Where the Buys Are: A Party Planner Talks About the Business of Art Basel Miami

“It’s like spring break for adults,” said Nadine Johnson, speaking about Art Basel Miami Beach and the dozens of related

“It’s like spring break for adults,” said Nadine Johnson, speaking about Art Basel Miami Beach and the dozens of related events and parties that take place during the tony art fair this week.

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In 2002, hers was among the first New York public-relations agencies at Art Basel week when she was hired to throw parties for hotelier André Balazs and art dealer Larry Gagosian, both of whom she still works with today. Art Basel parties are now practically an industry unto themselves.

Ms. Johnson, ex-wife of former Page Six ringmaster Richard Johnson, opened her public-relations firm in New York 18 years ago. Gracious and unflappable in public, fierce and exacting in private, she swiftly developed a formidable client list and legendary staff turnover. Clients in Miami alone have included Louis Vuitton, HBO, Visionaire, David Bouley. T Styles, Swarovski and Pucci.

We talked to her about how the event has changed in less than a decade, from an upstart wannabe art fair to the center of one of the world’s biggest art and design marketplaces.

 

How long have you been doing events during Art Basel Miami?

Since the get-go, it’s going to be eight years. It’s an average of 7 to 10 over the five days.

 

How has Miami itself changed over the years?

Better private planes and more private planes every year. The Miami Herald should have a picture of them all on their front page. [People practically greet each other], ‘What is your tail number?’

 

About 50,000 people come to the fair and related events, How has the event changed over the years? Has it changed the art world?  

The first years were very tentative, and it did open a lot of markets [to art] like South America, and has a very strong appeal for the Europeans, who are freezing in December. Then it became a cross-marketing platform for many, many brands that at times had very little relationship with the art world.

 

Some of which you repped, of course. Then the recession hit …

The recession was a very good wake-up call for those brands and a lot of people in general to be a little more thoughtful, to make events more genuine and more talent- or artist-focused and all about the fairs. What people sometimes tend to forget is that this is a commercial fair, it is about the business of selling art, so it is a very important fair financially.

 

But event planners are hired to make all the deal-making looks casual and fun.

The challenge in Miami is the weather … sometimes it gets very cold, very windy. Then there’s the general confusion, an abundance of different events and a lot of events. There’s much solicitation on everybody to go there, go there, there. A lot of guests don’t even know where they are going anymore.

 

You have nearly as many crashers as invited guests.

Sometimes we welcome them. You have to use your best judgment in knowing who are the important people in the art world–emerging artists, creative types.

 

What’s the craziest thing people say to try to get into parties they’re not invited to?

‘I work for Russell Simmons.’

 

You’ve had some pretty over-the-top events: a beach bonfire with box lunches by Eric Ripert. Caribbean picnics reached by chartered plane. Rooms filled with people-size balloons. Everyone at a Pucci party was loaned Pucci couture. I remember the stares of the suckling pigs with apples in their mouth carved up at a Damien Hirst event, for example. Has anybody ever said, ‘That’s too over the top, that’s too much?’

It was part of the exhibition; they weren’t serving the pigs, were they?

 

They were.

Nobody’s ever said, ‘That’s too much.’

 

You’ve done the events for Larry Gagosian and André Balazs for years, in New York, Miami and other cities. What are they like?

For many years, wonderful; they trust me to make the right judgments.

 

Working with Larry?

It’s enlightening … the sharpest business mind, and the highest level of taste. The hardest-working man I’ve ever met.

 

André?

Very cerebral, very, very subtle and very much involved in the whole context of a party. He has wonderful inspirations.

Where the Buys Are: A Party Planner Talks About the Business of Art Basel Miami