Ahh Art Basel, Switzerland… the King de Ka of art fairs… that old chestnut. Right off the bat I’ll say that it is a bit of a pain in the ass to get to because it has a smallish airport, and everything is obviously in Swiss francs so it’s expensive. But those Swiss sure know how to do things right (I should know, I married one) so should you even bother to go? The answer is yes, yes, and hell yes.
Why it’s such a big deal –
Dubbed by many the “Olympics of the art world”, the original Art Basel was founded by three local gallerists in 1970 as an alternative to the then leading fair, Art Cologne. Since 1973 it has become the largest and most important fair in the world where more than 300 galleries from 6 continents strut their stuff. It’s also an amazing fair to see rare Modern artworks in the $50 million plus range in person. In the 2012 edition for example, Mark Rothko’s 1954 Untitled was up for grabs for at Marlborough Fine Arts at an asking price of $78 million and it sold, of course.
Why you should go –
If you only need one reason to be convinced, go for Unlimited. It’s a section of the fair dedicated to out-of-the-box projects and artworks where everything is larger than life. It’s like falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. There are artistic performances, colossal sculptures, surreal monochrome worlds… it’s truly epic. You’ll feel small in a world of giants!
Just so you know, out of all the hundreds of cities that host art fairs around the world, I’d say that Basel is very… vanilla. Yes, vanilla is the adjective I would use to describe it. It’s not “happening”, it’s not electrifying or overflowing with architecture. It’s Germanic. It’s beautiful in a rigid kind of way and hey, that’s ok. Making a four day trip once a year is more than enough.
4 full days are needed to absorb Art Basel
Getting there: You can either fly directly into Basel and the airport is 15/20 mins from the city center or fly to Zurich and take a 50 minute train conveniently from the airport directly to Basel HB. 2nd class will do, it’s not India, it’s Switzerland!
Weather: If you’re a girl, you’re in for a rollercoaster. The weather during the fair can either be sunny and warm perfect for summer dresses and sandals OR gloomy, rainy, cold and grey. No further comment.
Stay: Anywhere around Messeplatz is fantastic because you’ll be walking distance from the fair but of course it’s expensive. Although trams work well – taxis you want to avoid because again, say it with me, it’s expensive.
I recommend the Best Western Stuecki Hotel – it’s a corporate hotel of about 15 stories, it is completely austere, very clean, and aesthetically cold. But considering it’s Art Basel time, the price per night is not bad (around 200 CHF). It’s 20 minutes walking from the fair through a bit of a dodgy highway but we won’t be picky.
Do: Take a tram from Messeplatz up to the Foundation Beyeler. It takes about 20 minutes and as long as you’re headed the right direction, trust me, everyone on that tram will be heading to the exact same place as you are. When the other 50 people in the tram vanish, that’s your cue to get out – it means you arrived. Foundation Beyeler was designed by Renzo Piano and it houses the incredible modern art collection of the late Ernst and Hildy Beyeler. A big part of their permanent collection is always on display and they have highlights from the careers of artists like Giacometti, Andy Warhol, Van Gogh, Picasso and Francis Bacon amongst others. It is located within a very beautiful, very green garden, on a hill.
After a tour of the exhibition on view have a coffee in their little restaurant overlooking a monumental Alexander Calder sculpture. Best 20 CHF you’ll ever spend.
*Across the street from the main fair is Design Miami where – you guessed it – it’s all designer furniture and jewelry. My favorite and the most unique stand always is Louisa Guinness. She specializes on artist jewelry by the likes of Man Ray, Calder, Anish Kapoor and Lalanne. She also gets pretty creative with her booths recreating the an atelier of old jeweler. Unless you’re actually into design – just walk in to see her.
*After dinner go to the bar of Les Trois Rois hotel for a drink – it’s where all the dealers and collectors go to hang.