A Conversation With Marc Spiegler Co-Director of Art Basel


Until somewhat recently, former journalist Marc Spiegler wrote on such diverse subjects as sports, rodeo, video games and the art market. As the co-director of Art Basel, he and Annette Schönholzer face the challenge of upholding the legacy of their charismatic predecessor, Samuel Keller. That’s certainly not an easy task given how much the market has changed since he first accepted the position. Shortly before the Swiss art fair opened its doors, a confident Mr. Spiegler spoke with Art in America.

: How has your life changed since you took up this position? Do dealers appeal to you for a spot in the art world’s ‘Hollywood Boulevard?

MARC SPIEGLER: First of all, if you must use cinematic metaphors, I’d say we’re more like Cannes than Hollywood. And naturally, galleries from around the world regularly talk to me about applying and being selected for the show. But in reality neither the co-directors nor anyone else at Art Basel has voting rights in the selection process.  The respective selection committees for Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach, each made up of premier international gallerists, make those choices. And the process is very thorough: They examine every single application and presentation, and even the most established galleries are subject to every time they apply for our shows. Sometimes the discussion about a single gallery will take half an hour – at times even longer. But that’s the process that yields the highest quality shows.

RM: Art Basel is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Is the current economic crisis going to spoil the party? Is it going to be a painful birthday?

MS: No, I don’t think so. Obviously it’s a different market than it was last year but this is the third or fourth time that the market has contracted since Art Basel began forty years ago, and our galleries and the organization have a lot of experience with it. I think we have a lot to celebrate this year.

RM: When you were a journalist, you wrote an excellent article in New York Magazine titled “Five Theories On Why the Art Market Can’t Crash.” And why it will anyway. Now that you are the co-director of Art Basel, Have you changed your mind?

MS: As a journalist you know that the writer never chooses the headlines. And if you read the article you also know that in it I described precisely what has happened now, which is that we are seeing a very differentiated market place, in a sense that what is happening in one sector is not the same as what is happening in another sector. There are many mid career artists whose markets have held strong or even have become stronger, as people focus on artists who have a real institutional resume, who are in major collections, who have catalogues about their work, who have proven over the course of two or three decades that they have a continual stream of good and interesting ideas. I’ve always said that there is no single market, and I think that is more true than ever. The current conditions show that. Obviously the position I’m in now gives me much more insight into the marketplace, but I think what I wrote then is as true, and I would write it again, which is that the things that expand the most quickly are the things that will be touched the most. But also that if you look at the art market over the course not of five years, but over the course of fifty years the size of the market that we have now is much, much, much bigger than it was. I think that you can confidently say that the contracted market of 2009 is bigger than the highest point before the last major market contraction of the early nineties. So much growth took place during this run from lets say 1996 to 2008, than even once it contracts you’re left with an extremely increased art market.

RM: Artists whose prices were most driven by speculation seem exposed to higher risk …

MS: A lot of people who are experienced in the art market were totally flabbergasted with the way in which certain artists’ prices rose. There was a disconnect between those who understood that an artist’s prices should rise and were justified [in doing so] and those who seemed to play in the market. I think we are coming back towards an era in which the artists who have the track record of accomplishments, who have the institutional support andcritical support will do better. It won’t be just enough that a bunch of people want to start speculating with artists. Suddenly, the prices will rise and actually hold.

RM: As every other year, hotels in Basel are completely booked. What kind of collectors can we expect to see at Art Basel this summer?

MS: The one thing that you won’t see at Art Basel this summer are speculators. The people who are interested in buying an artist’s work at low prices and being part of a movement that holds them up in 18 months to the point in which they can flip them into auction are not there. The people who are buying now are not in it for the money. The y are in itit because they see art that they want to own, they see movements and galleries that they want to support, they see the opportunity to fill some holes to get the works that help their collections to tie itself together better they see the opportunity to get work which was either not available or overpriced but which is essential to their collection. For newer collectors who are ambitious, they see the possibility to start a collection and really get it moving very fast.

RM: Against the most pessimistic forecasts, many major collectors flocked to Art Basel Miami Beach last December, and the results were more positive than expected. Yet some dealers are considering whether they will return this year. Has there been a decrease in the applications for the next Miami edition? Have regular exhibitors pulled out?

MS: We haven’t completed the application process for Miami. That is only finalized in June. Certainly what we’re seeing (not so much about our shows, but art shows in general) is that people are really weighing what shows are important, what shows have been valuable for them, where they want to put their resources. I think people who used to do eight fairs a year will do four fairs, people who used to do four fairs will do two fairs. And I think most of them who are given the option will choose to do our two fairs.

RM: As galleries cut expenses, smaller art fairs are finding it more difficult to secure exhibitors. Some of them have closed and others are downsizing. What is Art Basel’s strategy in this new economic climate? Do art fairs need to go towards a curated approach?

MS: Art Basel has been the same size since 1975, so we are certainly of a dimension which can exist with a much smaller market than what exists now. In order for Art Basel to succeed, all we need is for great artists to have their work sold by great galleries to great collectors. We don’t need for every mediocrity to find a buyer, because we don’t trade with mediocrities. It’s not the “flea market” model anymore in which we just sold square meters and dealers brought whatever they could. The selection committees are really focused on what people bring — they expect a kind of curatorial approach from the galleries. The people who come are not just dealers and collectors anymore, but also curators. I was talking to someone saying they’ve always benefited because we get a very quick, as French would say, tour d’horizon of what is going on in the whole world. It’s expected of us to bring great panels — great discussion, great non-commercial things like the Art Perform series, or the Art on Stage program, which will host the Il tempo del Postino production. This has been the strength of our show, and I think that I will stay the same. I think the model is strong and will stay strong. We are going to keep doing the thing that we’ve always done which is to provide the best possible platform for galleries in our shows.