Signs of sea change at Art Basel Miami: More galleries of color

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Signs of sea change at Art Basel Miami: More galleries of color
The Tanzanian artist Sungi Mlengeya, right, at the Afriart Gallery space at Art Basel Miami Beach, Dec. 3, 2021. Changes to eligibility requirements enabled more diversity at the 2021 fair, which roared back for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. Alfonso Duran/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

MIAMI, FLA.- Kendra Jayne Patrick’s booth was buzzing at Art Basel on Tuesday during the VIP opening as visitors crowded in to admire — and consider buying — pieces by tapestry artist Qualeasha Wood, whose work is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In the past, Patrick would not have been eligible to participate in the fair, because her New York gallery has no permanent physical space. But over the past year, Art Basel changed its admission requirements and made a concerted effort to invite previously marginalized galleries to apply.

“We wanted to lower the obstacles to entry — not around quality, but around how long you had to be in business and what the nature of your business is,” said Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s global director. “These galleries have enough hurdles without our having these regulations, which are outdated.”

The shift was noteworthy, given that Art Basel’s online iteration in June 2020 did not include a single African American-owned gallery. The 253 galleries in the Miami Beach Convention Center this year featured several first-time participants of color, including four galleries owned by Black Americans, three from Africa, eight from Latin America and one from Korea.

This increasing diversity was just one way the pandemic altered the Art Basel Miami Beach fair’s first in-person gathering since 2019. There were also required health screenings, timed entry of visitors and mandatory masks (with loudspeaker reminders to keep them on). And some galleries reported not receiving art pieces (and booth furniture) in time because of supply chain problems.

The four galleries from South Africa made it to the fair just under the wire, given the emergence of the omicron variant and President Joe Biden’s decision to restrict travel from the country starting this past Monday. Rather than feel ostracized, these galleries said visitors went out of their way to welcome them at the fair — a few keep-your-distance jokes notwithstanding.

Discussion of NFTs — nonfungible tokens — was also coursing through the balmy air, although they have been slow to catch on with veteran collectors. Pace Gallery made its first NFT art fair sale — a collaboration between Studio Drift in Amsterdam and musician Don Diablo for $500,000 (plus $50,000 donated to climate protection efforts).

Overall, however, the fair — as well as its myriad satellite events, such as Untitled, NADA and Design Miami — provided further proof that the art market is largely immune to social and political upheaval.

Most galleries, particularly blue-chip dealers, reported strong sales, including a Noah Davis painting that went for $1.4 million and an Ad Reinhardt abstract for more than $7 million at David Zwirner, as well as a Keith Haring for $1.75 million and an Elizabeth Murray for $725,000 at Gladstone. Salon 94 sold a double Dutch jump-rope sculpture by Karon Davis for $150,000 to streetwear mogul James Whitner.

“It felt a little like Groundhog Day,” said Tim Blum of Blum & Poe gallery. “If you go through the fair, you might think this is 2019.”

Indeed, the evenings were full of dinners and parties — Alicia Keys performed at the immersive exhibition space Superblue in the Miami Design District — with most decked-out guests not wearing masks (and bemoaning the traffic congestion). Many noted how happy they were to be physically gathering in Miami Beach to view art and embrace each other again (yes, air kissing is back).

“There is nothing like seeing people in person and having engaged conversations,” said Jo Stella-Sawicka, senior director of the Goodman Gallery, which has locations in Johannesburg, Cape Town, South Africa, and London, adding that she was already flying to Florida when news of the new variant broke.

While the fair’s timed entry precluded the usual opening bell stampede through the doors — and some collectors groused that they didn’t get the time slots they wanted — gallerists said the more spaced-out admissions allowed for calmer, more substantive conversations with visitors.

Although much of the art — per usual — had sold in advance through online previews or emailed PDFs, many dealers said several pieces were purchased at the fair itself.

Art fairs have long been considered ripe for a correction or consolidation, due to their proliferation and expense. The new firm LGDR — four powerful dealers who joined forces — has said it plans to swear off such events in the U.S.

But several first-time gallerists said Art Basel offered crucial exposure (they included Rele Gallery from Lagos, Nigeria, which recently opened a Los Angeles branch, and Nicola Vassell, which just opened in New York).

“Miami Basel is so international,” said Patrick, the New York dealer. “You can meet a great cross section of clients.”

Joost Bosland of South Africa gallery Stevenson had planned to come only briefly to Art Basel, before omicron changed all that.

“I was meant to be here for a day,” he said. “Then the rest of the team didn’t make it.”

SMAC Gallery, which has locations in Cape Town and Johannesburg, barely made it to Miami. “We had to, or the booth would have been empty,” said Baylon Sandri, one of the directors, adding that the ban was “unfair” because South Africa had only identified the presence of the new variant.

Bonolo Kavula, the artist shown by SMAC who was in the booth, said, “Not coming wasn’t an option. Art Basel is one hell of an opportunity.

“I’m not just here for myself,” she added. “It shows other artists back home that this is possible.”

KJ Freeman, owner of Housing gallery on New York’s Lower East Side, was another newcomer benefiting from the expanded participation of smaller galleries. She planned to show artist Arlene Wandera, whose sculptural pieces never arrived. So Freeman pivoted to presenting Nathaniel Oliver. When all of Oliver’s work sold, she taped a QR code to the wall of her booth through which visitors could view Wandera’s work.

“I used to be a performance artist,” Freeman said. “So I can pretty much make an installation any day of the week.”

While Freeman said she was happy to have been invited to apply to the fair, she said her modest operation did not necessarily fit in among the behemoths.

“I’ve never sold anything beyond five figures — low five figures,” she said, adding that Wandera’s work was priced at $5,000 to $22,000 and Oliver’s at $3,000 to $18,000.

Among the dealers Art Basel invited to apply was Daudi Karungi of Afriart Gallery in Uganda, who said he appreciated the outreach. “It’s better than me knocking on that door,” he said.

Karungi’s booth, featuring a solo presentation of work by Tanzanian artist Sungi Mlengeya, quickly sold out, with each piece priced between $50,000 and $75,000.

Ivy N. Jones of the Welancora gallery, which is based in a brownstone in New York, said it was “an honor” to bring the work of Helen Evans Ramsaran, an American sculptor in her 70s. “There are so many older artists who need somebody to believe in them,” Jones said.

Similarly, Marcus Gora, co-founder of the First Floor Gallery in Zimbabwe, said the fair gave important visibility for an artist like the one he showed in Miami, Troy Makaza, who combines painting and sculpture. “We’ve been growing and building,” Gora said. “This is our gateway into the North American market.”

Karungi said that participating in the fair nearly 20 years after creating his gallery feels like an important milestone and that he hopes to serve as a model for other African galleries. “I started from the bottom in the industry,” he said. “And now we’re here.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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