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Art Basel Director Marc Spiegler: his vision for the world's most important art show

Published on 11/6/2017 by Christoph Spangenberg
Marc Spiegler, Art Basel Global Director (MCH Group)

He has had a decisive role in shaping Art Basel: Marc Spiegler has been with Art Basel for ten years and, since 2012, has been its Global Director. In the interview he speaks about the development of the most important art show and current challenges on the art market. He explains the role played by digitisation and initiatives such as Art Basel Cities and reveals his vision for Art Basel.

Marc, you have been with Art Basel for ten years now. What do you find so enthralling about your job?

The art world is a constantly changing environment. It is incredibly international and there are always new possibilities arising. All this can be very challenging to keep up with, but that dynamic is also what I love about this job. Another thing I enjoy now is that we have been able to build such a global team, filled with so many smart, engaged people, from all over the world, bringing so much experience into play on behalf of our clients.

How has Art Basel changed over the past ten years? And how has your work changed?

In the ten years that I have been with Art Basel, the organization has changed dramatically. When I started, there were two fairs, no real online presence, a team of barely 20, all based on the second floor of the Messeturm in Basel. Now, we have a team of nearly 90, based in Basel, Hong Kong and New York. We run the premier art fair on three continents, have a strong digital platform, and a social-media following that is more than 10 times our annual visitor figures for all three shows combined. In addition to the shows, we maintain a Crowdfunding Initiative to help support not-for-profits, publish the definitive annual > art market report. And right now I'm in Buenos Aires, where we have just launched the first activities of > Art Basel Cities, a new initiative that allows us to work with cities on cultural development.

And what about the art market?

We are currently in a time where the art market is rapidly shifting towards new models. Take, for example, the core notion of the role of a gallerist – this has been evolving tremendously. Likewise, digital technologies have also had a huge effect on the way we do business. Though there’s still no equivalent to Uber or Airbnb for art transactions and consumption, a huge amount of the momentum that builds up before the fair comes through digital platforms; the same applies for much of the business done after the fair. That said, this remains a business built on trust, and nothing replaces face to face interaction, which is why fairs and biennials remain so important.

Another dramatic shift is that we now – more than ever before – live in a truly global art world. The traditional notion of an artist first developing their career through local galleries and museums is now completely outdated. The young collectors of today have expanded their area of interest far beyond their own local market, region or even continent. And this is the case even when they have just started collecting. So, artists are not limited anymore by the current trends and taste of their local art scenes. 

In the time that you have been with Art Basel, a third show in Hong Kong has joined those in Basel and Miami Beach. In parallel with that, you have also launched numerous initiatives, such as Art Basel Cities, BMW Art Journey, Crowdfunding and The Art Market 2017, a report analysing the international art market. What is Art Basel’s recipe for success? 

Projects like the > Crowdfunding Initiative with Kickstarter or Art Basel Cities were very long-term strategic decisions, focusing on a wider art scene rather than "just" art fairs and the market. With Crowdfunding, we felt there was a real need for Art Basel to support the ecosystem we operate in. So, we are broadening our reach from galleries to not-for-profit organizations, helping to support the organizations that are at the grassroots of these developments. With this initiative, which is very much driven through our social-media channels, we reach a much wider audience then our traditional fair public. To date we have helped support 64 projects across the world, reaping a total USD 2 Million.

The Art Basel Cities initiative developed as there were so many cities that wanted Art Basel to come to their country. While we do not see the opportunity for a fourth Art Basel fair in the near future, we did see great opportunities to work with these cities in a different capacity, developing together concepts and programming that allow the city to strengthen their local art scene and also bring it to a more international attention. To sum it up, over the past 10 years, Art Basel has become truly global and expanded its reach from just being active in the art market to being an organization that also works with a much wider artworld.

The first Art Basel Cities Initiative is being held in Buenos Aires now. What does Buenos Aires hold in store for us?

With Buenos Aires as its first site, Art Basel Cities is developing a multi-year initiative to help highlight and strengthen the Argentinian contemporary art scene, while engaging with the full spectrum of its visual arts community. 

The first long-term elements of Art Basel Cities: Buenos Aires is indeed launching in November 2017 and over the coming months – the Art Basel Cities Exchange will host residencies around the world for Argentine professionals working in the arts: from internships and curatorial residencies to artist exchanges and mentorships. It will also put in place a number of structures to enable organizations, individuals and institutions to catalyze support and build resources for new projects. And Art Basel's Crowdfunding platform will be activated to support not-for profit institutions in Buenos Aires.

To celebrate the launch of the long-term elements of Art Basel Cities Exchange and to share further information about the partnership, we set up the Art Basel Cities House in Buenos Aires. From November 2 to November 5, 2017, the house hosted a series of conversations, workshops and events to take place throughout the year, in which local cultural partners will be invited to collaborate and participate. And Buenos Aires welcomed an international delegation of artworld professionals, discovering and engaging with the vibrant local art scene during that week.

 What role is digitisation and Social Media playing for Art Basel?

As mentioned earlier the digital is playing an increasingly important role, and is growing in presence - something not reserved to the art world. It changes how we promote and communicate about our shows and to a degree also how art is being sold – I mentioned this earlier. But digitalization also has a huge effect also on artistic production. On one hand, it allows for radically new types of work to be made. On the other hand, it also means that the hunger for real experiences in the real world, in real life, will be tremendous. How artists will play with that balance between analogue and digital is going to be a fantastic thing to witness.

Digitalization can facilitate new ways of interaction between galleries, artists and collectors. Artists from all over the world work with galleries from all over the world, selling to collectors and museums from all over the world. And this all is to the benefit of artistic creation. People talk about the “good old days”, but the reality is that there are more artists living solely off their own work now than there have been at any point in history… and this is evolving exponentially. I find this truly great. 

Everyone is currently talking about virtual and augmented reality. At Art Basel in Hong Kong this year Art Basel presented virtual reality art jointly with Google. What potential do you see for these techniques?

Today the digital work coming out of artists' studios - often just their laptops - shows a clear shift, dissolving the boundaries between "traditional art" and "digital art". These young artists are digital natives, who grew up with broadband at their fingertips, and the virtual never far from the physical in their life. There is now technology available that allows artists to create digital works without having to code. Artists using Tiltbrush technology at the Google Cultural Institute for example can sculpt spectacular 3-D volumes in real time by moving their bodies through space, creating a result that looks more organic than digital. That said, many artists are making work deeply steeped in code: the Canadian artist Jon Rafman has become known for his dense VR works. I think VR is very much only the beginning of what we will see develop in the years to come. 

What is your vision for Art Basel? What are the plans for going forward? 

We will continue to look for opportunities to play a greater role in the artworld. Those opportunities can be cultural, physical, digital, commercial, - ideally all four! And we will continue to develop these ideas by staying very close to the market, with many people on the team in constant conversation with the key players driving it forward.

Next up: > Art Basel in Miami Beach. Art Basel's american show is being staged at the Miami Beach Convention Center from 7 to 10 December 2017. Preview Day on December 6. Photo: Marc Spiegler, Global Director, Art Basel, © Art Basel.
 
Christoph Spangenberg

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