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Art Basel Miami: Has Art Basel Lost its Cool?

Staring at the big, sparkly Tom Friedman painting, “Glitterbattle,” in the Gagosian booth, the woman in the red flowered house dress, yellow socks, and black sneakers, was inspired. So was her companion, dressed in khaki shorts, an Hawaiian shirt, and a baseball cap emblazoned with a butterfly. “If you laid down a line, filled in a little blue, and added sprinkles on it, you could do that,” he said, encouragingly.

Staring at the big, sparkly Tom Friedman painting, “Glitterbattle,” in the Gagosian booth, the woman in the red flowered house dress, yellow socks, and black sneakers, was inspired. So was her companion, dressed in khaki shorts, an Hawaiian shirt, and a baseball cap emblazoned with a butterfly.

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“If you laid down a line, filled in a little blue, and added sprinkles on it, you could do that,” he said, encouragingly.

Not far away, a brassy blonde in a babydoll-sleeved striped blouse and chignon, was instructing her charges — a group of middle-aged women, dressed for the art fair ordeal in running shoes and T-shirts — on the finer points of a Damian Hirst painting.

“I’m not sure what it means,” she said to the group that seemed skeptical of the worth of a painting that seemed to be no more than a bunch of colored dots on a white ground. “But I don’t like raw fish either, and I still want to be able to recognize sushi when I see it.”

So it went on Saturday afternoon at the Convention Center, where the massive Art Basel Miami Beach, opened its doors to an art-hungry audience.

Long gone were the true collectors, with their Netjets, fat wallets, and Botoxed trophy wives. They had descended on Wednesday night, at the Vernissage, the exclusive opening night party for invited guests (read: high rollers) only.

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By the weekend, the place was left to the mall walkers, some 43,000 strong, with their fanny packs, strollers, and tank tops.
Many trundled the aisles in packs, like bunches of Japanese tourists, led by guides with headphones who lacked only a little flag to keep their charges in line.

Which prompts the obvious question: when the Greyhound buses start pulling up at the front door, will the cool kids flee out the back?

There are early signs that the fair may have gone too wide for its own good. Organizers of some of the 20 satellite fairs reported that foot traffic was down. Parties felt more like occasions to shill liquor or condos or jewelry than exclusive soirees.

While prices were still outrageous — up 116 percent over 2002, and 20 percent just during the first half of this year, according to artnet, an online price database — dealers reported that buyers were slower off the mark this year than last.

The trophy pieces — an Andy Warhol “Mao” at the Aquavella gallery priced at $12.5M sold, and five big Eric Fischls at the Mary Boone Gallery went to an American collector for $10M — the edgier, less well-known works weren’t flying out the door. ”Last year, for us, was better than this year,” Ricardo Trevisan, owner of the Casa Triangulo gallery in Sao Paulo, Brazil, told the Miami Herald.

Art sales are traditionally a lagging indicator, trailing housing and durable goods by a substantial margin, experts say.

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Ron Warren, of New York’s Mary Boone Gallery, told the Herald that the 1987 stock market crash didn’t flatten his sales until 1989. Warren said sales at his booth were still brisk — some 40 digital prints at $30K each flew out the door at Wednesday’s preview party — but the prices have him nervous.

Still, at least some people think the show’s broad appeal is a good thing, even if the hipsters are finding it a bit too Middle America. “I feel very good about art fairs,” Richard Flood, the chief curator of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, which recently opened in New York’s hip Lower East Side, told The Art Newspaper. “The public is coming to them in larger and larger numbers and I think it’s positive that they’re being challenged by interesting works of art.”

And, no doubt, going straight home to make sparkle paintings of their own.

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About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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