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Art Basel Miami Beach's co-director, Mark Steigler, views the increasingly well-regarded even as a "cultural highlight of the Americas".
Art Basel Miami Beach's co-director, Mark Steigler, views the increasingly well-regarded even as a 'cultural highlight of the Americas'.

A brush with Basel

The prestigious Swiss art fair's Miami Beach offshoot is an exercise in both style and substance.

Over the past few days Miami Beach has felt even more vibrant than usual. Art Basel Miami Beach, an offshoot of the famous Swiss art fair, attracts the world's biggest collectors and galleries. The art world congregates here for four days of art, parties and deals and the city pulsates to Latin rhythms. For the fair's co-director, Mark Steigler, the event is a "cultural highlight of the Americas".

This year, 267 galleries have exhibited the work of over 2,000 artists. Held in Miami Beach's Convention Centre - a surprisingly lacklustre building resembling a vast call centre - the event features both established and emerging talents. Set against a backdrop of expansive ocean and palm trees, it is an attractive prospect for potential buyers. Unfortunately, I spend the first 30 minutes of preview day trying to locate the entrance. Countless guests and journalists wander around aimlessly, eyes fixed on the show map. Our confusion stems from the fair's new layout. This year, Art Basel Miami Beach was bigger - up from 35,86 square metres to 46,716 square metres, accommodating more galleries, allowing for wider aisles and facilitating the relocation of some of the sectors traditionally housed outdoors.

The Art Positions section, focused on special projects by young artists and galleries, was moved to the centre of the inside space. For some, the spatial "improvements" were a navigational hindrance. "I've been coming to Miami for years, but I'm struggling to find my way around. We're all creatures of habit at heart," said the collector Max Cohen. However, Steigler remained insistent. "The art world loves change," he said.

Art Galleries, the main section of the show, again featured the Art Kabinett programme of curated presentations in the selected gallery's booth, while Art Nova presented new works by more than 130 artists. Meanwhile, the Oceanfront area, created by the Los Angeles artist Pae White, hosted a daily programme including the Art Basel Conversations, Art Perform, Art Video and Art Film. The exhibition area is packed with the world's most influential galleries. One central aisle boasted the formidable Deitch, Zwirner, Marian Goodman, Marks, Lisson, Miro, Gladstone and Luhring Augustine. Jay Jopling was on hand to man the huge White Cube booth, which exhibited work by artists including Gilbert & George, Raqib Shaw, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. Significantly, the critical panning that Hirst received recently in the UK following the opening of his Wallace Collection show didn't appear to have damaged his popularity in the US. At a dinner given by the Mugrabi family, a Hirst butterfly painting marked the entrance to the party.

Elsewhere, Italy's Prometeogallery installed a group show on social investigation and historical transformation, including a film by Rossella Biscotti, a sculpture by Regina Jose Galindo and a powerful photographic series by Santiago Sierra, who illustrates the passing of time through a documentation of Gypsies' teeth. At Russia's XL Gallery stand, it was refreshing to see that art hasn't lost its sense of humour. Aristarkh Chernyshev and Alexei Shulgin presented wowPod, an interactive media sculpture of a large-scale, distorted iPod.

Dubai's Third Line Gallery chose to spotlight the works of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. The Tehran-based artists' works use the traditional craft of hand-cut mirror applied to plaster on wood and focus on geometric forms. "She is the Louise Bourgeois of Iran," says the fair's co-director, Sunny Rahbar. "She wasn't discovered until later in life and that's when her career took off. We chose her because we wanted to bring her work to a different audience. The works are also quite Miami, quite bling.

"These art fairs are the best platform to get these artworks to a global audience. The curiosity for Middle Eastern art is greater than it was, but real progress takes time. Some of our artists have crossed over to the international mainstream, but it can be difficult. We've had a good response this year. Our work has been welcomed. People are appreciating it and learning more about it, which is key."

Other emerging markets also enjoyed success at the fair. Notable at this year's event was the increased presence of Latin American art and collectors, identified by Steigler as being central to the continuing growth of the fair and its surrounding events. This year, 19 galleries hailing from Latin America were represented, while the programme also included special projects by artists such as Jorge Mayet, as well as a talk focusing on the Latin American collector scene.

"What is particular about the greater Miami area is that it is a gateway between North America and Latin America," Steigler said. "Even before the show started the decision to put it here was based upon this notion that we were going to connect the strongest art scene in the world with one of the most vibrant emerging scenes." With so many of the collectors and potential collectors having second homes or businesses in Miami, the location is one of the fair's biggest selling points. In addition to being accessible from the West Coast and from Europe, the city's weather is a big draw. "The combination of the connections, the fantastic art deco architecture that surrounds us here, the access to the waterfront and the sunlight have been strong success factors for us," Steigler added.

The experience of being at Art Basel Miami is somewhat surreal. Before the fair even opens, the drama begins. In a scene reminiscent of Miami Vice, US marshals rushed into the Convention Center and seized four paintings from the Galerie Gmurzynska stand with an estimated value of more than $6 million (Dh22.2m) over an insurance dispute between two dealers. Elsewhere, the model Naomi Campbell and the designer Calvin Klein mingled with the collectors Eli Broad and Susan and Michael Hort. At the VIP preview, Sylvester Stallone spoke to visitors about his recent abstract paintings while Princess Michael of Kent - a recently hired consultant to the Gmurzynska gallery - listened in. Seeing an emerging artist accompanied by a bodyguard was a source of much amusement, but collectors took Stallone's work seriously and by closing on preview day, three of his canvases had been sold.

Behind the considerable glitz and glamour, however, lay serious concerns. In the wake of the global financial crisis, American buyers have been particularly cautious in their spending habits. Art Basel Miami Beach is not just a geographical and cultural gateway, but an influential event staged between international art fairs and an important indicator of market trends. At last year's fair, organisers saw a drop in attendees and sales. A quarter of the 250 galleries that participated last year didn't return this year, largely due to market vulnerability. However, they were replaced by more established galleries.

Initial feedback on this year's event has been positive. Collectors are taking advantage of the changing conditions by making more considered purchases and asking for discounts and free shipping. The Las Vegas art collector and casino mogul Steve Wynn purchased a 2007 James Rosenquist from Acquavella for just under $1m (Dh3.7m) shortly after arriving. The frantic buying of three years ago is over, but dealers recorded significant pre-sale interest and reserves.

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