Art Basel 2021 & audience impressions of in-gallery guides

I've always been curious about Art Basel and this year was an opportunity for me to visit the Art fair and now I want to share some industry learnings. Equipped with Custorian's latest live exhibition demos, I urgently sought first impressions from Gallerists on how the beta examples below use Insta & AMP stories as in-gallery guides. Judging from my cards, I'd say I managed to talk at any length with 30-40 gallerists over four days, and I'd say 10 of those were significant conversations.

Here are the exhibitions I discussed: 

About Art Basel

First of all, Art Basel is the most significant art fair globally; pre-covid, it attracted 60k+ visitors to 272 gallery booths from 33 countries. It's a very large although traditional booth based affair spread across three enormous halls.

Outside of the main fair, for a sensational short week, the city of Basel becomes an Art extravaganza hosting many satellite exhibitions. Some prominent notables are Design Miami/Basel, LISTE, June, VOLTA & "I never read art book". It's an opportunity for enthusiasts and professionals to see the big private industry picture and for me to put the early demos of custorian to the test. 

Art Basel means big business. International visitors paying the high price for entry, accommodation & travel narrow down to the audience to the relatively few big-ticket collectors in the world. Booths in the main fair's halls are leased at £50-150k for space, even before you consider staff, shipping and installing the art. The list of exhibitors reads like a who's who of international Art galleries. 

This year, Liste, another excellent fair is allowed into the same hall as the main fair where as previous years it's had to run alongside off-site as a challenger. Liste is for younger galleries and charges £6-14k per booth drawing 81 galleries from 33 countries. This crew might be less socially validated, but to me, loads more interesting. Unfortunately, even with the shared location, the attendance of this event and the other slightly less trumpeted onsite event, 'June art fair', seemed to be far lower than expected. I'd be surprised if 10k visitors from the main halls made it over to Liste, never mind June, which is a shame because the curation of both their areas was way more compelling. On top of this, Gallerists continually mentioned a notable missing US and Asian buyer audience. Some of the the exhibitors believed the footfall to have reduced by around 70% although I think that an exaggeration, perhaps it was down 50% from previous years? 

After Hall 1, I'd guess footfall dropped 30%-50% in each area. So in this way, the top 1% of galleries can get the top 1% of artists & artworks seen. 

What was I asking?

The Galleries at Basel spend big money to be there and speak with their target customers; they didn't want to bother with a pesky startup trying to do customer research. So, it was challenging to get time with Gallerists on the right terms. However, many generously offered their time after their day, at dinner or were otherwise exhausted! 

The high stakes environment made for a tough crowd, but the snubs are worth it for the rare, candid feedback from knowledgeable potential customers. You might think you know, but only through many 1-1 conversations can you form a realistic impression of customer needs. 

My questions:

  • How did they plan and share their catalogues & exhibitions?
  • Could they walk me through their last sale at home & the exhibition? 
  • How did they measure the success of their last exhibition? 
  • What was their most successful exhibition?
  • Where did they meet their last customer? 
  • Where did their customer see the artwork? 
  • When did their last on/offline conversation result in sales?
  • Did the gallerist buy because of the work or the artist?

What did I learn?

Sales make the wheels go round, especially big-ticket sales from regular collectors. Of course! Although deep down, I always questioned how sales motivated commercial Art Gallery programmes and activities. It was confirmed time and time again implicitly at the mention of how their targets dictated exhibition plans. 

A Galleries key artists drive sales and not so much the particular artworks. Many artworks were sold sight unseen, but more often, it was via a PDF over email. When there was a choice it often just came down to preference on colours but that wasn't a deal breaker if the artist was a big name. Collectors still safely live in the land of the PDF. The 50+-year-olds own the spending power. A few galleries I spoke with mentioned that their big-money collectors ($100k+) aren't in any way computer savvy. These galleries also see a 5-10 year runway and don't feel responsible for innovating and engaging different audiences. They believe that to be an art institution's job.

It was really surprising to me that there was so little mention of crypto currency or VR. In fact across the main and all the satellite events, Nigel Draxler had the only booth which in anyway tried to engage with the burgeoning technology. I suspect that was for the very reason I mentioned, it's simply someone else's battle to be fought. These Gallerists were here to make hay while the sun was seldom shining. 

A big theme was that the vast majority of gallerists are not and do not wish to become content creators. So, on the face of it, when Custorian is approaching them with a guide based interface, they are hesitant about the production overhead.  

In saying that, Gallerists were impressed and excited by the demos and suggested opportunities to work together. Gallerists personally want engagement; when pushed, they are, of course, passionate about the opportunity to extend the reach, but they feel their time is limited to what might directly result in sales. So both content production and the debatable ROI poses a bottleneck in Custorian's current adoption with gallerists.

Post exhibition…

Custorian's north star is the ability to increase art engagement. I now realise that while desirable, engagement is not a driving motivator for private galleries where it doesn't result in a direct sale. 

I started Custorian because even though I love contemporary art. I felt unwelcome in private art Galleries. Interviewing Artists, Gallerists & Collectors, even bonafide participants in the Art World feel unwelcome! Art is the only industry where imposter syndrome lasts forever. Why is that?

There is a chasm to be crossed to extend contemporary art's audience meaningfully. I didn't see much evidence of the microcosm being challenged at Basel, perhaps because this is the art market centre and not the art world. Lots to ponder over. 

This article featured artwork by: 

Where I found Art

A boat docked into the wet fog of night on the island of Naoshima. As I cautiously stepped onto the harbour, I realised I'd reached the limit of my friend's scribbled directions. Now I glanced around for something called a yurt? I was 26 and, until recently, would have considered myself something of an anti-traveller, content to sit behind a laptop and having neither the means nor inclination to travel further than a few miles from Ayrshire in Scotland. Some tectonic shifts in my life circumstances had brought me to Japan, on the holiday of a lifetime, feeling increasingly open to change. During the preceding week, I had joined a brief and unlikely reunion of Glaswegians in Osaka to support a mutual friend. A complicated romance and a simple, beautiful wedding had brought us together here on the other side of the world. Leading up to the big day, twelve close friends had slept on the floor of the groom's single-bedroom apartment in Amagasaki. Somewhere during this chaos of excitement, without further elaboration, two backpackers insisted I change my plans to include taking the bullet train south to catch a boat to incorporate one of their highlights. I had uncharacteristically accommodated, and so now I stood in the rain with my girlfriend, feeling lost on a remote island.  

The other three passengers drove off in their cars. I'm guessing they worked at the island's one and famously luxurious hotel. In 2008, navigation was not so quickly done in the heat of the moment with a Moto RAZR. So perhaps I was then more open to the interpretive dance of the older man standing at the dock. He had obviously pegged us as tourists and quietly approached us with subtle hand gestures. A sophisticated practitioner of mime, without any shared language, he convinced us into the backseat of his Toyota. Rolling and shaking down the wet roads, we reflected that perhaps jumping into the cars of strange mime artists was a little careless even without options but fortunately, we arrived in a clearing in front of what I guessed must be a Yurt. 

Pushing aside the damp canvas door, the morning presented a breathtaking expanse of sea on the edge of an Art island. I wandered around from that point onwards in a daze.

Naoshima was and remains today the pinnacle of my experience of contemporary art. I couldn't have asked for a more comprehensive introduction. Walking around the island presents works by David Hockney, Cy Twombly, Giacommeti, Lee Ufan, Anthony Caro, Yves Kline, Richard Long, Yayoi Kusama, Antony Gormley, Basquiat, Bruce Nauman and many more. It is incredible.

This quiet utopia is the satisfied ambition of Soichiro Fukutake. Since the early 90s, he's been cultivating a collection of spiritually fulfilling, 'Art shrines' around the theme of Nature and Art. The main gallery, Chichu, means "under the earth" in Japanese and is almost entirely underground because of local environmental protection laws. Japan's most decorated Architect, Tadao Ando dreamt up this subterranean solution as the Japanese publishing billionaire's first ally in bringing his vision to life. Tado described this place as "something of a culmination of his forty years of being an architect". Here in Naoshima, he found "spatial pureness" to which he could map his own matrix of space". Here he carved galleries into deep recesses of Naoshima's hills, almost imperceptibly sculpted into the ground until closer inspection. Up close, their jutting angular cement ceilings are sensational and unlikely. More believable perhaps as something temporarily erected as a film set and composed of convincing yet flexible materials. Like the labyrinthian headquarters of a Bond villain. Ironically, Naoshima actually was the filming location for "You only live twice", a Bond film in the '60s. But there is no film trickery, the art, nature, and the walls are all real. Thick solid concrete walls support the hills as underground temples built to last a thousand years.

Monet's last years were spent painting his beautiful water garden in Giverny. As his eyesight continued to deteriorate, he continued to paint even after, eventually in his 80s; he was legally 'blind'. The first underground gallery is built around five of the best examples of his paintings during this period, literally presenting them in their best light. Tadao based this space on the preparations Monet himself had taken to display them before he died in 1926. In a true Japanese homestyle, before entering the gallery, visitors are asked to remove their shoes. The soft white slippers of viewers tread lightly over a floor of satisfyingly rounded, white stones. The chamber is flooded with natural light as if walking amongst the clouds. The swirling galaxies of colour and reflections in these two-metre canvases have more in common with a photograph taken by Hubble than a garden pond.   

Upon the first gallery's completion, Fukutake invited Walter De Maria and James Turrell for a private audience. I don't expect two of the 20th centuries' most innovative artists are easily impressed; I do, however, expect they were blown away. Upon experiencing the majesty of the place, they both accepted the opportunity to produce site-specific works supported by Tado Ando's architecture. 

It is through De Maria's and Turrell's work I truly felt revelation. After having bathed in the colours of Monet's water gardens, I didn't expect more than pictures. I put my shoes back on, and my feet led me down a long, dark, cold concrete corridor. Ducking through a rectangular opening, I emerged into another sensory flood of light and symmetry. I stood dumbstruck in the grand hall of Walter De Maria's 'Time/Timeless/No Time'. The lines, materials and architecture all around me were a perfectly balanced feat of ingenuity, mystifying yet seemingly essential in purpose. The immense chamber was lined with gold, shining pillars. I felt like I attended a congregation within a cathedral in praise of post-scarcity. Atop the steps of my ascending gaze, sat a substantial 2.2m polished black granite sphere. A black hole instead of a pulpit, its mass sucked in reflection. As I approached, my likeness warped around its surface, looming above and around me as the Monolith in Kubrick/Clarke's "2001, a space odyssey". I wasn't sure what I was supposed 'to do'. I stood quietly as the weight of this place tolerated my presence. My eyes scanned the hall with a genuine sense of awe. This space invited me to be still. I was not aware of the creator's philosophical ponderings, hints at Jiddu Krishnamurti's thoughts on introspection that he had played in a band with Lou reed or that this was one of, if not the last land work he ever created. A sum achievement of a life's work he would never see realised while he contemplated his life.

I sat down halfway up the steps and cried. Quietly and without knowing why. It felt like an epiphany. 

Turrell's work had a similar effect on me. In "Backside of the Moon", as my eyes adjusted to new spectrums of light and I stepped through what I'd previously thought a pitch-black room, I began to question all I found familiar. Naoshima refuelled my sense of wonder. That day forward marks a time I started thinking of art beyond any aesthetic. Through art, I now crave to share experiences and connections. Every day I explore and expect more.

"Any good work of art should have at least ten meanings." 
— Walter De Maria

A conversation with ourselves

Appreciation of art begins within you. You may or may not have to go to the other side of the world. That's just what it took for me. I had reached a turning point. Recent life events had me feeling grateful. In a faraway, unworldly place, away from all that which had sculpted my former self-image, I was open to thinking and observing differently. Naoshima pulled my thinking far from where it could ever again return to in a resting state.          

Building a unique appreciation for contemporary art is extremely difficult. We see what we recognise and aspire to in the world. Our critique is only ever going to be a reflection of our reality. But what are these foundations built upon? Our expectations are all primed through popular entertainment such as Hollywood films and age-old human achievements. Unlike the majority of entertainment, Contemporary art is often not passive. It may be unfinished, uncomfortable, or alive. Its dialogue may be difficult to comprehend and require further intensive inquiry. Artists necessarily must often work far ahead of accepted forms of communication, and in this way, they are prophetic. Before Naoshima, I didn't enter galleries because I thought them full of nonsense. After Naoshima, ironically, I saw abstractions in artworks being the only thing which might transcend nonsense.

I wasn't looking for a change, but I was open to it inside myself like never before. I have since learned I can't predict similar occasions, but I can prepare. Every day presents an opportunity, through art or otherwise, to be thrown outside our accepted appreciation. Whether alive or inanimate, I consider every next encounter as an open-ended story for both parties. After all, to ourselves, now is all that matters. Artworks can be excellent philosophical vehicles of thinking. Next time you engage with a work of art, challenge yourself by playing devil's advocate. 

Ask yourself anew.