Art Basel Cities - Buenos Aires, Argentina

 Image courtesy Art Basel.

Image courtesy Art Basel.

In November the titan producer of eponymous art fairs, Art Basel, disrupted its own multi-million dollar art fair cycle with the launch of its 'Cities Exchange' program, held in Buenos Aires (this year was pilot - the program will formally launch in Buenos Aires in November 2018 as a multiyear partnership). Art Basel Cities Exchange was designed as an experimental partnership with cities around the world to develop a new art program to "raise the city's art profile on the global art-world stage." Whereas the current host cities of Art Basel fairs - Basel, Miami, Hong Kong - are established global epicenters of culture and finance, Buenos Aires, with a strong local art scene and still burgeoning global collector base, was fertile as the host of the Cities Exchange.

Art Basel Cities set up shop on a picture-ready tree lined promenade, among government buildings and foreign consulates, in an imposing Beaux-Arts mansion that was "a testimony of Argentina's Belle Epoque," touted the programme. Absent were the traditional markings of the Art Basel brand: Mega galleries with celebrity artists; actual celebrities; Jeff Koons trinkets; intimidation. Instead design features like leather club chairs, original herringbone-patterned wood floors, jute rugs, mirrored surfaces and a grand staircase brought the sparkle. Still, Cities was an access-for-all event. Unlike the Art Basel fairs, admission was free.

The stylish rooms of the mansion were incubators for discussion on meaningful issues in art. Unlike a panel event that concluded in Q&A the sessions (called "Parallel Rooms") encouraged curators, artists, collectors, and even Marc Spiegler, Global Director of Art Basel, to converse with everyday people at an even level. A signal of this democratization was that most groups sat in a casual circle arrangement on the floor, resembling an intimate campfire session more than a structured discussion under the gaze of the world's largest commercial art organization. 

I looked out, of course, for topics on Africa's place in Cities. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a talk co-hosted by Azu Nwagbogu, director of LagosPhoto and African Artists' Foundation. Titled, "New World Utopias: What are our greatest dreams for art in the Global South?" our coterie discussed how the arts of the "global south" - the region encompassing South America as well as sub-Saharan Africa - were perceived by its geographic corollary, the north. Elsewhere, other groups examined "Does the art world have anything to say about today's major social issues?" and "How can the art world reach out to a broader audience?".

 
 

“The format of the [Parallel Rooms] talks, I predict, will be adopted by other platforms as it really encourages proper dialogue that is meaningful and not superficial,”

 - Azu Nwagbogu, Director, African Artists' Foundation, Lagos, Nigeria [quoted from Art Basel].

 

At various levels of the art trade – artists, dealers, institutions, and other players – the democratization of the art world remains a relevant discussion. The democratization in discussion can occur through different avenues: Reducing financial barriers to entry (ironically, at events like Art Basel) and increasing gender and ethnic diversity across the industry. In another irony, the Cities Exchange program may lead one to believe that the titan producer of art fairs may have offered one solution to achieve this leveling. (Nwabogu later told Art Basel, "The format of the [Parallel Rooms] talks, I predict, will be adopted by other platforms as it really encourages proper dialogue that is meaningful and not superficial.”) An oxymoron if there was ever. That a discussion of Africa’s place in the global art map happened at Art Basel, and in South America, was a refreshing promise that consciousness is moving toward the direction of inclusion. The global art map is expanding and that's a good thing. Perhaps a further breakdown of barriers will lead the reunification, and not bifurcation, of South and North.

 
 Image courtesy Art Basel.

Image courtesy Art Basel.

Photography by Nadia Sesay unless where noted.