Artmageddon!

Art Basel '06 is bigger than ever. Is bigger better?

If early incarnations of Art Basel Miami Beach stunned the masses via glittery lineups, high-volume sales, and veneers of exclusivity, this year's version has left seasoned locals agog over the exponential growth rate of the ancillary events the fair has spawned.

"Last year, we had the NADA, Scope, Aqua, Design, and Pulse fairs operating during Basel," explains Miami dealer José Alonso, of Alonso Fine Art. "This year, the amount of fairs in town has more than doubled."

He points out that in addition to the 190 galleries rounded up by Art Basel at the Miami Beach Convention Center in 2005, nearly 300 other visiting dealers shopped their wares at the various smaller fairs. They competed with hundreds more South Florida colleagues for the deep-pocketed collectors who swooped into town, clamoring for a coveted piece and for speculators looking to score big in the sweepstakes.

With the market hotter than Vegas asphalt in August, many dealers at last year's Basel, NADA, and Pulse fairs reported brisk early sales, with many regularly switching out their booths to display unsold work.

"This year is going to be crazier," Alonso observes. "Everyone seems to have gone overboard, and we now have so many fairs in Miami that close to a thousand galleries will be doing business at the same time here this week."

Bridge Art Fair, DiVA, Photo Miami, Ink Miami, Flow, Pool Art Fair, and Zones Art Fair are all new to the dance.

"It's impressive how many people are involved now. I'm sure the economic impact they leave behind will be as big as any connected with a Super Bowl," Alonso adds. Still, he worries the market might not be able to absorb the numbers, a thought shared by other local dealers and art lovers overwhelmed by the influx.

To get a jumpstart on competitors, Alonso recently opened two photography shows by Cuban artists José Iraola and Tomas Esson in his Wynwood space. He did so, he says, hoping to have time to visit a few of the events taking place during the scheduling bedlam that makes it increasingly difficult for him and others to enjoy Art Basel. "I might only get a chance to see about 10 percent of what's happening, but with so much going on, it's better than nothing."

Art Basel organizers say the lure for many visiting dealers now is the perception that the Miami market is not only booming but also is beginning to sustain itself year-round.

"The difference is the city has evolved dramatically," Basel spokesman Peter Vetsch says. "There are an incredible number of new Miami galleries, you have a new performance art center, and the Miami Art Museum is planning a new building. The level of local talent is impressive, and the culture that is developing here is really great."

In addition to featuring 200 heavyweight galleries at the Convention Center, Art Basel is showcasing 22 emerging contenders at the "Art Positions" container exhibit at nearby Collins Park. The fair houses the work of more than 2,000 artists from the 20th and 21st centuries, with dealers specializing in museum-quality masterpieces sandwiched elbow to elbow with galleries representing edgy neophytes.

Art Basel, which attracts throngs of collectors, curators, museum directors, artists, and locals each year, set a record for attendance in 2005 with more than 36,000 visitors — paying customers and comped fat cats. "We have also secured dates here for the next ten years and hope to be around as long as we have in Basel [Switzerland], where we just celebrated our 36th year," Vetsch says.

Typically, galleries pony up an average of $30,000 to $50,000 for a stall at the Convention Center or $10,000 for a beachside container.

For 2006, Art Basel has added an Open Air Cinema to complement its Art Performance program at the container village and is featuring Sound and Video Arts Lounges at Miami Beach Botanical Garden, across from the Convention Center. The fair has expanded its Art Nova sector to include 62 young galleries showcasing contemporary art trends and has launched an Art Salon offering hourly artist talks, book signings, and roundtable discussions inside the Convention Center.

Many believe that the sensory-jarring blitz of events and parties bubbling out of Art Basel not only focuses intense attention on Miami during the week of the fair but also raises the bar for local galleries and museums throughout the rest of the year. Many share the consensus that Art Basel is more than just a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am affair fixated on moolah; the event puts Miami, rather than just art, on display.

"Basel has turned into a platform for the city," independent curator Nina Arias asserts. "The fairs cause a big commotion, but now it's becoming about people who come here for this event and want to return during the rest of the year. The city is just a baby, but we're making history. People are getting excited and inspired and talking about moving or opening businesses here."

Arias, who has curated a show for Photo Miami and recently cofounded the Independent Cultural Access Society with Steve Pestana, has launched a fleet of rickshaws during Art Basel that will shuttle people between the ancillary fairs in Wynwood, MoCA at Goldman Warehouse, and the Rubell and Margulies collections.

Most of the Wynwood spaces have saved their heavy artillery, hoping to dazzle collectors during Art Basel, and will showcase some of the city's finest talent.

"Destroy This City," a group show with works by Quisqueya Henríquez, Leyden Rodríguez-Casanova, and Wendy Wischer, will be on display at the David Castillo Gallery. "A Timely Response," at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, will feature more than 20 artists from its stable, including Elizabeth Cerejido, Edouard Duval-Carrié, Elsoca and Fabian, Robert Huff, Glexis Novoa, and Karen Rifas. The Fredric Snitzer Gallery will exhibit Naomi Fisher's solo show of large paintings depicting red-eyed, decadent, degraded women, as well as Bert Rodriguez's public performance of "A Bedtime Story (The Five Chinese Brothers)," in which the artist will blare the story from a bullhorn as he stands atop a billboard on the southeast corner of 29th Street and North Miami Avenue every night at 9 from December 7 through 9.

Perhaps the scrappiest fair trying to piggyback on Basel is Zones, organized at the World Arts Building in Wynwood by Edge Zone director and local artist Charo Oquet. The do-it-yourself fair is exhibiting the work of more than 70 locals and hosting a few visiting galleries during the show.

Oquet says she was inspired to create a fair because she believes that South Florida talent gets lost in the shuffle during Art Basel. "Basel is the biggest platform we have, so we decided to put up a fight, since we are like little rowboats getting steamed over by a transatlantic," she explains. "So our only choice is to adapt, die, or leave."

She says that she has visited Art Basel in Switzerland as well as the Venice Biennale and that both pale compared to the boil of activity in Miami. "Believe me, this has grown bigger. Nothing compares to us because none of those people put out like we do. That's why everybody keeps coming back. In the end, we have to realize this all translates to money. People need to get ready for what's coming or fade in the end."

Several South Florida dealers agree that the volume of activity during Art Basel has become a distraction and can confuse visitors and locals alike.

"There is no way people coming to Miami can decipher this mess or focus on what's good or bad," Kevin Bruk laments. "It's not about the art anymore. Even Puffy is throwing a party for Basel, jewelry companies, car manufacturers — galleries are now secondary to the party scene."

One of the biggest Basel-sponsored blowouts takes place from 8 p.m. to midnight Saturday when Art Loves Design takes over the Design District. It will feature enough free hooch to float the Titanic and dozens of gallery openings you won't likely remember having seen the next day.

In addition to hosting the second installment of the wildly successful Design Miami fair, the district will feature E.V. Day's suspended sculptural installations, Stealth, Black Hole, and Red Streak, synthesizing the history of Cold War technology and a postfeminist superwoman discourse. "The Paper $99 Art Store," a "cultural shop," will feature bargain sneakers, mouse pads, and skateboards. Craig Robins will exhibit works by Paul McCarthy, Joseph Beuys, Cosima von Bonin, and others in his collection at his newly renovated Dacra offices. The Moore Space is exhibiting "Clamor" by Allora and Calzadilla and "Twilight Town" by Sean Dack and will inaugurate the Moore Loft Space, dedicated to long-term projects, with "Zero Hero," an installation and performance by John Bock, originally presented at the 51st Venice Biennale.

Perhaps best encapsulating the Zeitgeist is the project by Sam Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III. The pair, who compose the Friends With You collaborative, have teamed up with six other artists to create "Skywalkers," a procession of 15 cosmic blimps kicking off Thursday, December 7, at 2 p.m. in South Beach and wending from 17th to Fifth streets.

"This has almost been an impossible mission," Borkson says of the floating 60-by-10-foot balloons that will be moored to the Earth by 150 handlers during the first parade in Art Basel history. "Basel runs Miami this week and has become the new mayor of the city," he chuckles. "I didn't know we had to pull so many permits for gaseous things here on the streets, but they took care of everything for us."

The artist says the project was nearly torpedoed when one of America's largest helium outlets folded this year. "There are like only two of them in the whole country, and one had to keep a stock of the stuff for hospitals and almost ran out after the Macy's parade. But we managed to hook up with 20,000 cubic feet of the gas."

When asked about his thoughts on whether Miami is approaching a state of "Artmageddon," with all the art hoopla and general kookiness going on this week, Borkson echoes the opinion of locals who remain underwhelmed. "I don't care about any of that stuff," he says of the eruption of competing fairs. "It's all too much to digest, and your body can only absorb so much protein before you develop the squirts. That's why we wanted to do this, because, bottom line, it's something everyone can enjoy."

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