Art, wealth and celebrity converge on Art Basel in Miami Beach

The premier art fair, Art Basel, opened its 13th edition in Miami Beach on Wednesday, Dec 3, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: HUANG LIJIE
The premier art fair, Art Basel, opened its 13th edition in Miami Beach on Wednesday, Dec 3, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: HUANG LIJIE
Street artist Shepard Fairey (lower left in gray shirt) puts the finishing touches on his mural in the Wynwood section of Miami on Dec 3, 2014, during a satellite event to the annual Art Basel Miami Beach extravaganza. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Street artist Shepard Fairey (lower left in gray shirt) puts the finishing touches on his mural in the Wynwood section of Miami on Dec 3, 2014, during a satellite event to the annual Art Basel Miami Beach extravaganza. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

The rich, famous and fabulous swarmed the palm tree-dotted Art Deco city, synonymous with fun and sun, as the premier art fair Art Basel opened its 13th edition in Miami Beach on Wednesday.

The international art fair which began in Basel, Switzerland in 1970, also has an annual edition in Hong Kong.

At the Miami Beach Convention Center, where the fair runs until Sunday, the mood during the first two preview days was flushed.

Art, wealth and celebrity - stars spotted included actor Leonardo DiCaprio and fashion designer Vera Wang - commingled and the buying was fast and furious.

Millions of dollars of art sold on the first day alone as 267 leading international galleries from 31 countries offered works ranging from Modern to contemporary art.

The sculpture Miss Remember Ford (1964) by American artist John Chamberlain and a drawing, Rubbing/Loving Project: Metal Jacket (2014) by Korean artist Do Ho Suh, were among pieces that were snapped up on the first day. The sculpture, sold by New York's Mnuchin Gallery, was priced at US$3 million (S$3.93 million) while Suh's piece was sold for more than US$100,000 by Lehmann Maupin, which has galleries in New York and Hong Kong.

The bullish buying follows last month's historic art auction results; international auction house Christie's netted the highest-ever total auction sales, US$852.9 million, at its contemporary art sale in New York.

This appetite for art similarly spurred fair sales for Singapore's STPI, the only home-grown participant at Art Basel in Miami Beach. The art centre, which brought works by Singapore artist Suzann Victor and Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, sold five of the 10 works it presented at the booth on the first day.

The pieces, including four thread drawings by Korean artist Suh, each sold for five-figure sums to American collectors who were new to STPI.

Its director, Ms Emi Eu, 45, said the centre began taking part in the fair last year (2013) because "America is one of the largest art markets and we wanted to make sure that people here know what we do".

She added: "Art Basel in Miami Beach may have a reputation for its parties but there are serious buyers and collectors here."

Gallerist Lorenz Helbling, 56, of ShanghART gallery in China and Singapore, which was also showing at the fair, echoed Ms Eu's sentiment.

He said that although its works by Chinese artists such as Xu Zhen and Sun Xun are not "the typical Miami 'happy-happy' art candy" type, visitors at the preview paid close attention to the art.

But it is not difficult for Art Basel's VIP fair-goers to be distracted.

No fewer than 22 parallel art fairs, including three new ones this year, are trying to woo the affluent art collecting crowd in town for Art Basel. By-invite-only luxury goods launches and exclusive museum openings have also been held on the side to coincide with Art Basel.

But for American collector Howard Tam, 48, this intense art experience is a plus.

Mr Tam, a product development and commercialisation executive based in Minnesota who started collecting art when he worked in Singapore in 2001, said: "Art Basel in Miami Beach is an intense time to see a lot of art. I plan to go to one ancillary fair each day and also visit the private collection museums."

The hive of activity surrounding the fair is not a bane either for Art Basel director Marc Spiegler.

Mr Spiegler, 46, told The Straits Times: "Miami is a big enough place that these things can happen in parallel to our show and not hurt us. Our activities are strongly focused on bringing things that appeal to the core of the art world, the curatorial and cultural side that other people are not bringing."

Its programme includes more than 20 talks featuring influential figures such as performance artist Marina Abramovic and sculptor and visual artist Lynda Benglis, as well as major presentations of works such as a sold-out immersive performance piece by acclaimed American artist Ryan McNamara and an outdoor display of 26 large-scale and site-specific installations in a public park.

It is this energy and vibe that drew Mr Lin Han, 27, founder of the private museum M Woods in Beijing, to fly to Art Basel in Miami Beach for the first time this year.

He said: "The fair is a great opportunity to experience the energy of the art and cultural scene in America."

lijie@sph.com.sg