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Holiday in the Sun

Decadence returns to Art Basel Miami Beach this year. Is the economy back? The art world sure hopes so!

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Illustration by Mickey Duzyj  

Never mind the recession, here’s the Sex Pistols. The eight-year-old Art Basel Miami Beach Fair opens December 3, bigger than ever, when it comes to sheer floor space, and accessorized by a robust bunch of rival fairs, fashion parties, book signings, benefits, and, yes, a Sex Pistols (or what remains of them) concert on the beach. Even as the rest of the country drowns in unemployment and lessened circumstances, the period of noble abstinence for this hedonistic set is apparently over.

“Collectors can abstain for a year, but then, when it seems that you can get great things for great prices because the world has changed,” they’ll buy, says Sotheby’s contemporary-art head, Tobias Meyer. But then again, he’s also fresh from selling Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills for triple its high-end estimate.

For better or for worse, much of the art world is feeling flush again. Since the recent auctions did better than anybody expected, Nick Acquavella of Basel Miami star Acquavella Galleries says he’s bringing pieces ranging from $45,000 (a Lucian Freud etching) to an $8.5 million Picasso. In June, when the Art Basel fair is held in Switzerland, sales were strong. “We believe the art market is coming back,” says Basel Miami co-director Annette Schönholzer.

In a nod to the realities of the economy, Basel Miami is actually constraining some large-scale parties, says Lee Schrager of Southern Wine & Spirits, the fair’s liquor supplier and sponsor. That said, “there seem to be more non-official parties than ever this year.” Luxury goods are back on the beach. Montcler and Cartier are both hosting events. Pucci, which skipped last year, returns. Collectors are back, too: More museum groups than ever have arranged to tour the satellite Art Miami fair this year, says Nick Korniloff, its director—over a dozen.

But excess this year doesn’t really add up economically, even morally. It isn’t like everything’s really back to normal. Some satellite fairs and events have spread away from South Beach to economize. (Rooms go for $615 a night at the Delano, which is next to Basel Miami, while the Deauville, 50 blocks north, where the nada fair is being held, offered a $99 special.) As a result, the walkable, boozy art Disneyland is now more like L.A. itself, stretching nineteen and a half miles down to the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, where Larry Gagosian will show giant works by Yayoi Kusama.

Who’s paying for all this? By and large, real-estate developers whose empty towers still ring the city like Stonehenge, hotels, banks, and corporations that are betting that, good or bad times, they’ll rarely get access to a crowd this moneyed, relatively young, and globe-trotting.

While last year’s Basel Miami (and its concurrent events) was a dour affair—low on sushi, sales, and spirit—this year, there’s optimism. “This has been a very mild recession,” Gagosian said in Abu Dhabi last week. “I don’t mean to be cavalier—galleries have closed”—but he describes the situation as “manageable.”

Others are hoping that it’ll return to being, you know, about the art. “I’m looking forward to a fair where I no longer have to talk about the economy. I like talking about art much more,” says gallerist Zach Feuer. But was it ever really about the art? “Miami is really just more about a party scene,” says Jeff Koons, who’s not showing this year. And you know things are really weird when a guy who makes giant stainless-steel bunnies is the voice of restraint.

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