Art Basel’s Director Marc Spiegler on Art Fairs and Why They’re Not “A Flea Market on Steroids”

Marc Spiegler has a big job. As the Director of Art Basel, his reach now spans three continents —Europe (Basel), North America (Miami), and now Asia, having opened the inaugural Art Basel in Hong Kong last month. Spiegler’s very composed demeanor might suggest that his job overseeing the global development and organization of the art world’s three largest and most prestigious fairs is a breeze, but in fact we learn that it’s a challenging feat. Spiegler speaks with Artsy’s editorial director Marina Cashdan about the rewards and the challenges that go into making a fair like Art Basel in Basel—opening tomorrow—run smoothly, about Art Basel’s successful debut in Asia, and why this edition of Art Basel in Basel sets itself apart from previous years. (Let’s just say that this year, it’s not just about visual art.)

Marina Cashdan: This has been an exciting year so far for Art Basel, particularly with the launch of last month’s Art Basel in Hong Kong. Did the fair exceed your expectations?

Marc Spiegler: Absolutely. None of the things that we feared came to pass, and many of the things we hoped for did. One of the major challenges was the architecture—the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre is an amazing facility, in terms of its location and its sight lines onto Victoria Harbor, but the show takes place on two floors, which are separated by two escalators, so it's complicated. It's also two very long halls, but we made it work by injecting these four sculpture plazas—two on each floor—into the halls.

We were also able to successfully intermix the Eastern and Western galleries. There was a concern before that the Asian galleries would be marginalized, and that was not the case at all.

Sales are also an important part of the equation. We were very happy to see that every different type of gallery could succeed, blue-chip Western galleries succeeded and young Asian and Western galleries succeeded, and historical Asian art succeeded. There's never been a fair where every single gallery has sold out, but I think it's good to see that the fair can work for every different type of gallery that's present. What was also great to see was the number of younger collectors—between 25 and 45 [years old]—who came from the West, especially from Europe. I think for them Asia is an exciting place, Asia is part of their future, and Art Basel in Asia is such an intriguing combination that they had to see it with their own eyes.

MC: How has your experience of organizing shows in Basel for over 40 years and in Miami Beach for over ten years come to play in Hong Kong?

MS: One of the great things about doing three fairs per year is that you can learn from your mistakes and your experiences. In Miami we had gone up to about 275 galleries, and then we shrunk the number of galleries. When you reduce the number of galleries the effect is of course that you have bigger booths. But when galleries have bigger booths, many don't hang more art; they hang art more elegantly. So this is a case where our past experience came to play in Hong Kong. On the other hand, every context is different,every city is different, every building is different; you have to play the hand you're dealt.

MC: Art Basel now spans three continents. Though the sites—Basel, Miami and Hong Kong—are all very different culturally and geographically, how do you feel the Art Basel spirit carries across all of them?

MS: The rigor of the selection and the way in which the selection committee works is something that's the same across all three shows. Likewise, I think the high quality of promotion for the galleries in the run-up to the shows is very important. Although the buildings are different and the conditions are different, we hold ourselves to the same standards of quality of design.

MC: That’s a good segue to my next question. You have used the word “platform” to describe both Art Basel as an organization and also certain aspects of the fair. I wondered if you could expand on this?

MS: The word “platform” is very similar to “stage”. Our job is to make sure that the platform we've offered [the galleries] is the best one possible. That means making sure that great collectors and great museum directors are there. It means the simple things like the fact that the walls are straight, the lights are on, the work is there, and all they have to do is open up the crates and install when they arrive. But while we set the stage, at show time, it’s the job of the galleries—and the artists—to produce great work, to produce great exhibitions, to make connections with collectors and museum patrons.

We are not like a flea market on steroids; we don’t just rent square meters. It's really about the fair working very closely with the exhibitors to make sure that the booths look as great as possible. It's also about creating [a program of] talks and panels and performances—an art experience that lasts for an entire week.

MC: The art market seems to be very much on the up again—notably marked by the record-breaking Christie’s contemporary sale in May—coming back fairly strong after the 2009 financial crisis and the years that followed. How has this influenced your business? Have you seen an increase in applications? And have you seen new collectors in demand of high-quality works enter the market?

MS: This is part of the more general expansion of the art market that has been taking place for the last ten years at different rates. The fact is that there have been more and more people who have the means to collect and who feel that the contemporary art world is an interesting place to be and can enrich their lives.

It’s important to note that the auction market is a different market than ours—it’s very much focused on a couple of dozen artists. That's where the real heat of the auction market is. An art fair is a much broader equation. There are a lot of artists who don't sell at all in the context of an auction but who are critically important to our galleries [at the fairs].

The expansion of galleries is also very interesting; most successful galleries are either expanding into new cities or expanding into new spaces, or both. Art Basel was founded by galleries, it's selected by galleries, and obviously the core of our efforts is around making galleries successful. So the stronger the galleries are, the stronger we are.

MC: This week, Art Basel in Basel launches its 44th edition. Can you tell us a bit about this year’s edition and how it reflects on the breadth and depth of the art world as a whole?

MS: When the Unlimited sector started it was dominated by established artists, because they were the ones who had the means and the self-confidence to create large-scale works, and because galleries were willing to fund such large-scale works. But this has changed a lot. For instance, the number of really young artists—people like Oscar Murillo, Amalia Pica or Esther Kläs—who are in Unlimited has grown. In the same way, the fact that we have for the first time ever, a gallery from Singapore and a gallery from the Philippines, or new galleries coming from India, Korea, and mainland China, reflects the fact that these scenes are playing more at an international level.

Likewise, many collectors and museum representatives that have never come to Art Basel before decided to come to Art Basel in Basel for the first time, after hearing a lot about Art Basel in Hong Kong and because they went to the Venice Biennale. That opens up a whole new set of possibilities for our exhibitors their artists and for their programs. So in that way it reflects the breadth of the art world.

MC: Are there aspects of this 44th edition that will be entirely new, even to regulars of Art Basel in Basel?

MS: Hall 1, where you have Unlimited and Statements and a series of Conversations, is a completely new part of the equation because of the completion of the Herzog & de Meuron building. In Hall 2 [designed in the 1950s by Swiss architect Hans Hofmann] you have the same architecture and same floor plan. However, a couple of major galleries who have done the show for decades are not doing fairs anymore—at all—which creates a domino effect that has changed the positions of about 40 galleries. So a lot of galleries doing the show for a long time are in totally different places and have much bigger booths. And if you're in a 60 square-meter booth, there are certain artists you just can't bring but if you have 100 square meters, you can do a lot more. This will be a very interesting experience for those people who know Art Basel. There will be a lot of double takes.

MC: What are you personally most looking forward to seeing? Is there an event or an aspect of the fair that you are excited about?

MS: One of the really interesting dimensions is the new Hall 1 by Herzog & de Meuron. Another interesting development is that the Parcours program is in the Klingental neighborhood for the first time. In the past, it was always in neighborhoods that were quite historic, but also quite elegant. And the Klingental neighborhood has many more new buildings and it's at the edge of the red light district, so it has a totally different kind of energy to it. It will be interesting to see how that energy plays off the contemporary art that's been woven into these neighborhoods. The evening performances on the opening night of Parcours will also be exciting. On the one hand, you will have the French band Kafka playing as the live track, to the film The Architect by the artist Mark Bauer. And the participation of LA Dance Project—with Benjamin Millepied as the choreographer, Christopher Wool set design, and the Rauschenberg costumes—will be really interesting. It could have as easily taken place in the context of a dance program, but it’s taking place in the context of an art fair. These are going to be really exciting for people in the art world, because it's something they haven't seen before.

MC: You obviously spend quite a bit of time in Basel. For people who are visiting for the first time, are there a couple of things you can't leave without seeing?

MS: Well, Basel has three truly remarkable institutions: The Fondation Beyeler, the Schaulager, and the Kunstmuseum, which is the oldest museum in the world. So if this is your first time in Basel, you have to see those three. And they all have fantastic exhibitions: the Kunstmuseum has the Picasso show, sourced entirely from a local collections, which demonstrates the breadth of Basel's collecting history. The Beyeler has Max Ernst and Maurizio Cattelan, which is a pretty typically unexpected kind of combination for the Beyeler. And then the Schaulager has an amazing Steve McQueen show with ten hours of film.

And you have to spend a few evenings in the Kunsthalle beer garden. It’s an amazing cross-section of the art world: you have young artists, and you have mega-collectors, and it feels like a super-exclusive party. But the great thing is that it’s not exclusive at all; anybody can go. It just happens to be where, for decades, the art world has assembled on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday nights during the Basel show.

Another great place to go is the Absolut Art Bureau’s large-scale art bar installation by Mickalene Thomas in the Volkshaus in Basel.

And last but not least, for those who are really brave of heart and strong of body, it is swimming season in the Rhine, and I strongly believe that a swim in the Rhine in the beginning of the day will make everything go better.

Additional images: François Curlet, Speed Limit, 2013, Air de Paris, courtesy of the gallery and the artist; Sean Landers, Moby Dick (Merrilees), 2013, Friedrich Petzel Gallery, courtesy of the gallery and the artist; Amalia Pica, Strangers, 2008/2011, Herald St, courtesy Herald ST, London and Marc Foxx, Los Angeles; Portrait of Marc Spiegler, Director © Art Basel 2012.

View Art Basel on Artsy.