Basel—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens in 1859, underlying the class antagonisms that had come to define his era, an era defined by sharp divisions between the rich and the poor. According to a recent report published by Oxfam, global inequality is worse today than in Dickens’ time. In spite (or perhaps because) of growing wealth inequality, the art world continues to see record sales thanks in large part to its longest running commercial fair, Art Basel, now in its 48th edition.
This year, Art Basel played host to 291 galleries from 35 countries, presenting contemporary and Modern works by over 4,000 artists. Based on early reports, sales at Art Basel this year have been strong. According to Art Basel’s global director, Marc Spiegler, more than 90 chartered flights were scheduled to land at Basel’s Euro Airport during the preview days despite what he called politically and economically “volatile times.”
By most accounts, Art Basel has become essential for collectors as well as museums seeking new acquisitions for their permanent collections. This year, only one gallery from Dubai attended Art Basel’s main fair, Green Art Gallery, which presented a multigenerational mix of contemporary artists from the Middle East and South Asia.
Basel is also home to 37 private and public museums, many of which develop interesting parallel programs to coincide with the fair, such as the Fondation Beyeler, which provided a nice counterpoint by presenting a series of “immaterial” works by artist Tino Sehgal.
Above all, Art Basel provides a market for dealers and collectors to come together in order to exchange high-value objects oriented for the market. According to Georgina Adam, art-market editor for the FT and founder of The Art Newspaper, in times of chaos and uncertainty, art is seen as a safe storage for wealth. As investors grow weary of inflation and sovereign debt continues to push interest rates lower and lower, art is seen by those with high net-worth as a relatively safe bet, something that can be tucked away and stored in tax- and duty-free warehouses across the world, she suggests.
Admittedly, Art Basel is not the cause of global wealth inequality but, perhaps, a symptom of it. With this year’s edition of Art Basel coming to a close, the goods on display function as the life-blood for many dealers who rely on selling to high-net-worth individuals in order to maintain their operations throughout the year. However, the mega-galleries who participate in the art-fair system often do so without the slightest regard for quality, replacing profit with the time honoured tradition of art borne of a social responsibility to educate and awaken.
Art Basel took place from June 13-18 at the Swiss exhibition site Messe Basel.