Samuel Keller has been the director of the prestigious Art Basel art fair and its younger, sexier sister, Art Basel Miami Beach, since 2000.
Both fairs have risen in prominence in those years, becoming the most important contemporary art fairs in North America and Europe. They have added to their rosters a greater number and greater quality of galleries, and have enlarged the definition of an art fair, turning what were once staid trade shows for dealers and collectors into week-long spectacles that draw attention from beyond the traditional art world—thanks in no small part to the storied and increasingly over-the-top parties and events attached to them.
Along the way, the Art Basel fairs have attracted a sea of followers, imitators and devotees. This week’s Miami Beach event, for example, is joined by no less than 11 satellite fairs, all of which are hoping to attract some of Keller’s very lucrative limelight.
So it came as quite a surprise to the art world earlier this year, when Keller announced he would be leaving Art Basel in 2008 to take over leadership of the comparatively secluded Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland. The organization, created by legendary art dealer Ernst Beyeler, was called a “Swiss Lincoln Center” by Art + Auction magazine, but seems a strange destination for “the man with 30,000 friends.”
Though he remained mum about his plans for Beyeler, Keller spoke to us about the big selling points for this year’s Miami Beach fair, his predictions for the future of art fairs and one his favorite anecdotes from Miami.
Sam, please tell us about your expectations for Art Basel Miami: How will 2006 be different from past years?
The fifth edition of Art Basel Miami Beach will be the biggest and best ever in regard to art. That's what really counts. Thanks to a new record number of applications we were able to further improve the list of galleries. It's the crème de la crème of the art market, with many interesting additions. Established art dealers like Knoedler and Mary Boone are coming for the first time, along with galleries like Per Skarstedt and Daniel Buchholz, plus many hot young newcomers.
There are more ancillary events than ever, but for official events we have focused on quality not quantity. They include a film night with Dennis Hopper, a design night with Marc Newson and concerts by Peaches and Los Super Elegantes.
For the first time, Vanity Fair and Vogue are hosting events together with museums and biennales, and over 100 museums will bring their boards of trustees. We also expect more artists and art professionals than ever from Latin America and Europe, [as well as] important new guests from Russia and the Middle East. And because of Design Miami, we will have famous architects and designers attending.
What tips would you give to a first-time visitor for maximizing their experience of the fair?
Make art the center of your experience. Focus on quality, allow time to look, ask questions, define a budget, buy what touches you, wear comfortable shoes, make new friends.
So what styles and categories of art do you expect will be the most sought-after by collectors this year?
New sales trends are created and registered during the show.
Looking beyond Miami, what are your projections for the art market in the next 12 or so months? Can it maintain this stratospheric buying level?
I am not a prophet and I don't want to speculate.
So what will the future be for major art fairs? They’ve obviously assumed a greater role in the art world in recent years. Is this a good thing? And will they become more or less important over the next few years?
As long as the art world keeps expanding and growing there will be more art fairs and biennials. The phenomenon of art fairs is too complex to be analyzed in a few sentences, [but] I believe fairs are not the reasons for, but reactions to, today's art world.
On a personal note, your pending departure from Art Basel in 2008 has been much publicized. What are your plans for your new position?
I will become the director of the Beyeler Foundation in 2008 and will be happy to talk about my future plans then.
So what have you enjoyed most about running the world’s premier art fairs?
Having the privilege to see a lot of inspiring art and to meet fascinating people.
Art Basel Miami always generates plenty of gossip and amusing stories. Without naming names, what’s the most interesting incident you’ve witnessed at the fair?
One of the memorable moments of Art Basel Miami Beach was when one famous dealer told me the wonderful story of a collector who bought a Tim Noble and Sue Webster light piece from him. [The collector] acquired the work, which forms the word "Happy," several years ago in Basel for something like $2,000 dollars and lived happily with it.
An auction house later convinced her to sell the piece for a high profit, which she did. In Miami, she saw the "Happy" piece [again] and confessed to the dealer that she really missed it and felt unhappy she had sold it.
But she was happy to buy it again for over $200,000.