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Features / December 11, 2014

When Private Goes Public: Miami Collections Raise Ethical Questions

Art Basel Miami is a showy display of wealth, David Balzer writes. Local private/public museums also prompt questions about privilege, curating and class.

Art Basel Miami Beach is an ostentatious display of wealth and the wealthy. That this obvious fact is annually broached with dismay and shock by much of the art world is in no small part due to Art Basel itself, which, increasingly, insists on being similar in style to a biennial or large-scale exhibition, with a film program, installations, a speakers’ series, performances, outdoor public art and more. But this it can’t and never will be. With the exception of dealers and staff bound (tragically) to booths for the duration of the fair, few come to Miami Beach at the beginning of December to spend four days inside a sterile, windowless convention centre.

Despite its pretensions, Art Basel is not officially curated like the nearby, beach-front UNTITLED., or like November’s Independent Projects in New York, or like October’s Feature Art Fair in Toronto. There is visual noise at Art Basel that, at these curated fairs, is tamped. But these fairs are not exhibitions, either. I have written a book about this, but I repeat: the curator is not apart from the market; she establishes a representative relationship with objects that speaks volumes about how value and identity are anxiously performed and consumed in late-capitalist society.

In a sense, figures like Omar Lopez-Chahoud, UNTITLED.’s director, and his new-this-year Parisian curatorial duo of Christophe Boutin and Melanie Scarciglia, are pre-purchasing for purchasers, pre-collecting for collectors. The results can be monotonous. NADA at North Beach’s Deauville Hotel seems curated, but isn’t, with booth upon booth of self-consciously hip zombie-formalism. (“Was this what it was like to be an art critic in the 80s?” I wondered as I wandered through.) Arguably the art market and its demands curate all fairs. This year at Art Basel there was the same brand of work by Koons, Currin, Emin, Doig and many more, as there was last year. In an art world driven by trade, curation happens, whether we want it to or not.

The collector plays a fascinating and under-acknowledged role in all of this. Without dynasties like the Rubells, the Margulieses and the de la Cruzes, Art Basel Miami Beach would not exist, for it was founded in part due to the original, Swiss Art Basel’s awareness of South Florida’s power-buyers. It is worth noting that an art fair is naturally a very limited expression of the tastes of contemporary collectors: racks of clothes in a department store can’t reflect how consumers will wear them. Consider what becomes of a work once it is purchased by non-institutional buyers, especially by those building collections and not (merely) matching blue-chip works with their sofas. A proposition: Art Basel’s gloss can obfuscate the vital dimensions of collecting—to wit, the buyers who are patrons, building collections with conceptual, even social, purpose.

Art Basel makes its affiliation with local private collections known, providing visitors with a map to these collections’ venues, in most cases various warehouses in and around the Wynwood area in mainland Miami. The map acts as a bit of an escape route. The geographical distance is itself a tonic: where touristy South Beach is tacky if picturesque, screaming extremes of expensive and cheap and, during Art Basel, infuriatingly congested, Wynwood is a developing, still-affordable neighbourhood with engaging street life and its share of fine, quiet moments.

Wynwood is famous for its murals, an expression, in part, of the Latin- and African-American cultures so integral to Miami. It is also home to emerging and established commercial galleries, and to the Art Miami fair (as well as to various affiliated and nonaffiliated smaller fairs), which predates Art Basel by several years. At Wynwood’s eastern border on Biscayne Boulevard are the historic, Latin-Modernist Bacardi buildings designed by architect Enrique Gutiérrez, with a beautiful exterior of blue-and-white tiles by Brazilian artist Francisco Brennand. In 2012, the buildings and their surroundings were purchased by the National YoungArts Foundation, a large outreach organization for developing young artists. Frank Gehry will redesign the interior; during this year’s Art Basel, the organization co-hosted concerts by FKA Twigs, James Blake and SBTRKT.

The new Pérez Art Museum Miami is a 15-minute drive south of YoungArts. Formerly the Miami Art Museum, it reopened in 2013 with a new name in a new building designed by starchitects Herzog & de Meuron. That same year, the museum’s collection was significantly expanded by contributions from collectors Dennis and Debra Scholl, Mimi and Bud Floback, Craig Robins and Jackie Soffer—and of course by the Argentina- and Colombia-raised Cuban Jorge M. Pérez, the museum’s new namesake, whose over-100-work-gift highlights Latin American artists such as Beatriz González, Roberto Matta Echaurren and Diego Rivera. Also in 2013, Pérez partnered with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to establish a $1-million grant for the purchase of contemporary works by African Americans.

I do not mean to set up a false dichotomy. Wynwood is a site of gentrification. (Richard Florida, who ironically but appropriately winters in a South Beach condo, is a Wynwood booster.) Some of the private collections can seem perfunctory, and, indeed, white. The exhibition hosted by the Rubells during Miami Art Week had, for instance, NADA-ish commissions by Will Boone, Lucy Dodd, Mark Flood and others on its first floor and Big Name Contemporary Art by Cindy Sherman, Charles Ray, Elizabeth Peyton, etc., on its second.

Still, Art Basel’s curatorial approach to representing the market stands in counterpoint. If we choose to accuse Art Basel of representing white privilege, as New York–based Canadian writer Sarah Nicole Prickett (essentially) did in one of her “Scene and Herd” reports for this year, we might say conversely that a good chunk of collecting money in South Florida goes to non-white art. To be sure, neither curators nor collectors can solve social ills. Yet as Prickett points out via black, queer rapper Mykki Blanco’s putative rant to Klaus Biesenbach at MoMA PS1’s Miami party (“He wants to hug Mickalene Thomas, he wants to hug Kehinde Wiley…I’m not Mickalene Thomas, I’m not Kehinde Wiley”), the institutional curator establishes affiliations with artists that outwardly aim for radicalism and inclusiveness, but in practice can seem procedural, strategic.

Such motivations defined Art Basel’s own “curated” project with Kickstarter, launched in September and meant to “present jury-selected art projects to a global community of potential benefactors.” (Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery and Ballet BC have ended up being one of the beneficiaries.) The three-person jury was itself ethnically curated, comprised of Glenn Phillips, who has worked with Brazilian and Mexican artists, Hammad Nasar, known for his work with Asian art, and Mari Spirito, known for her work in Istanbul. As Paddy Johnson and Whitney Kimball of Art F City noted, “putting together a Kickstarter page isn’t support for nonprofits, but additional branding for Art Basel”; curating projects runs counter to the spirit of a DIY crowdfunding site; and, most telling, no money from Art Basel actually went to these projects.

As institutional donors, collectors can indeed influence curators. Yet apart from institutional gifting, collectors can exercise passion in brashly independent ways, investing, frequently with risk, in artists’ labour, and even shaping movements. Consider that the American avant-garde was initially built by collectors, not curators, and that these collectors forcibly transformed a market initially hostile to abstraction. Patrons, both indulged and resisted, have defined the trajectory of Western art.

So it is that some of the most established South Florida collectors, while occasioning Art Basel, can appear to contradict its drives. Biesenbach and friend-colleague Hans Ulrich Obrist, both intimates of Art Basel, would likely never, as the Pérez has done this year, dedicate several rooms in their respective institutions to a retrospective of decorative Brazilian painter Beatriz Milhazes—whose bright, busy acrylics run like a rainbow current beneath the austere, stylized conceptualism long favoured by the Northern European and New York art establishments.

“Impulse, Reason, Sense, Conflict,” at the nearby Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, comes from the collection of Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, known for her decades-long commitment to collecting geographically diverse iterations of mid- to late-20th-century abstraction. It is brilliantly curated by Jesús Fuenmayor, the foundation’s director, who has evidently worked closely with her to establish something very special and specific. “Impulse, Reason, Sense, Conflict” airs ahead-of-its-time abstract work by Latin American or Latin America–situated artists such as Willys de Castro, Jorge Ortiz, Sandu Darie and Hélio Oiticica, to name but a few—figures who remain unsung in art-historical discourses farther north. The droves of young Canadian artists currently in love with modernism and minimalism could use this show as an expansive, inspiring corrective to ignorance, or at least to preconceived notions.

Augmenting its inclusiveness is the show’s definition of abstraction as a non-movement. Rather, Fuenmayor calls it “an aesthetic category,” defining it by rationalism and experiment but also as fraught with “intersections and contradictions.” Such methodology corrects the gushing, conspicuously American MoMA- and Armory-led celebrations of the “100th anniversary of abstraction” last year, and is notably unromantic for a show providing such a thrill. Fuenmayor’s work is as rational and experimental as his definition of abstraction, yet also a shining, dynamic example of a curator expressing the tastes and passions of a collector, while at the same putting the art, not the collector, first.

Canadian Geoffrey Farmer’s current installation at the Pérez Museum, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black, seems a fitting final image. Ostensibly a biographical piece about Frank Zappa, the work reads instead as a pan-regional teleology of sculpture, and the idea of sculpture. Primitivist fertility figures, Babylonian lions, Greco-Roman statuary, modernist painting and more intermingle in symphonic kinesis, moving within a constantly changing lighting and sound design that is digitally programmed. Let’s Make the Water Turn Black is like a cabinet of curiosity devised by Jim Henson—a parody of the art world’s dependence on material, yet invested in the decontextualizing and reassembling of such material in the perpetuation of endless meaning. It is a fallacy that art can never be owned. It is an essential truth, however, that it can never be fully possessed.

David Balzer

David Balzer is the author of two books, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, winner of ICA London's 2015 Book of the Year, and the short-fiction collection Contrivances. He has written about art and culture for the Globe and Mail, the GuardianFrieze, Artforum, The Believer and others, and from 2016 to 2019 was editor-in-chief and co-publisher of Canadian Art.