50 years of Basel: the story behind the myth


    Art Basel, the world’s most important art fair, blows out 50 candles.

    Photo Credits: Art Basel

    The New York Times calls it the “Art Olympiad”, the Parisian newspaper Le Monde “the best in the world”, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung calls it “Art in its best form”, while Vogue presents it as “The most beautiful temporary museum in the world”.

    Art Basel is not just a fair, but it is THE fair, probably the most important fair of the art system in the world.

    In 2020 Art Basel, directed by Marc Spiegler, celebrates 50 years since its foundation and for this reason we want to retrace its history to learn about the dynamics that have made it a real brand famous throughout the world, not only in the art sector.

    Although Art Basel currently belongs to the MCH group, precisely because of its 50th anniversary, the management of the fair would be compromised, due to the Coronavirus emergency that caused the cancellation of the Hong Kong stage and the traditional Basel stage, to postpone everything until 2021.

    In this delicate phase, in fact, a few weeks ago the name of the millionaire entrepreneur James Murdoch, son of the famous Rupert, who presented a plan and strategy for the relaunch of the fair.

    But returning to the history of the fair, Art Basel was born from the collaboration between three Swiss gallery owners: Ernst Beyeler (whose foundation of the same name is now one of the spearheads of the international exhibition system), Trudl Bruckner and Balz Hilt. Its first edition took place in 1970 (at the time it was simply called “Art”) attracting over 16,000 people to 90 galleries.

    Its location in Messen, a German term that recalls the markets that took place during the Middle Ages during the festive periods, prefigures its mission, which is to be the main square for the art market, capable of attracting up to 93,000 visitors, collectors from 80 countries and more than 400 representatives of international museums (data from the 2019 edition of Basel).

    From the beginning Art Basel distinguishes itself from other purely economic events, highlighting its cultural as well as commercial nature. In 1973 Ernst Beyeler and Leo Castelli, among the most important gallery owners in those years, organized the first collateral exhibition to a fair, to attract a public interested in the not only economic aspects of the event.

    In 1975, just five years after its foundation, Art Basel has managed to become the leading international contemporary art fair, hosting more than 300 galleries and dictating the winning rules of a contemporary art event. In fact, a multitude of other exhibitions were founded in the following years, all based on the same organizational principles: the presence of demanding selection committees, the choice of very similar locations – large, anonymous and empty, the works presented by modern and contemporary artists.

    At the beginning of the year 2000 “Art Basel UNLIMITED” was born, which transcends the concept of the classic exhibition stand with an open plan environment to host the most extraordinary and monumental works of great artists who often see the collaboration of several galleries participating in the fair for the production of the work.

    In 2002, the first stopover overseas, in Miami Beach, dates back to 2002, while in 2013, the one in Hong Kong: thanks to its global dimension, Art Basel becomes in time a thermometer of the desires of the art market.

    High quality, great variety and international participation have given Art Basel unparalleled consideration. Collectors, artists, museum directors, curators and professionals participate in this annual event of the art scene (March in Hong Kong, June in Basel and December in Miami) to see the largest and most selected offer of the international art market and meet the insiders of the international art scene.

    Among the historic Italian galleries participating in the fair, Massimo Minini‘s gallery won the record, with his first participation in 1977 and the “Basel Art” Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.

    To celebrate 50 years Art Basel was planning a major intercontinental art project (Basel, Miami and Hong Kong), curated by a prestigious intergenerational team (Kasper König, Christina Li and Hamza Walker) which of course was cancelled due to Covid 19, as well as its physical appointments in Hong Kong and Basel.

    Art Basel, although limited in its physicality, has proved to be a brand capable of reinventing itself even in times of crisis thanks to online: the Viewing Rooms first in Hong Kong and then in Basel have achieved limited but encouraging results for the future, leading the way to the digital dimension of art fairs.

    And you, have you ever been to Art Basel?


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