Every year around this time I’m inundated with emails from artist friends, clients and former students telling me they are going to the Miami art fairs to “check out galleries” and asking me for advice. This year as the queries started rolling in, I decided to compile my top ten tips all in one place. But before we dive in, there are two important things to understand before your first visit to Art Basel Miami.
First, Art Basel Miami Beach is an art fair. It’s the “big fair” where you will see museum quality art, cutting edge works and a whole lot of people dressed for the occasion. If you are an emerging artist looking for galleries that might be interested in your work, it probably isn’t relevant to you at this stage. But if you’re someone who just loves checking out art, is curious about what’s happening in the high end of the art world, and you enjoy people watching, it’s worth attending. In addition to Art Basel Miami, there are at least twenty “satellite” fairs that have popped up over the years around Art Basel Miami. They range from pretty rough to super fabulous. Many have a specific focus and each has its own personality. These are the fairs you want to focus on if you’re scouting for galleries that might take an interest in your work. There are also dozens of special events, parties, tours and public art happenings going on all over town. And it’s worth mentioning that there are many cities all over the world that host art fairs – some host several at once like Miami, others just one at a time – and these fairs are all worth checking out. But Miami, in December, is the largest annual art fair event in the US.
Second, it’s crucial to understand and accept that the fairs are about commerce. Galleries pay tens of thousands (or more) dollars to be there with the primary goal of selling art and reaching collectors. Sure, gallerists may stroll around to check out who is showing whom and see if anything intrigues them. But they’re not there looking for new artists. They’re there to sell and promote the artists they already have. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value for every artist in visiting the fairs. It’s a great way to research and view hundreds of gallery programs all in one place and hopefully meet and connect with other artists and arts professionals. And if you’re prepared and know what to expect, it can be a really great time.
So here are my top 10 tips to help you make the most of the experience:
- It’s pronounced Basel (like the city) not Basil (like the herb) – The same people who produce Art Basel Miami produce a fair in Basel Switzerland every year in June. In fact, it was their original fair. That’s why it’s a good idea to refer to the US fair as Art Basel Miami, or Art Basel Miami Beach, and why Basel is pronounced like the city, not the herb. Experienced visitors just love to correct, and embarrass, newbies who pronounce it incorrectly.
- Plan ahead – Time is precious during the fairs. You will not be able to see or do everything. If your intention is to scout galleries, do your research ahead of time. Figure out who is exhibiting where, what the days and hours are for each fair and plan out each day. See the fairs most important to you early in the trip. Try to hit fairs clustered together on the same day and don’t forget to factor in travel time. Go out every evening if you can and do your best to meet, and network with, other artists and arts professionals.
- Manage your expectations – It is possible, in fact likely, that you will come back from Miami with absolutely nothing tangible to show for your efforts except a very large credit card bill. Seriously, don’t expect any immediate, life-changing results. Your career is a marathon, not a sprint and every person you meet and experience you have is part of the big picture. Have some fun, meet some people, see a lot of art, soak it all in, learn what you can – but don’t be too attached to the results.
- Expect to have a reaction – Your first time in Miami can be overwhelming. Depending on your personality, you may find it exhilarating, or you may have a very different reaction. Many young artists become profoundly depressed (“My art is better than a lot of what I’ve seen here!”), frustrated (“I couldn’t get to, or get into, every fair or party on my list!”) or angry (“WTF!?!? Is this shallow, commercial BS really the legit art world?!”). If it happens to you, don’t worry. It’s normal. Let it wash over you and get back to looking at art.
- Never solicit a gallerist in their booth – Artists always seem confused by this and I cannot stress this one enough. DO NOT try to make a connection with a gallerist or gallery employee in their booth. Don’t hand them your card. Don’t tell them you’re an artist (unless they ask). Don’t take up a lot of their time unless you plan to buy something. If someone isn’t busy, is friendly and a conversation naturally happens, that’s one thing. But the general, written in stone rule, is do not approach a gallery in their booth.
- Take notes – What you can and should do is take notes of any and every gallery and artist that interests you so you can look them up later. You’ll be seeing a lot so don’t expect to remember. Carry a small pad and pen or make notes in your phone so you can research galleries and artists that caught your eye when you get home.
- Go where you’re invited – There’s a lot to do and see and no way of knowing where you’ll end up or whom you’ll meet. Tag along for drinks if asked. Say yes to a party. Join someone for breakfast. That’s where you’ll meet other artists, collectors, and yes, even gallerists, when they are slightly less stressed out and more approachable. Be open. Be friendly. Go out and about. You never know what might happen.
- Beware of creeps and fakers – As the fairs have grown over the years, so has the number of creeps and fakers who attend. It’s not just happening in Hollywood, people! Be aware. Be safe. Use your judgment. Go out with a friend. Don’t be alone with a stranger. Don’t be charmed by anyone promising you a show or opportunity. If they’re legit, the opportunity will still be there, and you can follow up, after the fairs.
- Do follow up – When you get home, do your research. Look up every gallery you’d like to show at online and see if they take submissions. Most will tell you on their website if they are or are not. And if they are, there will be instructions for submitting your work. Check out artists you like to see where else they show and check those galleries’ submission policies. Follow and friend people you met and connected with on social media. If you did meet someone who mentioned an opportunity, or asked you to follow up, do.
- And finally…. Be a gracious guest – People live in Miami. It’s their home. Sure the fairs bring in revenue, but like the sign says outside your favorite bar, “Respect the neighbors.” Please remember to be a respectful and considerate guest throughout your stay at the Miami Art Fairs. Then return next year for an even more productive stay!
So there you have it. My top ten tips for conquering your first trip to Miami. Be inspired. Be safe. Have fun!