunny week in Buenos Aires ushered in the inaugural initiative for Art Basel Cities, one of the latest endeavors from the eponymous art fair powerhouse. Beginning on September 6th, the city staged a special public art exhibition; hosted a gallery weekend; organized artist talks and open studios; and held private events. (The official program extends through September 12th.) Working essentially as long-term consultants for Buenos Aires, Art Basel hopes to strengthen the local cultural scene and create more global awareness of the city’s cultural offerings.

At this first iteration, Art Basel Cities’s ambitions have come up against on-the-ground realities. In the time since Buenos Aires was announced as the first city to participate in Art Basel Cities, Argentina has suffered a currency crisis—the peso has rapidly declined in value over the past year, and inflation may rise to 40.3 percent by the end of 2018, according to Bloomberg. Throughout the past few months, Argentine educators and transport workers have staged major strikes to protest labor conditions.

Art Basel has not disclosed how much it’s charging Buenos Aires for its ongoing services, though a local paper reported a figure above $2 million—a large sum that, in a time of economic uncertainty, has led some locals to question this use of public funds. Ultimately, the week serves as a test case for Art Basel’s new initiative and its ambitious—if difficult-to-measure—end goals. Though the Switzerland-based company couldn’t have predicted Argentina’s severe economic downturn when it began working with Buenos Aires, local instability has proven a unique challenge.

Patrick Foret, Art Basel’s director of business initiatives, who oversees Art Basel Cities, and Enrique Avogadro, Buenos Aires’s minister of culture, both touted one unequivocal success: uniting 22 Buenos Aires institutions (including the photo festival Fototeca Latinoamericana, a gallery collective, and over 10 museums) for the first time.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (No puedes vivir sin nosotros / You Can’t Live Without Us), as part of “Hopscotch (Rayuela),” at Art Basel Cities: Buenos Aires,  2018. Courtesy of the artist and Art Basel.


In addition to promoting these cultural partners’ independent programming, Art Basel also hired star curator Cecilia Alemani to mount a public exhibition. Spread across five Buenos Aires neighborhoods, the show is entitled “Hopscotch.” It features artwork by 18 international artists—from Pia Camil to Mika Rottenberg and Barbara Kruger—at venues ranging from an old brewery to a park.  

The format of Art Basel Cities’s first major celebration, Alemani told Artsy, combines elements of a festival, a gallery weekend, a biennial, and a large exhibition. Alemani hopes that in the future, another public art organization (or the city itself) will take over her role—that Art Basel is merely the first organization to mount such an international public show in Buenos Aires. The basic model is flexible: In subsequent years and cities (should any new locales sign on), Art Basel can change its programming to meet community needs.

With her choice of exhibition title, Alemani looked to the country’s cultural past. The novel Rayuela (Hopscotch), published in 1963 by famed Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, is famous for its experimental structure: The chapters are out of order. The reader chooses whether or not to follow a “Table of Instructions” at the book’s beginning, which offers a more-or-less linear narrative (via “hopscotching” back and forth through the pages). Yet it’s not just the structure that jumps—the story follows the lives of expats as they hop between Europe and their native Argentina, reconsidering home and identity on different sides of the Atlantic.

Indeed, much of Art Basel Cities’s affiliated programming emphasizes connections between regional practices and the wider world. A special exhibition at the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art (MAMBA), entitled “A Tale of Two Worlds,” explicitly links European and South American art history. MUNTREF Contemporary Art Centre is showing “Odyssey—a graphic fantasy” by Argentine artist Eduardo Stupía, which reimagines the epic Greek poem from a national perspective. One “Hopscotch” artist, David Horvitz, referenced Marcel Duchamp (who lived in Argentina from 1918 to 1919). During his performance Signaling the Sky (2018), visitors flew 200 helium balloons on mile-long strings: an ode to a work Duchamp conceived in the city, entitled Unhappy Readymade (1919), which comprised a geometry book hanging from a string. Another “Hopscotch” artist, Italian prankster Maurizio Cattelan, worked with Buenos Aires artists to create unusual, decorative tombstones for living personalities, including RuPaul, Marina Abramović, and Cattelan himself.

David Horvitz, Señalamiento del cielo (Signaling the Sky), as part of “Hopscotch (Rayuela),” at Art Basel Cities: Buenos Aires,  2018. Courtesy of Art Basel.

One Argentine artist, Nicola Costantino, opted to appropriate European art for her own separate project at the Centro Cultural Kirchner. She created an elaborate food installation inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (ca. 1490–1500). Assistants dressed like pigs with rubber chicken snouts glazed cakes in situ. A “garden” comprised of 3D-printed resin flowers held colorful, layered cocktails.

Towards the end of the evening, a British UBS employee (now based in Toronto) enjoyed a slice of colorfully glazed passionfruit cake. UBS is the lead Art Basel sponsor and the global lead partner of Art Basel Cities (Artsy has a business relationship with the bank, as well), and the employee had traveled to Buenos Aires to assess the Cities program and determine whether it might work for Toronto. Yet Foret (Art Basel’s director of business initiatives, who oversees Art Basel Cities) was cagey about which cities, exactly, are interested in adopting the program. “I wouldn’t want to mention one because it’s not fair to them,” he told me (though he offered that there’s significant interest from a number of cities). “We work in partnership with government, and I cannot communicate unilaterally on my side.”

If so many cities have expressed interest, why work with Buenos Aires first? “Argentina has been isolated from the world for a very long time,” Foret said. He believes that the city has a strong presence in people’s imaginations—passion, culture, tango—which will, with a little nudging from his organization, offset any barriers (like long flight times from New York, Los Angeles, and Europe). Many of the international collectors in town for Art Basel Cities were visiting the city for the first time.

This is one of the more concrete measures of success for Art Basel, whose goals with Art Basel Cities have remained relatively high-level and non-specific so far. “It’s a long-term engagement,” Foret told Artsy. “There’s no short-term expectation.”

Maurizio Cattelan, Eternity, as part of “Hopscotch (Rayuela),” at Art Basel Cities: Buenos Aires,  2018. Courtesy of Art Basel.

In addition to this September week of programming, Art Basel has planned smaller events for the city. Last November (when it announced the engagement with Buenos Aires), Art Basel held a series of conversations, courses, and performances held throughout a building in the Retiro neighborhood, just off Plaza General San Martin. At December’s Art Basel Miami Beach, the Buenos Aires government received a special space in the collectors’ lounge, and Argentine art world personalities participated in a panel conversation.

Foret said that the overall program aims to build opportunities and relationships for the Buenos Aires art scene—which are difficult to quantify. He suggests that Art Basel Cities might gauge progress in new opportunities for local artists and curators, or international engagements for local nonprofits, which would be realized thanks to the Art Basel network. Other metrics include press coverage and the number of meetings established for key stakeholders.

According to Avogadro, the city’s minister of culture, many of the international visitors for Art Basel Cities (mostly collectors and curators) were seeing Buenos Aires for the first time. “That’s a huge opportunity for us in terms of first impressions,” he said. “It’s a sexy city.” He compares Buenos Aires to Berlin, touting the former’s “lively, independent cultural scene.” (Additionally, major art world figures including Jorge Peres, Marc-Olivier Wahler, Massimilliano Gioni, and Pablo Leon de la Barra were all in town for the events.)

But the goal goes beyond inviting new faces to experience the capital; through Art Basel Cities, Avogadro also aims to connect the people of Buenos Aires to art in the public realm. He hopes that the opportunities galvanize the local community to interact with more galleries and artists.

Installation view of Alex Da Corte, Kermit the Frog, Even, as part of “Hopscotch (Rayuela),” at Art Basel Cities: Buenos Aires,  2018. Courtesy of Art Basel.

Avogadro added that there will be efforts to quantify the initiative’s impact on the city, beyond anecdotal evidence. Through Art Basel Cities, Buenos Aires is working with Ernst and Young to build proper measurements for tracking success: quantifying resulting sales and business, as well as developing awareness abroad. Art Basel Miami Beach already creates about half a billion dollars in economic activity for the South Florida city—the organization’s greatest extant statistic, perhaps, touting its ability to stimulate growth.

“Last year, we had a huge impact abroad, in terms of the press coverage,” Avogadro said. “Big media companies who would normally charge you a lot for an advertisement were thoroughly covering the program.” According to him, choosing a foreigner—Alemani—to curate “Hopscotch” helps build a bridge between the Argentine ecosystem and the world ecosystem. “We like the idea of our artists, Argentinian artists, working hand in hand with an international curator,” he said. “It’s also a way of learning and being in touch with how these things are run in other countries and cities.” Next April, Art Basel will also run a week of programming during arteBA (the local art fair).

The participating Argentine artists received more than a chance to work with Alemani: To execute their projects, they also received an undisclosed amount of funding. Local “Hopscotch” artist Mariela Scafati (who’s also part of a collective called Contra Pantone, which aims to give color a “new poetic militancy”) believes that what the city really needs is better labor conditions. Yet she isn’t opposed to Art Basel Cities’s work—its financial support has allowed her to make new work.

But Aníbal Jozami, a local collector and the rector of Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero (UNTREF), suggests that “public money should be distributed in public-social-cultural programs, giving priority to the independent organizations that were part of different neighborhoods.” There’s already an impressive appetite for art and culture in Buenos Aires, he told me during an empanada lunch at the MUNTREF Contemporary Art Centre. He noted that a major Pablo Picasso exhibition at UNTREF, located on the city’s outskirts, attracted 90,000 people in three months. Bring great exhibitions, he believes, and locals will come.

Luciana Lamothe, Starting Zone, as part of “Hopscotch (Rayuela),” at Art Basel Cities: Buenos Aires,  2018. Courtesy of Art Basel.

At lunch in a grand, chicly decaying event venue—big windows overlooking Plaza Alemania; peeling paint—Atocha Gallery’s Francisco Aquino told me he’d prefer that Art Basel Cities “take care more of the locals than the foreigners.” Overall, he would have rather seen the program work with more local artists and create more durable artwork (that wouldn’t come down after just a week). Yet on the Tuesday following Gallery Weekend, he offered a more positive assessment. “I think it was more useful than an art fair,” he wrote to me. “It’s like receiving people at home. You can be more relaxed, comfortable.” Collectors, he found, were less distracted. Aquino added that he did, indeed, make a couple of sales.

Agustina Tarushio, of Walden Gallery, offered a more positive assessment of Art Basel Cities. In her gallery (old 1900s home; stained glass; walls made from adobe), she told me that the week had brought a significant number of visitors—“People nonstop, it’s very weird,” she said. “We’re closing deals today for people leaving tonight or tomorrow.”

On Sunday, Guillermo Mirochnic, an architect for artist Luciana Lamothe’s “Hopscotch” project (a rickety tower that brave viewers could climb), visited American artist Alex Da Corte’s own “Hopscotch” installation with his son. In an old studio in the working class La Boca neighborhood, Da Corte had installed a giant floating approximation of Kermit the Frog, with its head sagging.

Mirochnic’s son smiled at the amphibious green balloon—the father, not so much. His friends call Art Basel “Crack Basel”—not-so-subtly suggesting that the organization is akin to importing a drug to the city. There was a distance, he thought, between Da Corte’s brand of work and what was actually going on in Argentina. “We are in the middle of a crisis,” he said. “We’re not being touched by this. The space is not being touched by this. Are we thinking about what is happening? Or are we in the middle of a parade with a deflated head?”

Alina Cohen