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Miami Crossroads

Richmonders head south for one of the art world's hottest gatherings.

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By late afternoon in front of the Miami Beach Convention Center Dec. 6, the line to valet park is about 10 Land Rovers, Jaguars, Rolls-Royces and Maseratis long. Inside it's packed for the VIP-only opening of Art Basel, the most important art fair of a dozen happening in Miami this weekend.

Here, galleries each shell out about $30,000 to rent a booth, putting themselves amidst the biggest contemporary art collectors in the world. These are collectors hoping to acquire a Warhol, de Kooning, Ruscha — or better yet, the next big thing.

Some members of Richmond's arts community have been waiting for this weekend. There's Paul Monroe, a collector; John Ravenal, curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; John Pollard, owner of ADA Gallery; Joe Seipel, associate dean of Virginia Commonwealth University's arts school and director of graduate studies; and several Richmond artists, including VCU craft grad student Erin Williams.

A cross section of the local visual arts scene, these Richmonders mirror the kind of crowd at this key gathering in Miami Beach. Collectively, they will cover all the major events of the weekend, including satellite fairs, museum openings and even a party hosted by Versace. Style Weekly followed along to find out about the competition, speculation and potentially career-changing deals that draw them south.

The Buyer

"Art fairs are kind of disgusting — they're really about money," Richmond gastroenterologist and art collector Dr. Paul Monroe says.

It's 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, and Monroe, dressed in a black suit and peach button-down, has already made his rounds at the fair. He and his wife, Sara — who is far less interested in art — had been invited to a pre-VIP opening by one of the galleries he knows.

Monroe is no amateur. He regularly travels to New York City and Los Angeles to see and buy art. Two years ago, he traveled to Frieze London's art fair and came home with a new piece. Although Monroe says he's been tempted by a few of the works here at Basel, he insists he is not here to buy art.

"I'm on a diet," he'd said before his trip. "I've got a painting that came in last night and one that came in last week."

Monroe has spent a significant amount of time developing relationships with gallerists in order to be one of the first in line when a desirable painting comes in. Those relationships paid off in 1990 when he bought what he considers his "first unique piece" by the artist Kiki Smith. It's in New York now; the Whitney Museum is borrowing it for an exhibit.

The art market is so hot that it's competitive. It's also the purest kind of marketplace. All the goods are unique, yet hold no real value on their own. Prices are determined by what other pieces have sold for; value is determined by demand. In short, art does well when the economy is doing well. And in a year when everyone on the Forbes 400 list is a billionaire, art is booming.

In 2005 Damien Hirst's pickled shark sold for $12 million. In October David Geffen sold a Jasper Johns painting for $80 million (a record for a living artist) and a Willem de Kooning for $63.5 million — all to hedge-fund billionaires. In the midst of this red-hot market is Art Basel Miami Beach, the biggest art fair in the United States and a spinoff of Art Basel Switzerland.

"It's like going into a museum, but shopping," graduate art student Williams says.

This year Basel has attracted 40,000 collectors and art industry insiders from every continent to peruse booths set up by 200 galleries from 30 countries. Consider: If each booth has 10 pieces hanging by various artists, that's only 2,000 works available for sale to 40,000 people, or a ratio of 1:20. Demand far exceeds supply.

Getting into the fair for the VIP opening is often not good enough, Monroe says, because much of the "most desirable art" is sold before it arrives. Galleries e-mail images to collectors showing what they'll be bringing, and if it's a piece by an in-demand artist, it may sell based on a JPEG.

Why go then? To make connections. To stay competitive.

Monroe stops by the booth of CRG Gallery, whose home is the Chelsea gallery district in New York. Owners Carla Chammas and Glenn McMillan rush over for hugs. Monroe compliments the centerpiece painting hanging in the booth. It's by Tomory Dodge, an artist whose work Monroe has in his collection.

Chammas says they've had some bites from people who are interested, but they've had to hold them off because a museum is interested in the piece. McMillan points out that they want to meet new collectors, but that they also have to consider where a painting will end up, for the sake of the artists they represent. Such behind-the-scenes politics can thwart a potential collector if they're unknown by the galleries.

There are generally three avenues to get into such a hot market, Monroe says, for people who have the money and the inclination. The easiest way is at auctions, which are open to anyone and need no relationships — the art goes to the highest bidder. The next easiest way is at an art fair such as Art Basel. They're open to everyone and provide an opportunity to make connections with a gallery if you act quickly. The most difficult way to acquire art is the most time-consuming: forging relationships with galleries. Once they get to know collectors and their tastes, gallerists will let them know when a painting is available. But oftentimes, they'll do that only if a collector's intentions are good. Most galleries frown upon the idea of trying to quickly turn over a painting for a profit.

Monroe has been collecting art since he moved to Richmond down the block from gallery owner Bev Reynolds 25 years ago. Reynolds first turned him on to collecting when she helped him find art for his new home.

"It was a sort of alternative thing to think about and read about besides medicine," Monroe says. He sees it as "an interesting pursuit," to try to determine if an artist's work reflects the times. "It's a way of thinking about things and making judgments about things," he says.

On this day, Monroe carries around a list of works that galleries have e-mailed him about, pieces they think he might like. But he insists he's here to talk and look, not buy.

But by the end of the weekend, however, Monroe has put a video installation by performance artist and sculptor John Bock on reserve. He originally saw Bock's work in a London museum. And he's deciding whether he wants this piece — and working to get permission from his wife.

The Scout

Across the water in the city's design district, rows of low-slung storefronts sell Lycra dresses and skimpy tops at wholesale. It's Thursday morning at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Goldman Warehouse, where emerging artists are featured.

MOCA is holding an opening for "Artificial Light" with orange juice and cookies. The exhibit originally opened at VCU's Anderson Gallery and was curated by John Ravenal, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' curator of modern and contemporary art.

The exhibit, which features seven emerging artists who use light as their material, has traveled to Miami because of a connection Ravenal has with MOCA's director. The opening is scattered with VCU and VMFA employees. Ravenal greets visitors, talking to a Miami Herald reporter and taking calls on his cell phone. It's great exposure for VCU and VMFA: 800 curators and art lovers visit, including the director from the Whitney.

"All this is new work — we want to show new artists," MOCA director Bonnie Clearwater says. "We're not afraid to wait for an opinion or a consensus."

In the rapid pace of the art market there is little time for consensus. And because of a decentralized media, there are few influential art critics. As a result, dealers and curators have garnered even more power as tastemakers.

As a curator, Ravenal says that his role in the art world is to act as a sort of filter, to organize shows that galleries won't (often because the work might not sell for one reason or another, or because the work is already sold and unavailable).

But his job here in Miami is "to observe and evaluate, then eventually to act in some way — most likely to exhibit or acquire." Because he has several works in the pipeline for VMFA to approve for purchase, however, he says he's just window-shopping.

When the "Artificial Light" private opening ends, Ravenal, dressed in a blue blazer and jeans, takes around a group from the Aldridge Museum in Connecticut for a private tour as a favor to a colleague. He explains that he discovered a couple of the artists in the show the last time he was at Art Basel. After the tour, Ravenal has no time to wait for a group from a Dallas museum; he has an appointment to be interviewed on Art Radio, the Internet-based station of MOMA affiliate P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center.

Ravenal fires up his rental car and heads to the beach. When VMFA's expansion is complete in 2009, he says, it will have new 21st-century galleries, so he needs a decade's worth of art to put in them. Despite this mandate, Ravenal says his collecting is slow-paced, from several to a half-dozen paintings a year.

While the popularity of contemporary art is a good thing for a curator in that specialty, it also makes Ravenal's job more difficult. Museums aren't used to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for young living artists. "Very few museums can spend what a very big piece is going for," Ravenal says. "We have spent a million for a painting, but it's from the 16th century."

Ravenal has to be ahead of the curve, but at the same time, he says, "it's not always appropriate for a museum of our kind to have an untested work." He doesn't want to be too far ahead; he must be sure the art will withstand the test of time.

The radio studio is set up like the announcer's box at a football game, high above an outdoor cafe. It's amid a temporary village of shipping crates that have been turned into galleries as part of the Art Basel fair. Suddenly, there's bad news.

Just before Ravenal is to go on air, he gets a call from someone at MOCA. One of the Dallas visitors to "Artificial Light" has taken a seat on a sculpture at the show. The piece, made of neon, is broken.

This confounds Ravenal. The work is in the shape of a chair, but obviously isn't; it's merely an outline with no seat and is placed, glowing, next to its twin in a black room. "I don't know what would make someone think that was a good idea," Ravenal says, flabbergasted.

He must make a flurry of calls — to the artist to break the news, to the artist's New York gallery so another one can be sent down (but can a shipping crate be constructed in time?), to Anderson Gallery curator Amy Moorefield to keep her in the loop, back to MOCA to figure out if their insurance will cover it. But first the radio interview.

Ravenal is part of a roundtable with two artists and another curator. The radio show, "Rush Interactive" is hosted by Michael Rush, director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

They discuss the overwhelming nature of all the art on display this weekend. "It's hard to see a lot of disparate work," Ravenal says. "It does start looking like merchandise."

The Seller

Selling art is exactly why gallery owner John Pollard of ADA Gallery is in Miami. It's Thursday evening, and he's manning his booth at the Scope art fair, the oldest of the many satellite art fairs happening around Art Basel.

He's here against the orders of his doctor, who wanted him to go to the hospital a week ago because of his asthma. Pollard said forget it. This is his biggest weekend of the year. The rental fee at his booth at Scope costs more than a year's rent at his Broad Street gallery. The exposure is worth it, he says.

A year ago Pollard almost closed his gallery's doors. As one last gasp he rented a booth at the Affordable Art Fair in New York and there made enough to stay in business. On top of that, Charles Saatchi, the world's biggest collector, stopped by his booth and expressed interest in one of his artists. That same year Pollard rented booths at three other art fairs, including one in London.

"One week on Broad Street, three people, maybe 20 come in, maybe a sale, maybe not," Pollard says, "where here you're exposed to the biggest collectors in the world."

The high price tags of contemporary artists at "blue chip" galleries are out of reach for most collectors. So younger artists — many of them still in grad school — are becoming stars with the help of savvy gallery owners.

Case in point: A sculpture by art star Tara Donovan, a '99 master of fine arts grad from VCU, is going for $40,000 at an Art Basel booth. The younger, or "emerging," artist niche is where the 12 alternative fairs — all with odd names like Scope, NADA and Bridge — come in. It's where you will find established galleries that are not among the top 200 in the world.

Many collectors are Wall Street millionaires who enjoy the gamble of an emerging artist because of the possibility of a hefty return on their investment. But even getting in on the ground floor can be tough when there is a limited amount of product, and collectors must wait for an artist to produce more. As a result, unknown artists are also in demand. Their price tags generally range from $1,000 to $30,000 at the alternative fairs, with some works well above that.

To get to Miami, Pollard rented a truck. With the help of his girlfriend, he loaded it with the work of seven artists that he represents — large paintings, small sculptures and books showing the artists' other work in case a collector should want to see more. After dropping his parakeets off at his parents' house, they began the long drive to Miami. Other galleries ship their art and even fly in collectors; Pollard says he's his own lackey.

Standing at his booth in a new sport jacket, Pollard jokes about how he tries to herd people into it. He walks out into the middle and subtly walks back toward his booth, casually pushing whomever he can with him. He did it to Kevin Bacon at a New York fair.

Pollard says he knows that the percentage of collectors interested in what he's selling is smaller, but that he must have challenging art to get accepted into a fair like Scope. So it's sort of a doubled-edged sword. He's counting on an artist named Daniel Davidson, whose work hangs prominently in his booth. A collector already has come by, paying $6,000 in cash for one of the paintings. Pollard considers swapping out some art for others and compares feeling out the crowd to fishing.

"There is $100,000 art at Scope, so I'm the cheapy," Pollard says. "In a way that makes it hard to sell because part of it is psychological."

The Talent

Collectors are the reason the art fairs exist, but naturally it's the artists that provide the fodder. Still, while Miami is overrun with buyers, gallery owners, curators and others, artists themselves aren't much of a presence.

There are no renegade installations, artists hawking paintings on the sidewalk or impromptu performance pieces. Everything is scheduled and sponsored; UBS Bank is the main sponsor, with liquor companies, private-jet firms, W Hotels and other luxury products stamping their names on seemingly every event and booth.

"This is crass commercialism — don't kid yourself," says Joe Seipel, VCU's amiable associate dean of the school of the arts, who was dean of sculpture for 17 years. He's in Miami, in part, to support the VCU students and graduates who are showing work this weekend. On Friday morning, he's sitting with robot painter and VCU grad Nick Kuzyk, at the outdoor cafe at a film studio that has been turned into the NADA (New Art Dealers Alliance) art fair.

Seipel wanders through the aisles of the fair. He knows it well; he's already been through this one as well as most of the other fairs. He stops by an L.A. gallery's booth where a new sculpture faculty member, Sanford Biggers, has an interesting piece. It's a children's puffy winter coat, the kind associated with hip-hop culture, covered in exotic feathers as if it's a tribal chief's coat of a new generation. It's selling for $16,000. The gallery owner says a curator from MOMA's P.S. 1 museum is interested. She also says Biggers is working on a project with the Dalai Lama.

Seipel talks about "good, smart art." Curators and art academics put a high value on smart art. It's what art graduate school is all about; offering students time to think about their work. When asked what type of art he likes, Seipel replies wryly: "I have shirts I like, but I'm drawn to art I find interesting."

At another booth, there's headline-making news for VCU. A piece by former grad student Eric Sall sells to megacollector Saatchi for $12,000. "This is going to change his whole life," Seipel says.

Besides supporting the VCU artists represented, Seipel says he's also there to see what type of art is being made and what different galleries are showing. He teaches a professional-practices class that tries to help students with real-life issues, such as how to work with a gallery, set up a sole proprietorship and copyright work.

"There's the whole aesthetic thing — what happens in the studio," Seipel says. "Then there's the business."

There's also a business to marketing graduates. VCU has cleverly forged a relationship with a New York gallery, renting it last year for a grad-student exhibit in the space. Seipel's working on another such arrangement with a London gallery for the coming year. And when he runs into established grads or galleries with which the school has a relationship, Seipel solicits them to come speak to students.

VCU also helps students get out to see the art world. It offers travel grants for students to attend art events or shows where their work is appearing. Eight students have taken that opportunity to get here to Miami. Some schmooze, some party, some go to research and meet galleries. And, as one student told me, some don't go because "they don't want to see that kind of commerce."

Williams, a craft and materials studies grad student, packed into a Saturn with three other craft students and drove 15 hours through the night to get to Miami. While some art students are put off by the blatant "Where's the checkbook, honey?" commerce of art going on here, Williams has a different take. She sees it as hopeful.

"At school we prepare ourselves that it's going to be really hard," Williams says. "It's comforting to know you fit into this, you're the right caliber."

And being the right caliber can pay off, as it did for Sall and his big sale to Saatchi.

Sall says his painting, "Interworld," will be included in an ambitious exhibit Saatchi is mounting in London when his new gallery opens this summer.

"That's going to be the most immediate, exciting thing," Sall says. "When I look at the artists on the list [whose work will also be in the show], there are all these painters I've looked up to, and now I'm part of that group.

"I don't know what will happen," he says. "I guess we'll just have to wait to see." S

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