The utterance of “Basel” rolls off the tongue like a whisper. No matter the inflection or language in which it’s spoken, the name of the small city in Switzerland is synonymous with one of the most influential art fairs of the calendar year. For a single week in the middle of June nearly all hotels are booked. The quaint and picturesque city in Northern Switzerland that straddles France and Germany, measuring a mere 9.2 square miles, becomes an international hub where hundreds of galleries from over 30 continents make their annual pilgrimage. Basel—the mecca, the Holy Grail, with a population of approximately 165,000 inhabitants welcomes 86,000 visitors and counting from all corners of the globe in just six days.
Upon landing in the terminal the first piece of signage one encounters is a massive blue and gold poster boasting only two words: “Art Basel.” It is the first indication that you have truly arrived. The riding sponsor UBS adorns the exterior of its branches with signage and colorful banners line the skyline throughout the cityscape, along the Rhine and weaving around the cable lines that power the trams. A pop up kiosk near the SBB train station provides visitors with a slew of programming information and tickets. Secondary signage abounds for the eagerly anticipated 14 Rooms, an architectural space designed by Herzog and De Meuron and curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist presents performances by fourteen acclaimed artists. Visitors wear a silver wristband and many keep it on their wrist as a badge of honor long after visiting.
Basel is a destination for which avid collectors save the date far in advance. It’s an international stage where gallerists and artists aspire to exhibit their work and be included in noteworthy private and public collections. Finally, Basel is a destination where writers want to be. Eager to capture the pulse of the city, they are willing to fight to obtain press credentials and gain VIP access so that they can be the first to break the story of the next rising art star. Business cards are in a constant state of exchange. Names that appeared as headlines in art journals walk among the masses and like a mirage disappear just as quickly as they are recognized. Instagram relays a daily record of encounters, impressions, and evidence so that our friends back home in the US who are six or nine hours behind in New York or Los Angeles can live vicariously through our feeds over their morning espresso.
What cannot be truly captured in the Twitter feeds, however, is the sense of community one feels in the city, as if being inducted into a secret club. Knowing a single person who has their foot in the art scene creates a domino effect and before you know it you’re invited to dinners where the conversation is as rich as the ever-flowing wine. For the collector, the artist, the gallerist, or the writer, the name of the game is to see as much as possible until we are all induced into a blissful art coma.
This is my first time attending Basel and I made a trek of 5,874 miles to get here from Los Angeles. Spending over twelve hours on a plane, I caught up on current events thanks to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal and even managed to watch movies that I didn’t have time to see in theaters. One day after leaving the Tom Bradley International terminal I arrived in Basel overwhelmed by the lure of a city that I had heard about for so many years all while fighting severe jet lag. The American dollar is crushed by the Swiss Franc, but we’re here for the art. We can reconcile our fiscal abandon on the plane ride home.
(All images courtesy of the author)