Art Basel Miami Beach is normally a massive early-December international happening, known not only for its art-fair offerings but for its glamour, satellite parties and free-spending. But it’s taking off this year just as a new COVID variant is identified, causing panic all over the world. Since the super-rich might not be assumed to be the best at obeying mandates and protocols, might this typically hedonistic shindig and extremely elite shopping mall turn into a superspreader event?
The main show opened to VIP collectors Tuesday after a 2020 hiatus, packed with eight-figure Picassos and works by 21st-century art stars—but not with the stampede of billionaires that often marks the event, since opening hours have been sliced into different windows over two days.
“We are committed to running the fair in the safest way possible,” says Art Basel global director Marc Spiegler. Over 250 galleries are in attendance.
Screened visitors don black bracelets that read “COVID-19 certificate checked,” and masks are indeed being worn routinely in the fair hallways, at least initially. Miami-Dade County has had a COVID-related “Declaration of a State of Emergency” in place for several months, but it’s not now requiring mask use in public buildings or on anything but public transportation.
By and large, COVID concerns have not kept collectors away, Spiegler notes, and there was even an element of “dark humor” among some foreign collectors who joked they were eager to leave for America before any new travel restrictions were put in.
However, the Omicron variant has chilled the usual hedonistic mood—so far at least. There are now long check-in lines, people flicking through their phones for photos of their vaccine cards, much smaller dinner parties and many outdoor events and virtual panels. At a party for a sale of NFT art for charity, the decor—a giant inflatable blue-white iceberg floating in a hotel pool—spurs gallows humor.
“Not the most upbeat visual,” says Hollywood, Florida, street artist Robert Gullet, who admits, “I shouldn’t complain, I snuck in.” At a Faena Hotel dinner, the number of people wearing hats actually outnumbers is the number of people wearing masks.
A Collins Avenue CVS greets customers with a table of rapid Covid tests for sale. At its giant garden/maze art installation in the Miami design district, an army of Chanel employees dressed in clinical white uniforms like futuristic pharmacists greet the company’s guests. And it’s striking that in a town where Kanye West and Alicia Keyes have already arrived that by far the biggest in-demand celebrity is Deepak Chopra who is offering extremely popular wellness meditations at Soho House and the Faena Hotel, among other tony sites.
“I arrived with the best of intentions,” says Sri Chowdhury, a physician from Birmingham, U.K., who came to Miami beef up his photography collection. “I have a kn95 (mask), I’m eating at outdoor cafes, but after a while you just park your mask by your neck and then you just forget it completely—till you catch yourself.”
Are people being careful? Regulations and compliance are all over the map. Check-in at corporate-sponsored events has been rigorous, with vigilant vaccine card-checking at Citibank, UBS and Goldman events, fashion parties less so. Hotel parties have not been widely masked, and various VIP lounges not at all. (UBS itself, Art Basel Miami Beach’s sponsor, canceled its exclusive VIP collectors’ lounge for the first time in 18 years.)
Mat Gleason, dealer and owner of Coagula Curatorial in Los Angeles, is a veteran of the Miami art fairs now exhibiting at the Context Art Fair, and says: “Everything is still crowded, but it’s a lot of South Floridians... no Asian gallerists, no Chinese visitors, no Hong Kong at all. If people were on the fence before Omicron, they didn’t come.”
“There are sales, there’s a lot of business going on but a lot, not all, of the blowout parties are gone. It’s all intimate dinners, three tables of eight,” says Gleason. “Or the galleries are splitting up events and collectors with one gallery director taking out one group and another taking out another. It’s crazy easy to get a reservation at a restaurant.”
Kennedy Yanko, a rising art star sculptor who became both popular and famous for her art-making videos for children during quarantine, zoomed through the Rubell Museum cellphone to her face, kissing the air.
“When we first signed up for the fair in April, we took a leap of faith that things would turn around by Thanksgiving and, frankly, it did, and then came this variant. Nobody has cancelled,” says New Orleans art dealer Jonathan Ferrara. “There may be a silver lining in that attendees are being more careful because of Omicron than they might otherwise.
COVID is taking a toll in more prosaic ways. First-time Art Basel exhibitor KJ Freeman, of Housing Gallery in New York, arrived in Miami earlier this week, but the artworks for her booth, by Arlene Wandera, a Kenyan artist based in London, did not. So Freeman scrambled and featured work by another of her artists on the floor and walls of her booth and just got word that customs had cleared the Wandera works.
Rachel E. Gold, a collector who notes she has homes in Alpine New Jersey and the Chesapeake Bay, says “I’m concerned, I’m careful, but I'm not sure I wouldn’t be at the same risk shopping in New York. At least I know everyone I’m traveling with here is vaccinated.”
Asked if any wealthy diva clients have been giving him a hard time about restrictions, a UBS official smiled. “Not yet.”