Since its première in 1970, Art Basel has not only been known to art experts, but has also been popular amongst a broad public with an interest in art. What began as Art 1'70 has, in the meantime, expanded into the most important family of art shows anywhere in the world, with Art Basel being staged in Basel, Miami Beach and Hong Kong.
The idea of holding an art show in Basel came from within the Basel art and gallery scene itself. At the end of the 1960s, a group of "audacious" gallery owners ventured onto what was new terrain for Switzerland. Their intention was to create an additional sales channel for contemporary art in the form of a show, and they imagined that prestigious art galleries would send along their works of art and thus ensure a high-quality selection. The director of Messe Basel at the time, Hermann Hauswirth, gave a sympathetic welcome to the idea and so, in liaison with the organising committee around Trudl Bruckner, Balz Hilt and Ernst Beyeler as the driving force behind creation of the new show, the date of June 1970 was fixed for the first Basel art show. From the very beginning, those involved agreed that the planned art show in Basel was to admit not only gallery owners representing contemporary artists and selling their work directly but also art dealers offering twentieth century works.
One hundred and thirteen galleries trading in art at an international level participated in Art Basel in 1970. One particular highlight at the première was "pop art" from America, with two galleries from Europe and the first American exhibitor, the André Emmerich Gallery, presenting works by famous pop artists. The American presence was the decisive factor in the development of Art Basel. The art show underlined its international significance at an early stage by offering a prominent platform in Europe to art dealers from the USA and by making it possible for the public to have direct access to American art. In the years that followed, the American presence grew continuously. The third edition of the art show, Art 3'72, already had 16 art galleries and publishing houses from the USA participating in it. In 1999, the number of exhibitors from America exceeded the Swiss participation already and, from 2006 onwards, the art galleries from the USA have been the largest group of exhibitors overall.
The second phase of this "flirting" with America became public in 2000 at Art 31, with the announcement that, for the following year, it was planned to stage a second – American – edition of Art Basel in addition to the show in Basel itself. The attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, however, forced the postponement of those plans at short notice, but, from the moment the first Art Basel Miami Beach celebrated its première in December 2002 with 180 exhibitors, its success was unstoppable. In next to no time, the number of exhibiting galleries and visitors increased many times over. Right from its first edition, Art Basel Miami Beach has provided an exclusive "home" for the new interest in art from Latin America. No fewer than 267 international galleries from 32 countries participated in the 14th edition of Art Basel in Miami Beach in December 2015, and approximately 77,000 visitors attended the show.
In 2013, the Art Basel family had a new member added to it with Art Basel in Hong Kong, and that event has since developed into the leading international art show in Asia. In May 2016, 70,000 visitors made their way to Hong Kong to marvel at the presentations by 239 galleries from 35 countries.
With its shows in Basel, Miami Beach and Hong Kong, Art Basel today puts on the world's most important shows for modern and contemporary art. Each of the shows is unique and influenced by its venue and the region in which it takes place. This is reflected in the selection of the participating galleries, the works of art represented and the accompanying programme, which is organised in cooperation with local institutions for each edition. Alongside the exhibition stands of established art galleries with worldwide reputations, the show sectors at Art Basel are mirror images of the latest developments in the visual arts. At the current edition of Art Basel, being held in Basel from 16 to 19 June 2016, 220 art galleries are making presentations in the principal sector of Galleries; they are displaying paintings, sculptures, drawings, installations, photographs, videos and editions. The Edition sector is dedicated to printed and limited editions, while the Feature sector represents galleries displaying focused curatorial projects with historical and also contemporary works. The individual presentations in the Statements sector offer collectors and visitors the opportunity of discovering new, aspiring artists and galleries. Other Art Basel highlights are the Unlimited sector with outsized works of art and projects and also the Parcours sector, which takes visitors on a tour of sculptures and performances by established international artists and young talents specific to given locations on various squares around the Münsterplatz in Basel. These are freely accessible for the public without charge. The gallery presentations in Exhibition Hall 1 in Basel are additionally being accompanied by an extensive Conversation & Salon programme with lectures and panel discussions.
Image: Art Basel 03 | 1972, General Impression. Photo: Kurt Wyss, Courtesy Art Basel