How to Survive Art Basel According to an Art Connoisseur

As Art Basel opens, Ossian Ward, Content Director at Lisson Gallery, imparts his wisdom for navigating the world’s most important art fair.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

It’s that time of year again. Nearly 300 of the world’s leading galleries have descended upon the picturesque Swiss city of Basel, along the river Rhine, to exhibit some of the most expensive, lavish and brilliant art that they have to offer. Art Basel is a trailblazing art fair, famed for setting art market standards and, it goes without saying, for its immense scale and breadth too. In its magnitude, Art Basel is frequently compared to a marathon or a sports contest; you will need strength and stamina in order to withstand its tremendous demands, both on the humble human body and your worn-out art brain. How do you know what to see? What’s the difference between Unlimited and Liste? Why are people drifting down the river with neoprene bags? Is this a really good example of trippy video art, or have you simply downed too much free champagne, artfully swiped from a VIP viewing that you’ve snuck your way into with the help of a more “somebody” friend?

Luckily, we’ve called on the help of all-round art expert, Ossian Ward, author of Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art and Content Director at Lisson Gallery, to assist us in navigating an art fair as gargantuan and mind-bending as this. Here are his seven top tips for surviving the Basel bedlam. You’ll thank us later.

1. Don’t go!

“Blue Velvet” (1986)

Ward’s first rule to surviving the art fair pandemonium is simply to avoid it all together — every now and again, that is — which is exactly what he’s decided to do this year. “I think with the major fairs you can have a year off. However, things might change dramatically, so I tend to go one year on and one year off.” And if you do decide to go, Ward believes two days are sufficient: “That’s definitely enough time for navigating the fair”.

2. Talk the talk, walk the walk

“Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (2005-13)

Like with most things in life, the best experiences come with a VIP pass. You’ll need to be savvy and find a friend, or some glamorous (and generous) art maven to latch on to, and convince them to appoint you as their plus one. Ward recommends “using your contacts” to get an early viewing of the fair if possible. It’s not just about keeping up appearances, however — as Ward says, “You need to be there for the first couple days because that’s when things really happen. After a certain point people go home …”

3. Have a plan of attack

“Moonrise Kingdom” (2012)

With an art fair of this size, enter with a plan or enter at your peril. A smart strategy is integral if you want to traverse Basel’s vast halls without wasting time or falling victim to a FOMO induced anxiety attack. “How you make your way through the fair is important because it’s so large nowadays”, explains Ward. “Don’t throw out the old with the new by deciding that you’re just going to see one type of work. Open yourself up to experiencing all the different things on offer.” Alas, that means you shouldn’t skip the seen-it-before abstract expressionists, even if your eyes are bleeding at the mere thought of an another colossal canvas with a few swipes of red and black paint running through the middle. Unfortunately, that’s the piece likely to make headlines for breaking sales records. Oh, and bring a map.

4. Keep your friends close

“Sex and the City” (1998-2004)

As we all know, it’s important to have friends in the art world. Friends open up doors — and champagne bottles. But it’s not just about having friends to put you on the guest list, it’s about having friends to tell you what’s what. “Of course, you will naturally gravitate towards those booths where you have friends, or where you know the people on the booth will give you an honest opinion about what’s going on on the floor,” confirms Ward. “Friends are important for telling you what the mood is like. You can tell if things aren’t going so well when everyone has too much times on their hands, as opposed to being busy, making deals. It’s important to do your due diligence.” The more friends the merrier when it comes to getting your facts straight. And if there’s someone you simply don’t want to talk to? “Keep your head down, focus on ticking items off your map,” Ward advises.

5. First impressions count

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986)

With so much art on display, it can be difficult to trust your judgement and know what’s a must-see and what’s a dud. Even Ward admits this. “It’s difficult because you’re in such a precious environment where many things are competing for your attention. However, I often think that the first impression is probably the right impression — no need to spend hours flagellating yourself. Use your instinct to guide you.” So, even if all your wise art pals are doubting your taste in those digitally-rendered photographs demonstrating a keen awareness of the hot new ‘naive-futurism’ movement, so be it, follow your heart!

6.Take a breather (and a dip in the Rhine)

“Stand By Me” (1986)

All the buzz and banter and general hobnobbing of the main fair gets a bit too much, there’s always the possibility of an escape. Ward recommends checking out the Foundation Beyeler, which he finds to always be a highlight. This year looks no different with a must-see exhibition devoted to Picasso’s blue and rose periods. A little further a field, Ward advocates “taking advantage of the proximity to Germany and visiting Vitra Design Museum just across the border”. If you’re still in need of a refresh, or a bit jumpy from all that free booze (or indeed lack thereof), there’s always the graceful act of ‘Basel Bagging’. Never heard of it? Me neither, but Ward is happy to explain. “You take a neoprene bag and put your belongings into it. Then you throw it into the river and float downstream at a rate of knots before jumping out the other side!” This isn’t just a fun means of cooling off, but a viable mode of transport too. “You can actually go from the cooler Liste fair at one end of town to the main fair by river,” says Ward. “If you’re brave enough.”

7. Don’t be fooled, this is not Miami

“The Great Gatsby” (2013)

The words “Art Basel” may well conjure up kaleidoscopic visions of the infamous parties, endless street style segments, Paris Hilton DJ sets and Kanye making some outrageous statements. But a lot of those connotations are, in fact, derived from its more flashy sister show at Miami Beach. Ward is quick to tell me that Basel is “a serious fair”. “It’s not quite the celebrity driven fair that Miami is — it’s on the more serious end of the scale — but it’s also the one that most people don’t want to miss.” Although it’s not a “party town” like Miami, however, there are a few hotspots for schmoozing with the art glitterati. Aside from the elegant museum openings, there is always the Kunsthalle bar, and if you’re really somebody, you’re more likely to be found sipping cocktails at The Three Kings. Demonstrating his well-earned wisdom of the art fair circuit, Ward sagely utters, “There’s different echelons — you can navigate the hierarchy just by observing where people go to drink afterwards.” OK then, a neoprene bag, a map, a VIP pass and some important friends, who can smuggle you into The Three Kings, and you’re all set. 

Art Basel runs from June 14 – 17, 2018.

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