Art Basel has been called the “Art Market Olympics” and “Queen of the Art Fairs,” and all around the world, it is known as the best, most important fair for classic modern to present day art.

In June of every year, the biggest players on the international art scene—artists, collectors, curators, museum directors, and art critics, as well as art fans—travel from almost every continent to this Swiss city on the Rhine, in order to see and discuss works of the highest quality, and, above all, to buy them.

Art 41 Basel 2010 presented more than 300 first-class galleries from 36 different countries, which brought with them select paintings, sculptures, objects, prints, video works, and installations by over 2500 artists. Here, there seemed to be almost no aftereffects of the financial crisis of 2008/09. With more than 62,500 visitors, a new attendance record was set, and the dealers appeared to be quite satisfied by the profits. Düsseldorf gallery operator Hans Mayer, for instance, who has been at every fair since the beginning, jubilates, “We came to Art 41 Basel with high expectations, but they were far exceeded. An international, knowledgeable public made for excellent business.” (

Art Basel’s success story began on June 10, 1968, with the meeting of Basel dealers Trudi Bruckner, Balz Hilt, and Hildy and Ernst Beyeler, who came up with the idea to hold a modern art fair in Basel. The art dealers were responding to the founding of the first modern and contemporary art fair, the Cologne Art Market (later Art Cologne), which had taken place for the first time in 1967. Unlike the Cologne Art Market, whose producers had deliberately invited only German galleries to participate, the Basel fair was an international one from the start, and accessibility was not determined by a jury. Very cleverly, the organizers decided that the first half of June would be a good time to hold the fair, since that is the period right after the traditional and important international auctions for modern and contemporary art, while two significant exhibitions for international contemporary art also take place at the same time: the Venice Biennial, and the documenta in Kassel, which occurs every five years.

Of the 90 galleries and 30 art book editions that appeared at the first International Art Fair Basel between June 11 and 16, 1970, many were renowned Swiss, German, French, English, and American art dealers. With an attendance of 16,300 and a yield of about 5.8 million Swiss francs, the fair was so successful that the Cologne producers were afraid of serious competition. The following year they also began inviting foreign galleries, but required them to decide between the Cologne Art Market or the Art 2 ’71 in Basel. The boycott worked, and important New York galleries stayed away from the Basel fair in 1971, so that they could exhibit in Cologne.

However, a year later, when Swiss curator Harald Szeemann headed the documenta 5 and the Venice Biennial opened, the location in Basel turned out to be such a strong magnet that thirteen—instead of two—New York galleries and editions were represented at the fair, establishing the presence of foreign galleries in Basel from then on. In this way, Art Basel took on a solid position within the art market. Yet, it was still just one of many art fairs.

This changed when Lorenzo A. Rudolf became Director of Art Basel in 1991, and the fair adopted a new face and an innovative concept, which has resulted in Art Basel’s extraordinary success over the past ten to fifteen years. Ilona Genoni succinctly describes this development in her dissertation, “Just What is it That Makes it so Different, so Appealing?” Art Basel: Von der Verkaufsmesse zum Kulturereignis (2009): “In its early phase [Art Basel] was a pure trade fair, dealing in works of art. Rudolf expanded this definition of the fair. He organized events that were not directly related to selling art. Rudolf also introduced selection criteria—until then, only a few galleries had been rejected. This concept—quality or exclusivity, along with events—was deliberately expanded by Sam Keller, the director between 2000 and 2007. With numerous, non-commercial crossover events and curated formats, he allowed the classic trade show to evolve, turning it into a large, complex, cultural event.” (Ilona Genoni, in: Basler Zeitung, June 9, 2009).

In 1994 Rudolf persuaded the Swiss UBS Bank to come aboard as the chief sponsor for Art Basel and was thus able to finance his ambitious projects. Since 1996 Art Basel has been producing the so-called Art Statements, individual, sponsored berths where young artists can show their work, and since 1999 two prizes have been awarded to artists in this category by the Bâloise insurance group. In 2000 the first platform for videos, large sculpture, installations, and performances debuted under the title Art Unlimited, and since then, it has been an established part of the fair’s program. Other exhibition formats, presentations of art book editions, films, podium discussions, artists’ talks, site-specific projects in downtown Basel, and tours of Basel’s museums, which feature large, special shows during the fair, supplement the fair’s program, too. Art Basel’s strategic direction is determined by the current co-directors, Marc Spiegler and Annette Schönholzer.

True to Rudolf’s motto, “Globalization doesn’t brake for the art market . . . Art must go hand in hand with the art market,” Art Basel launched a subsidiary fair in the United States in 2002, Art Basel Miami Beach; occurring in early December, the fair has quickly established itself, especially for Latin American collectors. The latest coup for MCH Messe Schweiz, operator of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach, is the takeover of 60 percent of the Asian Art Fair in Hong Kong on July 1, 2011, which will once again produce the Hong Kong International Art Fair. The fair in Hong Kong will take place in 2012 one more time under its old name, but from then on, it will be produced once a year in early February, under the label Art Basel, becoming the third forum for the Swiss art fair. It will be interesting to see if the Hong Kong offshoot, which, according to the German Financial Times, has become the third-largest art market in the world, will fulfill the expectations of its Swiss producers.

25.07.2011 Anja Breloh

Veröffentlicht am: 25.07.2011