Why Was Art Basel Miami 2012 So Seemingly White??

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It is a new year and another 10months from the yearly sojourn to Miami Beach for another spectacle in the form of Art Basel 2013.   The American sister show (or cousin) of the original event founded by local dealers in Basel Switzerland, has taken off with rocket proportions, leaving much that is earthly Miami, démodé, for one week in December each year.  The staples of the original Basel traditions are present – the exhibitions, the installations, and the performances, along with forums of panel discussions.  Throw in the added fluff of a typical Thanksgiving day parade and the Art Basel Miami scene is complete.

It is in fact appropriate to refer to the event as the “Art Weekend in Miami” as there were many events and splendid display of artistic creations and installations across the city.  Art Miami and the Expo were in the North West, as was Art Africa (a worthy effort by ordinary individuals with less means to fund the more upscale venues).  The revamped areas of Overtown and Wynwood, with their mélange of newly installed ‘hip’ galleries, street art, music, and a hip-hop culture of young people who congregated freely and peacefully, was a site to see and one to emulate across America.  But the massive ‘grand daddy’ of them all, was Art Basel at the Convention Center in Miami Beach, along with its sister venue across the street, Art Miami Designs.   According Art Basel’s own website, “More than 200 leading galleries from North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa took part, showcasing works by more than 2,000 artist of the 20th and 21st centuries.” 

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If you are the art enthusiast with a ten year-old’s curious desire to absorb all in sight (as I am), it required at least two days to fully appreciate the exhibition at Art Basel.  Yet in the aftermath I left Basel with a sinking feeling of segregation in art that is both tangible and intangible at the same time.  I felt a disproportionate absence of black galleries or art by black artists - an under representation which prompted a little soul searching.  Was it exclusion through barriers to entry or was it exclusion as a result an accepted (by black and white, artists, gallery owners, and collectors alike) state of segregation in the art world?   

Let me point out that the certain New York galleries did exhibit a few works of some black artists.  I enjoyed a few pieces of Robert S. Duncanson’s and Romare Bearden’s.  Young artist Kehinde Wiley was prominently featured in not only an American gallery but also carried by a Paris gallery as well.  I was also told (anecdotally) that upwards of 27 to 40 black artists (out of 2,000 artists present) might have had a presence through varying galleries at Basel. 

However, any real desire to see black creativity required a trip outside of Art Basel in the Convention Center, and north to the “Art Expo”, “Art Miami”, “Art Africa”, or to any of the nearly 20 lesser-known art events around town.  With few exceptions, at Basel, one could be mistaken in thinking that Romare Bearden is still the only black game in town.

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Before pondering any of this or getting worked up about yet another charge of racism and discrimination, there are distinctions to be made wherein barriers to entry or participation based on race are inherent, versus a venue wherein the absence of minority participation or its lack of presence felt, is mostly by choice and a manifestation of accepted beliefs by minority vendors themselves (galleries, collectors, and artists), who tend to see their products as aiming at a different audience.  

Was art by black artist (not to be confused with ‘black art’) under represented at Art Basel Miami because of a discriminating stigma associated with ‘black art’?   Or was such under representation due to a failure of minority owned galleries, collectors, and artists, to demand a place at the table, a failure driven by their own acceptance and belief that art by black artist remains ‘black art’, belonging to the black community, and therefore not destined for the wider audience such as that of the largest art show in the country - Art Basel?   

There is a discussion to be had, as ‘black art’ means different things to different people.  Many African American artists refuse the notion of their work being confined to ‘black art’ for obvious inhibitive reasons.  Simply, they are artists whose work is the creation of art destined for art lovers and collectors anywhere and of any race or origins.

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But some distinctions are without differences.  That art by African American artists might be viewed as ‘black art’ and thus ignored by ‘learned’ white individuals and market makers should be of surprise to no one.  However, where these big players (invariably non black) who define the industry trends are of such opinion (the primary value determinant), subscription to the same notion by black artists, galleries, and collectors, will have the same effect of barriers erected at the gates.  Distinctions between barriers erected at the gate and those that are self-imposed are without differences.

In many discussions, this was brought home by the many African American apologists whose incessant reminder of “how expensive it was to get into Art Basel”, forced on me, the unenviable choice avoiding discussions to ensure digestion on each ensuing meal.  I was told of panels and group discussions held on ‘prepping’ potential entrants for acceptance into next year’s Art Basel 2013 (results to be seen).  Queries as to why the venue was so seemingly white were largely rebuffed by various the black elites from Washington D.C. and New York, who themselves could easily be dubbed the “Great Accommodators” of the day.  With each observation, I was quickly becoming insufferably uncool.   Some not only proffered up the ‘cost of entry’ as a main factor for the absence of black galleries and artists, but they also repeatedly mentioned the stringent selection criteria in getting into Art Basel Miami.  I was left feeling rather foolish in presuming that such ‘selection criteria’ might have been prefaced by a census questionnaire.

By my anecdotal count of the approximately 201 galleries present at Art Basel Miami included galleries from New York (72), Berlin (19) and London (16) which accounted for more than half (54%) of the galleries present.  This meant that Art Basel was not exactly ‘Art Wisconsin’ or ‘Art South Dakota’ or ‘Art Missouri’ (the inference here having nothing to do with art from these wonderful states but instead a reflection of their very white census).  Yet, with the entertainment and art dealing and collecting elites of all races and shades converging on Miami, it was a big party in which the notion of race or segregation in art, was as taboo a subject as the notion of tawdry sums being spent or the “risks to the long-term cultural significance of art”, being preached lately by some former cheerleaders.   

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It speaks volumes that there were more black celebrities at Art Basel than there were black artists represented.  Had hip-hop taken on the same approach, or allowed itself to be held hostage to the same paternalistic and patronizing beliefs of some in the 'black art' community, it would not be the most popular music in America today and might have quite possibly remained a protest art form within ghetto and urban communities across the land.

So why does there seem to be such a segregation in the art world between everything else and art produced by minority artists?   Joshua Johnson painted portraits of Baltimore’s elite since 1782.  Scipio Moorhead’s work has been collectible since roughly the same time.  Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Resurrection of Lazarus was purchased and exhibited at the Louvre in 1897.   With over 200 years of collectability and value in art created by African American artists, a visit to many of these grand art venues and auction houses remain largely a visit to a “whites-only” event. 

If we are to believe that art's source and inspiration is aesthetics, nature, culture, politics, woman and man's environment, and universal principles and concepts, then term "black art" might seem less relevant and appropriate today than in the past.  Notwithstanding Alain Locke's marching orders back in the 1920s or W.E.B Du Bois' belief in black art being a propaganda tool in the fight for equality, one could argue that some 200 years after wealthy Baltimoreans collected works of Moorhead and Joshua Johnson, the tens of thousands of great African American artists (alive and dead) of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries are too numerous to delineate.  

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The question for the entire scene of galleries, collectors, auction houses, and other value determiners then becomes; If value in art is free of racial and gender bias, then why does the contemporary art scene, as reflected in Art Basel, continue to reflect such little value and collectability for work by black and women artist.  Why does the contemporary art scene remain the last seeming bastion of white male supremacy in America?

The New York Times December 8th 2012 article, “An Art World Gathering, Divided By Money”, focused on the excesses of Art Basel Miami and the incredible sums of money being doled out by the 1 or 2 ‘percenters’ and their impersonators.  Referenced were the opinions by critics such as sociologist Sarah Thornton, who delineated her top ten reasons to avoid Art Basel, financial journalist Felix Salmon, BBC arts editor and former art dealer Will Gompertz, curator Dave Hickey, and Slate’s Simon Doonan, who all decried the celebrity driven and corrupting culture of money being spent on ‘fame’, as opposed to talent, in the contemporary art world, and the “risks of distorting the long term cultural influence of art”, which they all believed to be emblematic in Art Basel Miami.

Without recounting the overlapping criticisms or taking a any particular positions on the substance, I will highlight item #1 from Sarah Thornton’s list:  "..You end up writing about paintings by white American men more than is warranted" (Noting the under representation of female artist would be too insidious for this one article).  

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Simon Doonan was so offended at today’s contemporary art scene that his November 29th Slate piece (also referenced said the NYT article), “Why The Art World is so Loathsome,” dubbed Art Basel Miami as a “promo-party cheese fest”, while delineating, with the help from Camille Paglia’s book, “Glittering Images”, 8 theories to support his arguments on the ‘frivolity’ and ‘arrogance’ of today’s contemporary art scene.  Again, Without taking any position on Mr. Doonan’s listed theories, or on Ms. Paglia’s book (which I have not read), one thing is clear and that is that Mr. Doonan’s conclusions were not reflective of the art by minority artists, since the contemporary art scene continues to mostly pay lip service to the value and art from the minority communities.   

The question then becomes how to effectively penetrate and effectively change this collusive, unregulated, and celebrity-driven dinosaur with a predilection for promoting value mostly for its own kind, the white male.  Again, there were more black celebrities at Art Basel than there were black artists represented.

I do not presume to have the answer to most of the issues in plain sight but I think there is room for discussions that might lead to some changes.  Art is a product not unlike many others, and the business of art is commerce not unlike most other unregulated cartels with practices of subjective value and a skewed market place.  This will not change in the foreseeable future.  While the purist may rightfully be critical of many aspects of the commerce such as art in fashion and merchandising, or “art as ambition” and “not as creation”, some of this critique ignores the wealth of talent and creativity of female and minority artists, whose efforts go unnoticed by the relevant museums, galleries, collectors, and venues such as Art Basel Miami.  The result is a categorical denial of opportunities for showings and exposure, and thus any chance of value creation for their work.  Unlike the many former cheerleaders who have now converted to near-conscientious objectors, I do not object to the commerce of art grounded in the principles of willing buyers and sellers in a marketplace.   My objection is to a near embargo on products that are of non-white male origins.

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In conclusion, any notion that the organizers of Art Basel Miami were somehow racist or affirmatively discriminative is unwarranted.  I do not know the real reasons for such under representation of black artists at this particular event and we should not isolate Art Basel when there are yet still few galleries in New York City who will show the work of minority artists.  It is clear that the behaviors within the contemporary art scene and of its power brokers, along with definitional confusion, among black-owned galleries, collectors, and artists alike have aided in maintaining this relegation to that permanent underclass status, bereft of the prestige and acceptance required to gain exhibits and to create recognition and real value for black artist. 

There can be little doubt that this is driven by race and by some of the same old notions of black intellectual inferiority, which mandated Phillis Wheatley’s defense of her work in Bostonian court in 1772 which imposed upon her, the examination to prove authorship by so called “Boston luminaries” who did not believe her capable of writing such poetry. 

Oscar Wilde once advised, “Never speak disrespectfully of society” because “Only people who can’t get into it do that.”  Suffice it to say that there are many who will read this and see the ‘rants of the disgruntled’, a result of his imbued exclusion from the a “promo-party cheese fest.”   In that regard, I will say that I was not in anyway, shape, or form, offended by any so called “promo-party cheese fest” aspect of Art Basel Miami as I was by the “Plessy v Ferguson” aspect of the overall contemporary art scene, and as was reflected at Art Basel Miami. 

by Paul Sinclair, Op. Editor

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