Launched in Switzerland in 1970, Art Basel was established by three art gallery owners with the aim of providing an exhibition opportunity for art galleries to sell modern and contemporary artwork. Drawing 90 galleries and 16,000 visitors in the first year in Switzerland, the festival enjoyed rapid growth with almost 300 exhibitors and 37,000 visitors by it’s fifth year, and a pre-pandemic peak of 93,000 visitors in 2019. Attendances post-pandemic have been very strong as well, highlighting it’s status as one of the leading contemporary art fairs.
Much like other major contemporary festivals Art Basel has steadily expanded it’s offering well beyond the primary event in Switzerland; similar annual events were launched in Miami Beach in 2002, Hong Kong in 2008, and post recently Paris. All four events draw similarly sized audiences and numbers of art gallery exhibitors, and showcase an incredibly diverse range of thousands of emerging and established contemporary artists. Both the biggest names in the art world attend alongside audiences of the general public.
Today the brand is widely considered the leading platform in the world for bringing together artists, galleries, and collectors. It’s an essential place to see what’s currently happening in contemporary art helping shape tastes and trends. Beyond the exhibitions, Art Basel has also become an essential part or driving support for young and emerging artists and the galleries that promote them.
Supporting and developing art as well as platforming it
A number of cultural initiatives have sprung from the festival, all aimed at building the contemporary art market from a range of angles. Art Basel Cities was first established around the Hong Kong festival, bringing together local art stakeholders and city officials to put together a range of cultural development goals within the city. Buenos Aires has also signed up for the program.
The Art Journey Award is a grant funded by BMW sponsorship that supports emerging creative talents by funding them to go on an artistic journey anywhere in the world and find new inspirations and themes. The Crowdfunding Initiative is another commercial partnership, this time with Kickstarter, that supports arts related charities and non-profit organisations.
Finally, there is the Art Market initiative, analysing the global market annually and reporting on important art world developments, news, economics, and sales; an essential source of information to art galleries, collectors and dealers. Part of Art Basel’s wide appeal and strength in the market comes not just from selecting the best art gallery exhibitors and commissions, but from it’s support of artists, businesses, charities, and the general public.
Maintaining a critical role as one of the premier contemporary art fairs
Much like the Frieze art fair in London, recent editions of the festival have drawn some grumbles that there are far too many paintings, but that seems to be the current medium of choice for so many artists, and a stronger sales prospect for galleries. Just like Frieze, Basel tries to ensure a variety of arts including installation pieces, photography, films, performances, and sculptures. It has already picked up very strongly from the Covid lockdowns and remains the fair of choice for so many in the contemporary art world.
The steady focus on expansions into new cities and audiences, the consistent crowds and careful selection of the best art galleries, and widespread support for artistic and cultural development is a powerful combination, and essential to maintain premier status. And unlike some lesser festivals, Art Basel has been very successful in exporting itself well to other places, with the Miami event talked about almost as much as Switzerland, and attendances and gallery numbers at all very similar. If Art Basel ever comes to a city near you, it’s probably worth attending.