Up Close with Marc Spiegler at The Upper House
Global Art Basel Director Marc Spiegler was joined by Yana Peel, CEO of the Serpentine Galleries in London and board member of PS Art Space Quarry Bay for an Up Close chat with guests at The Upper House. Today, Art Basel has grown to a team of nearly 100 people, touches 500 galleries, welcomes hundreds of thousands in Miami, Basel and since 2013, Hong Kong. Art Basel Hong Kong has been undoubtedly one of the main catalysts in driving an art market in the region which is now #2 in the world only to the US. The UBS report suggested that amazingly US, China, and Britain make up 87% of the world’s US$63 billion in global sales (that is 23 % of Asia) for growth - noting China makes up one third of the global luxury goods market.
Yana: What did Art Basel look like in 2007 when you joined the team?
Marc: I came here as a journalist and at that time it was a small team of 25 people, we were doing the Art Basel show in New York and Miami Beach.
From 1970 to 1995 Art Basel was mostly a place where people came to buy and sell art. Starting in the mid-90’s, partly through the involvement of the predecessor, we really raised the idea that the show was about the city, that we had to work closely with institutions in the city and galleries and that we had to deliver to the art world people, a cultural and enjoyable week.
Two things led us to the third Art Basel project. First, we were coming to Hong Kong which made us a truly global organisation, and second, the growing digitalisation and internet in Art Basel within our activities. That is why we moved from being involved in two cities for two weeks to being engaged very strongly 24/7 365 days in Asia.
Yana: When did you first come to HK & was Fair acquisition already part of your master plan?
Marc: Not at all! I came here in 2010 for the first time. I have to give credit to René Kamm the CEO of MCH Group, the parent company for Art Basel, who had strong relationships with Hong Kong because he was previously the director of Art Basel World. René really encouraged this, we were talking about doing something in Asia for a long time. When we came here and saw the fair and his visionary way, we saw the opportunity to create a truly international event in Hong Kong and I have to say that sometimes you just feel it. The two things that made me convinced that it would work here in Hong Kong were - one - the shipping going on and second - the fact that you could sense it was a place where business took place.
Yana: It’s interesting because coming back to that time; I remember there were so few venues where artists could actually show their work. At that time, Asia was an amazing place in terms of longevity, artists, art spaces and artists would come to auctions to show their work to friends and family because there were so few venues. Business was on the horizon but there were very few places. How did you, as a reporter, bring this story back home? How did you get the commitment?
Marc: We knew we wanted to come to Asia, we sensed that we had a community that would be great to work with, we had a great venue that could make it work. The first few years, we co-owned the fair with the original owners and they strongly helped us to have the fair we have today.
Yana: In terms of ecosystem, what did you bring - beyond the real estate imagined - that was so needed and so different from Switzerland and Miami where art collecting is so established. Responsibilities to community in creating an ecosystem for art to thrive? Opportunities to be more than an art fair?
Marc: When I came in the VIP team, there was just one person sitting in the office, and later we put in place people from 9 countries within the region. We could promote face to face and show that Hong Kong was very valuable - there was a big debate about the design.
We spent 2 years between the moment we brought the fair and the moment we officially started it in Hong Kong. One of the analyses that we did was to try to be different, our fear was that Art Basel could disappear in HK because there was so much going on here.
Yana: The fact that we are talking about £15.5 billion of global fairs, £3 billion of art in each of the three fairs. Did you find it was a welcome presence in an environment that has auction houses that were already doing wealthy trade? How did you find the environment compared to what we have today?
Marc: We had many reactions, some people were optimistic because they knew Art Basel already, and others were scared we would copy the Miami or Basel fairs into Hong Kong. So that’s why we decided to balance and have half of the gallerists from Asia and half of them being from the West. That was one of the success factors in HK.
Yana: what does success look like?
Marc: First we have no sales data because our gallerists rent square meters from us and can sometimes rent extra services such as walls, lights etc. We have no way to know how well people are doing.
A huge change in the art world was digitalisation and the use of technology such as iPads. But the metric that we have is what percentage of the gallerists and the main sector of the fair we apply which represents (depending on the fair and the year) between 95 and 99%.
Yana: Talking about the virtual and physical presence - I’d like to ask you about gallerists that don’t have a physical presence. How these gallerists, that do not have a physical presence anywhere in the world find a home in the fair - when gallerists do say that 50% of the sales are made at the fair.
Marc: First of all, the iPad is changing the life of many gallerists – it is possible to sell work through iPads (allowing people to sell work that is not there). So as a gallerist you have to know where the artist come from, and his work. It is easier to see a work from Japan to Mexico via an iPad than directly going there. It is all about trust when you want to buy something you only saw through an iPad. It is a risk that a lot of people take.
How do we feel about gallerist that do not have physical space but still represent art? Today more and more people are going into this direction and the answer is: if Art Basel keeps this position and decides it’s not necessary to have a physical presence, there is a risk we would catalyse many galleries. Maybe the time will come where we will see a shift, but at the moment we would rather miss the few galleries to go on this line than be responsible for catalysing somebody. The biggest galleries have more financial structures, and they can do well, but it is important for us that every gallery at every level does well. When we analyse the fair, we never expect that all of them will do well, but it is important for us to hear that the young galleries did well, that success is possible to every level.
Yana: It’s a privilege to be sitting here and I was so happy to be asked to participate with Marc wondering what we had a lot in common. I thought it was a pathological curiosity, pathological optimism driving our partners crazy with late nights at art fairs. Even within a non-commercial spirit of running the Serpentine Gallery, which welcomes 1.5 million visitors per year for free - I thought there were many similarities in terms of what our role is in pushing the passion out to the widest audiences and inspiring them with the urgency for art and design.
Marc: I’d like to ask you a question as well: How is it for you to move from being a patron to coordinating an institution - how do you see the institution differently?
Yana: Having the privilege to work with 200 artists is that you can create a platform. It has been an incredible 1.5 years. No matter what you are doing, you are selling something, and I’d like to say that there are two kinds of people - those who support the Serpentine Galleries and those who will. And I think it is the same for Art Basel, those who are eager and those who just walk through the doors to get to know a little bit better.
Marc: I usually challenge people and I tell them “Come at the show, look at the galleries and engage with them, try to tell me you felt nothing”. This show in particular, is the only world class truly global show.
Yana: Let’s talk about Kickstarter and cities with Patrick Foret, a great entrepreneur.
Marc: Many years ago I met Perry Chen, one the founders of Kickstarter in Davos saying we should do something together, creating a crowd founding platform for the art world. We work closely with them and we draw almost US$2 million from all around the world. We did not make any money from that - it was completely philanthropic. Lots of people don’t understand how these places are not commercial places. Concerning cities, having started Hong Kong, people started to ask “what is the fourth fair?” and cities came to say “we want to be next”. Our first answer was “no” but we changed our mind. We are sharing our knowledge and our name to some exhibitions in cities and trying to figure out what can be done in these cities. It is about understanding a city and what makes sense for the city. We want to leverage culture; we want to be the culture destination.
Yana: You are doing many activities in LA, Taipei, are there any other cities you want to focus on?
Marc: We are very pragmatic, so we only talk about projects when they are signed! That’s a Swiss way of doing business. It is better to focus on the three fairs and focus on projects such as cities. A good fair is good for gallerists and artists. We did not want to do a fourth fair and ironically, we made them smaller because we think they look better like this.
Yana: Thank you. It has been amazing Marc, to think what has been accomplished in one decade.