On June 18, 2020, Messe Basel, the stunning exhibition center in Basel, Switzerland, will open its doors for the 51st edition of Art Basel. The unprecedented rise of Art Basel from a budding art fair striving to reinvent the genre to its current position as the world’s leading contemporary art platform with fairs on three continents reflects the creative, cultural and commercial ascent of the international art market over the last five decades.
Art Basel is the brainchild of Trudi Bruckner, Balz Hilt and Ernst Beyeler, a trio of Swiss gallerists who launched the fair in 1970. The first edition featured 90 galleries and 30 publishers from 10 countries and began Art Basel’s tradition of building long-standing partnerships with visionary galleries from around the world.
“We would never be where we are today without our galleries,” says Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel. “What continues to set Art Basel apart is the premier quality of our exhibitors and of the works they bring to our shows. Whether Basel, Miami Beach or Hong Kong, the caliber and consistency of our shows has been the foundation of our success across the past five decades.”
During its first years, Art Basel established an exemplary reputation for presenting the best contemporary works from leading galleries and began attracting major collectors, such as Don and Mera Rubell, who attended their first Art Basel in 1979. This growing notoriety paralleled the art fair’s increasing size and unique scope as it began to initiate its iconic sectors, which guide, organize and streamline the experience. “Over the years,” Spiegler adds, “we’ve continued to expand both the conceptual rigor and physical limits of our fair, introducing unique and tightly curated sectors—the newest addition being to our Miami Beach show, Meridians, this month.”
By the 1990s, Art Basel was well on its way to being the superlative platform for showcasing contemporary art. Lorenzo Rudolf’s appointment as director in 1991 initiated a global expansion that included building a waitlist of over 700 galleries and securing one of Art Basel’s most important relationships when UBS joined as a sponsor in 1994. Meanwhile, Sam Keller, serving as communications director, launched the website in 1995.
This was a first for any art fair; it began Art Basel’s dominance in the digital realm and has been a proven benefit to Art Basel’s gallery partners, as well as art aficionados around the world. “We’ve also continued to innovate across our digital platforms,” Spiegler shares, “from the launch of our Meet the Gallerists video series to the recent debut of the Global Guide, a digital platform with year-round information about over 500 galleries from the Art Basel network that encourages collectors and patrons to visit our galleries while traveling.”
With the dawn of the new millennium, Art Basel took its unique prowess global, changing the course of art history with the launch of Art Basel in Miami Beach in 2002 and Art Basel in Hong Kong in 2013. It also introduced powerful initiatives like the BMW Art Journey, which, in partnership with BMW, offers an emerging artist from Art Basel in Hong Kong’s Discoveries sector the opportunity to undertake a journey of creative exploration each year; and Art Basel Cities, a platform that kicked off in Buenos Aires in 2017 and highlights local art scenes and facilitates international collaborations in selected cities. Today, Art Basel’s powerful triumvirate of fairs have become annual musts for more than 250,000 gallerists, artists, collectors and art lovers who make Basel, Miami Beach and Hong Kong the respective epicenters of the creative and social world during their runs. 2020 promises to bring fresh ideas and perspectives that will lead Art Basel toward its next half-century of greatness. “As we look ahead to our anniversary in 2020, we’re excited to present an ambitious contemporary art project that will span across our three show cities throughout the year, beginning with Hong Kong in March, then Basel in June and Miami Beach in December,” says Spiegler. “Curators Kasper König, Hamza Walker and Christina Li will co-curate the presentations in Basel, Miami Beach and Hong Kong, commissioning both international and local artists to bring together works around the topic of the trade fair as a site for exchange.”