Where the ‘It’ Boys Are

Last week at Art Basel Miami Beach, any nervous talk of an art bubble was drowned out by the roar of pens furiously scribbling across checkbooks. But inside this delicious bubble, if you’re one of this season’s art-world “It” boys, you should at least be careful to whom you give your cell number. “Bianca Jagger is on my ass right now,” said Miami artist Hernan Bas. “At first when she called it was flattering, but now she’s just harassing me to get a piece.”

But it’s not the 27-year-old Mr. Bas’ body that is the object of Ms. Jagger’s affections—it’s his homoerotic paintings of dandies and waiflike teens falling out of dreamy landscapes and into each other’s arms. In her lust, Ms. Jagger may be reminded of her ex-husband’s glory days—or perhaps she just sensed yet another excellent investment.

Just five days before collectors and curators would pack onto JetBlue and wing south, Mr. Bas’ new contribution to one of his dealers’ booths, a half-finished 48-by-72-inch canvas that would be his largest work to date, lay before him in his Miami Design District studio. He works in a high-ceilinged space provided gratis by local developer Craig Robins, who believes that a rising art tide lifts all economic boats, especially those of, say, real-estate properties. “It needs another $20 worth of paint,” Mr. Bas joked of his painting, before it could be delivered to the top name on his dealer’s 200-strong waiting list, which is organized in an arcane pecking order that seemed to shuffle every time the phone rang with another wheedling collector.

“Everybody wants to jump ahead in line,” Mr. Bas said. “And they all tell me they want an important piece. What, as opposed to the unimportant ones?”

He needn’t have worried. Last Wednesday, before the fair even opened to the general public, Fredric Snitzer, his Miami dealer, sold that painting for $50,000 to a museum that he declined to name.

It was a new career high for Mr. Bas—but at this fair, in this self-hyping market, could any of it have gone wrong? That crazy rush of cash was a harbinger of the now-typical art-fair madness about to begin. Back in 1984, historian and critic Robert Hughes warned of a new “porousness of the barrier which separates the language of disinterested evaluation from sales talk,” a development that had created “Art World, the cultural equivalent to Disneyworld, full of rides and haunted houses and historical fictions …. ” Now that barrier may no longer exist. And hey! Let’s not forget the Magic Food Court!

EARLY AT WEDNESDAY’S GRAND OPENING, a clutch of young Basel staffers were discovered huddled around a BlackBerry, trying to console a female colleague who appeared near tears. Miami power-collector Ella Cisneros had just sent over another 14 names to be added to a private dinner honoring painter Robert Rauschenberg.

“We’re already 70 people over, and every person costs money,” said one staffer of the Bulgari-sponsored fête. “She can’t keep adding people! It’s not even our event!” Still, Ms. Cisneros was not a woman to be slighted, and clearly the e-mail reply was going to have be worded very carefully.

Yet no sooner had the group composition gotten underway than another panicked staffer ran up. Apparently, Robert Rauschenberg’s nurse was not on the V.I.P. list and had been barred from accompanying the wheelchair-bound artist inside. Double crisis! Let the party begin!

All in all, 36,000 out-of-towners joined a horde of locals to converge on the Miami Beach Convention Center and tear through its 195 gallery booths, while four satellite fairs housed another 248 galleries. Over the five days, there were swanky dinners, private parties and personal tours of the warehoused collections of Miami’s marquee collectors: Ms. Cisneros, Norman Braman, Debra and Dennis Scholl, Rosa de la Cruz, Martin Margulies, and pack leaders Don and Mera Rubell. Their vast stockpiles on display handily eclipsed the offerings of the city’s actual museums. Once upon a time, collectors stocked the museums: In Miami, they merely open their own.

Rather than being exhausting, all these overlapping frenzies only seemed to rev up the metabolism. And not every party was all artsy. For starters, when better to introduce Frida Kahlo tequila to the world? “Frida was very passionate about every aspect of her life, and that is the spirit of Art Basel,” said the Mexican artist’s grandniece (and family licensee), Mara Kahlo. But, one wondered, might not Frida’s old Communist Party comrades look askance at her iconic status being used to push $90 bottles of high-octane alcohol? “In her political salons,” Ms. Kahlo shot back, “when they gathered to discuss the issues of the day, they always drank tequila.”

But it didn’t take hard liquor to bring on the madness at Basel proper. Manhattan über-dealer Jeffrey Deitch compared the fair’s first day to Black Friday: “Did you see those photos of people pouring through Wal-Mart’s doors at 5 a.m.? That’s exactly what it is like here.” In a few hours, virtually all the work on display at the Deitch Projects booth had been sold. But then, that’s what everyone was saying: Dealers may dis the bubble, but they certainly want it known they’re deep inside it.

The Rubells, whose purchases have become as influentially price-setting on the art market as any museum, had bought a painting from Mr. Deitch by Chelsea’s latest star, Kehinde Wiley. Pointing to his remaining Wiley painting—an imposing nine-by-nine-foot piece which transposed a thugged-out hip-hop figure into a Napoleonic-era battle scene—Mr. Deitch said he was well aware that with the Rubell imprimatur, it would now easily fetch twice the $45,000 price for which it had been reserved, before the fair, by a museum.

“But a year or two later, it’d be back at the auction house again,” he added blithely. And raising the value of Mr. Wiley’s future work is, like, somehow bad for Mr. Deitch? “It’s important to avoid unsustainable prices,” Mr. Deitch said, as if schooling a child. “In a rising market, everybody looks smart. But I’ve been doing this since 1974, and there’s no such thing as a market that always goes up.”

So everyone keeps saying. That quiet and (so far) unwarranted caution was the party line all over town—just the sort of market self-deprecation that keeps a market humming. Even Miami gallery owner Genaro Ambrosino warned, “If you’re looking for a sure bet, buy bonds, not art.” A prominent New York collector quipped, “Anytime you’re involved in a transaction with somebody called a ‘dealer,’ whether he’s dealing cards, drugs or paintings, you know you’re about to get ripped off.” Well, then why are you here?

Wall Street, at least, had learned to love the bubble. The New York–based Fernwood Art Investments has pushed back the launch of its endlessly discussed art mutual funds, but the company still brought out a spiffy, super-bullish, chart-heavy circular. Over a 10-year period, Fernwood calculates, had you invested in all things Richard Prince, you would have seen an annualized return of 43 percent—and all that number-crunching was done prior to Mr. Prince’s stellar 2005 sales, which saw his Untitled (Cowboy) become the first photograph to break the million-dollar mark at auction; a painting from Mr. Prince’s Nurse series has also passed the seven-figure threshold, just three years after its initial offering at $150,000.

See? Why worry? And Zwirner and Wirth sold an Elizabeth Peyton watercolor for $110,000, while London’s White Cube sold all five editions of Tracey Emin’s new The Last Century DVD for $104,000—each. Take two, they’re small!

BUT THOSE SEARCHING FOR THE NEXT DECADE’S PRINCES, Peytons and Emins—or at least work with one less zero (for now) in the price tag—made their way across Biscayne Bay to Miami’s rapidly gentrifying Wynwood neighborhood and the New Art Dealers Alliance fair—which may explain why those Fernwood analysts who tout “investable art insight” had jumped onboard as NADA’s chief sponsor.

Betty Lee Stern, whose Aaron and Betty Lee Stern Foundation has been a recent co-sponsor of exhibits at the Met and the Whitney, parked herself in NADA co-founder Zach Feuer’s booth, making it clear where she felt the strongest voices (or, ahem, investments) in contemporary art lay. Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director who followed in Ms. Stern’s wake, shared her enthusiasm for the fair. “I’m more excited about the go-for-broke attitude here,” he said.

The same boldface-named collectors who had torn through Basel also picked much of NADA clean, fortunately, as it’s no fun to actually go home broke. Mr. Feuer had sold a set of four videos by Nathalie Djurberg to the Rubells at $5,000 each, while geek-chic gallery owner Daniel Reich didn’t even bother to rise out of his chair as visitors poked around his booth. “They’re all sold,” he barked when asked about his Hernan Bas holdings.

It was all a bit much for Miami painter and artblog.net editor Franklin Einspruch. “When you want to check someone’s pulse, you don’t do it after they’ve gone on a three-mile jog and done a line of coke,” he e-mailed during the fair, calling cheery economic forecasts based on Miami sales ridiculous.

Still, the only dealers in attendance not smiling were those who’d been denied a berth among NADA’s 83 slots. “I would have made a killing there,” groused one rejected Wynwood gallery owner. “All you need is their stamp of approval for collectors to start throwing down.”

It was a belief that NADA charter member and Chelsea gallery owner Oliver Kamm became painfully acquainted with after a score of gallery owners back in New York begged him to put in a word with this year’s selection committee. “When NADA was just a bunch of dealers meeting over a pizza lunch, nobody came,” Mr. Kamm said. “But when you add an economic component, suddenly everybody’s your best friend.”

Over at Bellwether’s booth, gallery owner and NADA co-founder Becky Smith had given prime space to two of New Yorker Adam Cvijanovic’s paintings—windblown houses in flight with a mass of cultural detritus swirling around them—but it hadn’t even been necessary to hang them. The two prospective buyers—including New Line Cinema co-C.E.O. Michael Lynne—that she’d called a week earlier had both been standing outside NADA’s doors as she unpacked, each ready to pounce on one of Mr. Cvijanovic’s $20,000 paintings. And don’t even think about asking Ms. Smith if such an attitude is unhealthy.

“This isn’t a novel experiment,” she said. “I’m not trying to remain an emerging artists’ gallery for my entire career, where people show up and say”—she dropped her voice to a precious coo—“‘Ooh! Look! A cute little gallery with cute little artists!’ If I become established, it just means my artists now have real lives. Isn’t that the point? I’m not just trying to make a buck off a trend. I’m trying to help artists have viable careers, getting them onto the museum circuit and out into the world.”

HERNAN BAS, EMBARRASSED AT BEING TOUTED in the press as the standard-bearer for Miami’s homegrown art scene, kept a purposely low profile throughout the week’s affairs. But while his Patrick McMullan close-ups would have to wait, he’s no fool about the almighty market. “I wish people would stop pretending this isn’t a business,” Mr. Bas said, with a sigh, on the eve of Basel. “I’ve got friends who haven’t been paid by their dealers in nine months. If that happened in any other field, people would be outraged.”

When he was told that Charles Saatchi—famed for his hard-nosed speculation tactics—had recently made an offer to buy up the bulk of Mr. Bas’ latest work (according to a source close to Fredric Snitzer), Mr. Bas didn’t appear fazed in the slightest. “Sometimes I think artists are the only people who treat the art world as if commerce wasn’t involved,” he said.