By Debra Spark
“Being part of Basel Art Fair is like having a chance encounter with a man-eating tiger; you can admire its beauty from the safety of a high branch, or you can put your head into its mouth and feel the dangerous heat. I like to do both.”
— LUBAINA HIMID
“If you are interested in collecting contemporary art on any level, you have to visit Basel,” Mary Sabbatino says, the vice president and partner of Manhattan’s prestigious Galerie Lelong & Co. She’s not talking about the city, but Art Basel, the shorthand term for three art fairs: Art Basel (Basel), Art Basel (Hong Kong) and Art Basel (Miami Beach). The nomenclature (with its parenthetical redundancy or contradiction) doesn’t make much sense without a little history. In 1970, three years after they’d attended a Cologne art fair, gallerists Trudi Bruckner, Balz Hilt and Ernst Beyeler decided to create an international fair in their home city of Basel. In the half century since, Art Basel has become a brand with a sweep extending to additional annual fairs as well as ancillary programming in partner cities and (in conjunction with the Swiss multinational investment bank UBS) a major annual economic report assessing the art market.
Hong Kong and Miami Beach might be important to the art market. The same could be said for other fairs like New York’s Armory Show and London’s and New York’s Frieze. But Art Basel (Basel), typically held for a week in mid-June, is still “it”—the big cheese, the Queen Bee, the most esteemed venue for selling modern and contemporary art. A gallery or dealer with a booth at Art Basel has arrived…