"The 1%’s Pegboy": Art Fair Week in Miami

NO CTRL's undercover writer Jacob Kart returns from his Art Basel mission with insights into how unreal it all is.

As I strolled through the hall of the ballroom I had to manage at the art fair in Miami last week (not Basel, one of the smaller satellite fairs) it was hard to see any of the work on the walls as anything but a problem to be solved. Every piece had been crated and shipped, delivered and hung, lit, rehung, relit. Rearranged, rearranged again. Everything had to be perfect. The art fair can make or break your year if you run a gallery. It costs plenty to get in, and if most of your booth hasn’t sold by the end of the opening preview you’re probably not going to go home happy.

But now it was the morning of the first day of the fair. The exhibitors were still nursing hangovers and wouldn’t show up for another half hour. Since I have more of a background in the music world than the art world I found myself pausing in front of one piece. It was a painting. Sort of in the style of Rothko. Four bars of color, an abstraction. In a recognizable pattern.

Yeah, it was Black Flag bars. Probably priced at $5000 or more. Art like this poses the question that seems to either enrage or engage people during Art Fair week in Miami. It’s work that’s more about who would buy it than it is about itself. What kind of person would hang a $5000 painting of the logo of a punk rock band on their wall? 

An hour later, the painting had already sold.

Where’s the Party?

“Love-Hate Relationship” doesn’t even begin to describe the extremes of early December in Miami. The people who run the galleries are good people. They care about their artists. But they have to wade through the sleaze like everybody else. The artists are generally talented. They care deeply about what they do. But if they make the mistake of hanging around their booths when the collectors stampede in, they probably can only cope with a few minutes of hearing their work casually praised or dismissed on the basis of its investment value. By the afternoon of the first day, they’re congregating around the hot tub with a dazed look on their face, reevaluating their entire practice.

Oh, and cocaine. Everyone is looking for cocaine.

It’s quite a scene. And for one week the definition of “appreciation” is way less “3. perceptive recognition of qualities, as in art” and way more “4. an increase in value, as of goods or property.” 

As one exhibitor who’d made the trip from Chicago put it: “I’m the one percent’s pegboy.”

It’s the sort of place where a certain frumpy looking old man in a dirty suit is king of the world, because everyone in the room knows he’s a famous collector from LA and he can make your day with his checkbook. The proprietor of one uber-hip New York gallery brushed by Naomi Campbell on her way outside for a cigarette without even a hint of recognition. The actress and her entourage were too late: all the work she wanted had already sold.

Money Money Money

With all these dollars changing hands so quickly and with so little reporting of the transactions involved, the opportunities for corruption seemed pretty obvious. Art Basel is a private company, and therefore has no shareholders and no need to report any financial details to anyone. Art worth an estimated $500 million is sold at the main fair every year, but nobody knows for certain where that money comes from or where it goes (unless the galleries publicize their sales to the art media, which they often do.)

Basel is backed by some big names: UBS, Cartier, Bally, BMW. I hoped that I’d be able to uncover some secret sleazy arrangements by engaging various art world folks in casual conversation at the dive bars and posh parties everyone ended up at each night. No such luck. 

A nice young woman I met at Sandbar who worked for the auction house at Christie’s told me not to bother. “You’re not going to find anything, and why try anyway?” We ordered another couple gin and tonics and made fun of the girl across the bar who was too high to do anything but twirl her hair in a daze.

Oh: the bar is called Sandbar because the entire floor of the bar is covered in sand. Miami is pretty weird.

Plus One

The deal making is a 24 hour job for everyone involved. Everyone wants an invitation to the best party, because the casual atmosphere of a sponsored event with free Grolsch and up and coming DJs from New York is often a better place to meet the man or woman who will “appreciate” your artists. There’s always a pool. The list always gets thrown away after an hour. When the party crashers jump in the pool, it’s time to find the next party.

A friend from high school scored me a coveted “plus one” to the Playboy party at Dream Hotel in South Beach. I brought an artist friend from Chicago and we tried to look like we belonged. Yes, there were naked women. Yes, there was a pool, even though the party was on a rooftop. I paid $22 for a whiskey on the rocks. At some point I said “this is absurd,” and immediately realized that when you’ve said “this is absurd” for the tenth time in a single day, you have to realize that you’re slowly adjusting to a new, slightly horrifying version of normal.

Later, I shared a sandwich with a beefy looking man at Le Sandwicherie on 14th and Collins. “You heard of the 1%? I’m the .3%,” he said. He then proceeded to tell me how he’d figured out how to track individuals who download porn with bittorrent clients, and then sue them on behalf of the porn sites. Invariably, they settle. “This watch doesn’t just look like it’s made of gold,” he said as he walked across the street to Club Deuce. It was 4am, and the bars were still open for at least another hour.

Thirty minutes later as I looked for a cab, I saw a man bleeding on the sidewalk from a stab wound to the chest. One girl was screaming, but most people went about their business as the ambulances arrived.

Anti Art Becomes Art

Earlier in the week, before the fair opened, I played a noise rock show at a bar in Little Haiti called Churchill’s. The ceilings were falling down, and the locals were making out on the pool tables. Rat Bastard and Kenny Millions were onstage, screaming into microphones and shouting “BLOW ME BLOW ME” while they fired toy rayguns at the audience and played with guitars and KAOSS pads.

When I had my turn on the stage I felt like a real person for the only time on the trip. I made some noise. I got too drunk. I almost got the shit kicked out of me for grabbing somebody else’s beer. There was excitement and danger everywhere, but it was real. In fact, one of the only things I remember clearly from that night was a wide eyed art fair coworker who’d been brave enough to come along shout-whispering to me “THIS IS SO REAL.”

Nothing else that happened in Miami was. Art Fair week is like a magic trick where everybody knows how it’s done and nobody sticks around for the reveal.

post by bucketbrigade


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