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Art Basel

Ah, a week in Switzerland! With eight MCLA students and my colleague Jonathan Secor with the goal of seeing and doing everything Art Basel. This incredible opportunity is the result of a various generous donor who charged the college with creating unique and life altering opportunities for students. I’ve been honored to be one of the faculty on two of these trips. Our first trip was in 2009 to the Venice Biennale. This year, we decided to go to Art Basel for a different sort of art immersion trip.

As a result, I can now compare the two potentially biggest art gatherings in the world. And while I thoroughly enjoyed my experience in Basel, it is not without significant criticism. I live is a wonderful art bubble in western Massachusetts that is dominated by women. My particular field, book arts and printmaking is filled and led by many strong women. It is very easy for me to forget that this is not the case in many art circles. I was reminded of this again and again at Art Basel. It is a very western, white male dominated event. (Like much of the art world.) During my prep for the trip, I came across a number of articles that suggested that this particular Art Basel gathered representatives from around the world, with a much larger selection of galleries and collectors from Asia and the Middle East. These numbers were not evident. Going through the catalogue of Art Basel and many of the parallel events brought up the same locations every time: USA, Germany and other European countries. Yes, a few galleries from South America, China, Thailand, etc. But not remarkable numbers.

The Biennale certainly has it Eurocentricness as well, but it makes more of an effort to really focus on the best art and experimental art from all around the world. Art Basel is about making money–selling the work of established artists, and showcasing here and there some more up and coming artists. Acquiring the art becomes a great prize, or trophy. (You don’t buy or purchase art, you acquire it!) And boy did I have fun pretending that I was going to acquire some great art! I paged through a portfolio of Louise Bourgeois prints that could be mine for a mere $500,000. It put a different sort of meaning to my upcoming PRESS project.

One of the more entertaining evenings found us out down by the Rhine for the Art Parcours evening fun. Local beer, local bands, art from around the world. Including a performance by Chris Johanson and his band on a barge in the middle of the Rhine. Great times were had by everyone, as we walked from installation to installation.

Art Basel is divided into a few different sections–the main event: Art Galleries–nearly 300 of the “world’s” top galleries, selected from 1000+ applications. There are other sections, Art Editions, Art Features, Art Unlimited and Art Statements. The last two are the most like the Biennale. Art Statements features one-person stands of emerging artists, and Art Unlimited features one-person stands of established artists and large installations. Some of the work was fantastic, some of the work, well, let’s just say it didn’t move me. But that’s true at any art fair/show/museum.

If given the opportunity to go to one of these shows again? I would easily choose the Biennale. Certainly Venice is more magical and has much better food, and to me represented women, people of color and the global art scene better. I often ask my students to be aware of the lens they wear when they look at art. To question and analyze all the time, and to pay attention to their own biases. Can you tell mine from reading this post?

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