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Atlanta artists weigh the costs and benefits of participating in Art Basel

Each year, Art Basel Miami Beach draws a huge crowd of buyers, sellers and artists. Members of the Atlanta arts community are among those drawn to the event. (Photo courtesy Art Basel)

This December, as Atlanta braces for the fallout from a close and contentious mayoral runoff election, a contingent of the city’s artists are busy putting the finishing touches on work and making plans to appeal to a very different body of decision-makers one state away.

Each year, art-market influencers — and those who aspire to influence — gather in the hometown of Trick Daddy and Pitbull to enjoy themselves while enjoying art. This year, Miami Art Week, the largest art event in the United States, takes place December 4-11, boasting hundreds of exhibitions and thousands of artists via multiple concurrent art fairs, the chief of which is Art Basel (most of the satellite fairs are commonly lumped in under the “Art Basel” name, even if they’re completely separate events). The gravitational pull is felt in the Atlanta arts community around this time of year through the recurring question, “Are you going to Basel?”, which is bandied about from the moment the remaining Thanksgiving leftovers have been polished off.

If hip-hop has evolved into Atlanta’s cultural calling card, the same might be said of Miami when it comes to its cachet in the visual art world. Thus, Atlanta artists making their way to the 305 area code can create a great opportunity for cross-pollination of these distinctly different culture-rich Southern cities. If you’re making the trip and find yourself at a crowded fair or party on the beach, don’t be surprised if you bump into Michi Meko, Joe Dreher, Joseph Guay, Fabian Williams, Day & Night Projects or any number of artists with Atlanta ties. Even local MFA students will be in the mix, as Georgia State University’s Welch School MFA Students will be exhibiting.

Heading to Miami for this moment can seem like an aspirational, perhaps status-affirming, career springboard for an emerging or established artist, a chance to assess one’s worth relative to the market, to reinvigorate creative inspirations and to check in with peers and colleagues. However, participating isn’t without significant cost, which can often represent an obstacle for many artists and galleries.

Atlanta artist Joseph Guay 

For Guay, who will be exhibiting at Context Art Miami after wrapping up a solo exhibition at Westside Cultural Arts Center and an ambitious public art project, there’s an obvious upside to exhibiting despite the sobering reality of the financial investment required just to be open for business.

“Art Basel is a mecca for art collectors, artists and gallery owners from every walk of life,” Guay says. “It’s a milestone as an artist and a definite honor to be among so many artists from around the world. But the logistics are as difficult as creating the work itself. The production cost to create the body of work I am exhibiting reached a $12,000 investment for me. Then there is about $2500 in the packing, crating, shipping, unloading and installation process that takes about six people, 700 miles of driving, and many days to complete. The fees for the art fair can reach $15,000 on the low scale, then there are accommodations and expenses. There is a lot riding on a four-day event.”

With potential costs in the tens of thousands of dollars just for a single artist to participate, the Welch School MFA students have a bit of a safety net for the moment, as the school covers the bulk of the costs for the 10 presenting third-year students who will exhibiting about 50 works at Aqua Art Miami. GSU foots the bill for a fairly exhaustive laundry list of expenses, including the exhibitor’s fee, shipping, fair and transportation insurance and the cost to send a few faculty and staff members to promote, supervise and install the work, plus a portion of transportation and lodging.

Atlanta artist and GSU professor Craig Drennen

According to Craig Drennen, one of the GSU faculty members accompanying the students as they showcase their thesis work at Aqua Art Miami, the school’s support offers them a chance to explore and experiment without the pressure to sell work.

“The Miami art fairs provide a type of energized contact with the international art world that’s difficult to duplicate,” says Drennen. “Our GSU group is unique among the art fair booths because we are the only group not obsessed with sales, although students do sell every year.  There are typically around 80,000 visitors to the Miami art fairs. Last year there were 269 total galleries from 29 different countries. That’s a lot of art for our students to see, and a massive, eager art audience ready to see them . . . This is a culminating event for our MFA students, and our staff and faculty work hard to make it beneficial.”

There’s also pressure to socialize and be in the “right places” with the “right people,” as well as effectively navigate the logistics of getting around and finding time to enjoy the local flavor aside from the fairs. Amelia Carley, one of the Welch MFAs with some prior experience attending Art Basel, offers some advice for novices:

“Strive to be the most genuine and passionate version of yourself,” she says. “Don’t try too hard. When introducing yourself to someone new like a curator, gallerist or artists, come to the conversation with a sincere point of connection whether it be a question about the work, an artist you like, or their gallery/museum program . . . I have found some individuals somewhat dismissive at various settings. Try not to take it personally. Gallerists especially are working constantly throughout the exuberant and exhausting week . . . You are constantly inundated visually, so a walk along the beach between fairs is a refreshing transition and gives me a boost when moving from one visually overwhelming environment to another. It’s a lot to take in, so I plan intermittent breaks during the day to rest my feet, eat some delicious Cuban food and have a cocktail (or two).”

Art Basel remains a major draw in spite of the costs of traveling and participating.

First-timer Steven L. Anderson of Day & Night Projects, an artist-run gallery co-managed by Anderson, Mark Leibert and William Downs, says he’ll be trying to get the most out of the experience. “For the last four years I’ve been saying ‘I’m absolutely going next year,’ but this time I made sure,” he says. “I’m excited about seeing a lot of quality art, seeing some exhibitions that friends are putting on . . . I’m going to seek opportunities for Day & Night Projects to exhibit in Miami in the future, and I’m also going to see which galleries would be right to show or represent my own artwork.”

Beautiful people and beautiful weather make it easy to gather in Miami to look at beautiful art, especially in December when many cities in the US and Europe have already had their first snowfall. The commitment — and expense — to participate in such a stimulating moment is hard, as Art Basel requires an investment of money and time, but if you have both in enough supply, most Atlanta artists agree it’s worth the effort to play in the space of the glitzy global art market for a few days. If nothing else, this fun fair environment presents Atlanta artists with a temporary respite from the hand-wringing around local politics, and a brief chance to join the party with international players in a way that seems far too infrequent given Miami’s close proximity.

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