Special Briefing: This Week, Switzerland Is the Center of the Art World

The city of Basel, Switzerland

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Why you should care

Art Basel has spread out across the globe, but Switzerland is where it was born.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

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Visitors are seen at the entrance of Art Basel the world’s premier modern and contemporary art fair

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What’s happening? Art Basel is the world’s biggest art fair, a multicity operation that has celebrated outposts in Miami and Hong Kong. Its home base, of course, is Switzerland, and the city of Basel has seen its name become synonymous with the art fair since the event kicked off 49 years ago. Last year, the Swiss edition of Art Basel brought in 92,000 visitors. This year, the fair is expected to welcome 290 official exhibitors from June 13-16, along with a universe of satellite exhibits, art-world heavy hitters, cultured gawkers and art buyers.

Why does it matter? This is where the art world’s big money comes out to play. Last year, self-reported figures from galleries put the number of artworks that sold during the event for upwards of $1 million at 21 — with three selling for $14 million or more. Fairs like this turn a small city into a giant superstore of modern and contemporary art, and the number of art fairs since Basel was founded has ballooned, though none has eclipsed Basel in prestige or fancy parties.  

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

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Laure Prouvost is representing France at this year’s Venice Biennale.

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The thrill of the chase. Galleries don’t normally have the adrenaline advantage over auctions, where bidding can reach a fever pitch. But at Basel they do, which may be why 46 percent of gallery sales in 2018 were made at art fairs. This year, Basel is expected to highlight French artist Laure Prouvost (pictured), who’s also representing France at the 2019 Venice Biennale, and the work of Turner Prize nominee Lawrence Abu Hamdan.

Insta-worthy. One part of the Basel exhibition that’s ripe for social media snappers is “Unlimited,” which features large installations. This year, unsurprisingly, many are political in nature: Rivane Neuenschwander’s Bataille consists of slogans and mottos taken from French protest placards and embroidered onto labels, which visitors can freely remix on a giant pinboard (or take away pinned to their own clothes). There’s also Alicia Framis’ LifeDress, a collection of outfits designed from airbag material meant to make a statement about how women are expected to protect themselves from harassment in daily life.

Outside the gates. Art Basel is enormous, drawing nearly half as many visitors as the town’s 178,000 residents. But it isn’t the only game in town. In fact, the Liste Art Fair — which charges a premium to show artists over the age of 40 in a bid to make sure the younger generation is well-represented — takes place in the same town in the same week. While those who exhibit there won’t be as high-profile as those in Art Basel, it’s a good chance for collectors to see who might be up-and-coming.   

WHAT TO READ

The #MeToo Movement Will Headline Art Basel Unlimited This Year, by Eileen Kinsella in Artnet

“Each strip of paper contains the name and profession of an individual accused of misconduct, followed by their apologies (or non-apologies, as the case may be), an up-to-date summary of the allegations they face, their current employment status, and the status of any legal action taken against them.”

How Switzerland Put ‘A’ Stamp on Innovative Design, by Elizabeth Smith on OZY

“For a city that generated much of its wealth from the chemical industry, Basel is also among the world’s most renowned art and culture hubs.” 

WHAT TO WATCH

Meet the Artists: Gabriel Chaile

“What I would have liked if I hadn’t been an artist is to be a preacher or an archaeologist.”

Watch on Art Basel on YouTube:

Highlights of Art Basel Hong Kong in 2019

“Now, is this really art? It’s a dinosaur bone taped up. What does it say?” 

Watch on South China Morning Post on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Next stop: South America? While there are no official plans to launch another art fair along the lines of Art Basel’s expansion into Miami and Hong Kong, last year it did throw an event in Buenos Aires raising the profiles of local Argentine artists — which could be a game-changer for a city with lots of creativity but not much exposure on the international art scene. 

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