Art fairs in the 21st century have—at least by uncharitable commentators—been compared to zoos, with big cat dealers staking out their territory (those prime position booths are all important for catching the early prey that comes through the door) while nimble, meerkat-like buyers encircle the goods on offer. A more serious, academic light has rarely been shone on this art ecosystem but a new research project initiated by a team of sociologists from the University of St Gallen in Switzerland aims to “find out more about the dynamics of the rapid transformation of the art world, its social structures and cultural functions”, with Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) as the focus of the venture.
“The art world is a complex social phenomenon. The relationship between art and money is antagonistic but at the same time, these two elements come together easily at art fairs. We want to explore this contradiction,” says Franz Schultheis, the professor leading the study. The project began at Art Basel in June and will continue in May 2012 at Art HK, the Hong Kong International Art Fair recently acquired by MCH Group, the owners of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach.
So far, the researchers have made a few revealing discoveries. “Collectors often tell us what they think of other collectors—they divide each other up into categories. So some will discuss a ‘real’ collector, while others talk about individuals who only buy for investment,” says Schultheis. What impression does he have of the Miami art scene so far? “There is cultural globalisation here.”
The research team will conduct one-on-one interviews with key collectors, dealers and curators at the fair this week. A visitors’ survey will also be handed out on the floor, which includes questions such as: “Do you have the feeling that the trends in contemporary art reflected at ABMB are: [multiple choice answers include] in step with the time; short-lived; repetitive; market conform-commercial.” Another question asks participants to name contemporary artists they consider to be “clearly overvalued by the market”.
“We want to speak with all kinds of ‘actors’ to discover their philosophies,” adds Schultheis, stressing that the study is inspired by the theories of Pierre Bourdieu. Indeed, the philosophy of the late French anthropologist could not be more apt in relation to the ABMB analysis. Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus” explores how tastes, skills and character traits are acquired in particular environments, with emphasis on clearly defined dress codes and behavioural patterns.
This intellectual endeavour is being met with a mixed reception on the fair floor, but US art adviser Lisa Schiff welcomed the move, saying that ABMB is the “perfect place” for such an exercise. The research results are due to be published in the next two to three years.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper Art Basel Miami Beach Daily as 'Deconstructing Art Basel Miami Beach'