Galleries wonder whether Art Basel will draw buyers this year

MIAMI (AP) – If you show it, will they come?

That’s what gallery directors are wondering as they prepare for Art Basel Miami Beach amid a struggling international economy. Over 200 galleries will show their best work and hope for high sales at the annual art fair running from Dec. 4-7, despite an uncertain art market.

Art Basel organizers say the economic downturn sweeping the world is fairly recent and galleries have had to plan their booths at the fair six months ahead of time, so they don’t expect changes to those plans. But galleries are waiting to see how sales will go.

“It’s obviously more of a buyer’s market,” said Marc Spiegler, co-director for the Miami Beach fair and the annual Art Basel held in Switzerland. “I have been talking to a lot of collectors. They feel it’s a better time to buy art.”

Sluggish sales at recent auctions in New York may be a sign that the years where collectors paid exorbitant prices for high art are over. One of the effects of the economy may be more reasonable prices for art, which may attract more serious collectors, who previously wouldn’t or couldn’t pay the huge amounts of cash for artwork.

At the auctions, some work sold for tens of millions of dollars, while others sold lower than presale estimates and many did not sell at all. At the Frieze Art Fair in London in October, auctions of contemporary art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s generated substantially less money than predicted and many works remained unsold.

All this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Art world observers have been predicting a crash since the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis began. Many of the buyers driving the art sales frenzy were hedge fund and private equity millionaires, who were among the first to suffer economic hardship.

But no matter, Spiegler says, gallery owners and directors know how to survive the financial crisis.

“I think most people who run galleries are by nature optimists,” he says. “Most of the people who are running the kinds of galleries we deal with have been through ups and downs of the economy. People will find a way.”

Some say the economy may change the fair’s atmosphere.

It usually “has euphoria and urgency that may not be there this year,” said Ron Warren, director and partner at Mary Boone Gallery in New York. “Maybe this year Miami may be a little more contemplative … thinking about works of art than a buying frenzy.”

Other galleries are using this year as a gauge for the next.

“Next year will be dependent on what happens this year,” said Michael Findlay, director of New York’s Acquavella Galleries.

Findlay, who is bringing 20 pieces for the show including works by artists Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, said he will make the gallery’s participation as strong and as interesting as it is made for any other art fair, but he is not tailoring his selection of art for the fair because of the economy.

But some gallery owners say sales may suffer because buyers may not be willing to spend a lot of money in hard economy times.

“I don’t think it will be the same amount of sales as it was last year,” CRG Gallery owner Carla Chammas says.

If the fall auctions are any indication, Chammas may be right. For the two-week period, Sotheby’s reported taking in a total of $411.5 million, under its low estimate of $688.4 million, and selling 448 lots out of 866. Christie’s reported a total of $374.5 million, below its $686.7 million low estimate. It sold 630 items out of 990.

To safeguard against risk, both houses lowered guarantees – an undisclosed price promised to sellers whether their work sells or not.

Experts said prices were down 25-35 percent overall, but there were some significant sales, including Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition, which sold for $60 million, setting a record for the artist and for any Russian artwork sold at auction.

The Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York refused to comment on the effect the economy may have on sales at the fair. A MoMA spokeswoman said that usually a number of its curators go to Art Basel.

Bonnie Clearwater, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, said she uses the fair to build relationships and to get to know dealers. Even if she wants to buy work, it must be approved by an acquisition committee first, she says.

“I am always interested in understanding art in the larger cultural context. It’s just part of my education and my awareness. Sometimes a show may come out of that,” Clearwater says. The museum has bought work almost every year at the fair.

Meanwhile, Miami-based collector Craig Robins said the financial crisis might be an opportunity for art collectors to be less materialistic. To him, Art Basel is a “social experience” he has attended for the last 10 years.

“I think that universally in just about every facet of the world economy that I can think of at the moment, values are down and transactions are less,” Robins says. “To think that art would be immune from that would probably be unwise.”

Robins is a developer who has assisted in creating Design Miami, which is a design fair that coincides with both the Art Basel fairs in Switzerland and Miami Beach. He says great art will always have value.

“We’ll weed out the less sincere people, the less sincere collectors, and we’ll also probably weed out some of the less sincere artists,” Robins says. “It’s going to be a very hard time in the sense that people are going to suffer, but at the end its going to make us stronger, more judicious, more intensely focused on quality and we’ll probably have a better market because of it.”

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