Letter From Art Basel, Miami

11th December 2019

Art week in Miami at the beginning of December every year has evolved into one the world’s biggest annual events. It is a cocktail of art, fashion and nocturnal excess that is perhaps without equal globally in the calendar year. The quantity and quality of investable modern and contemporary art on show, provides a foundation on which the event is built. More than a thousand art galleries from around the world last week participated in some eighteen art fairs in Miami. The celebrity count may not have the density per square foot of a Vanity Fair Oscar Party, but Miami has a load of square feet. It does seem that everyone is in town.

UBS - the lead event sponsor of the flagship Art Basel - had around 1,200 VIP passes to allocate and I am told that this year they had worthy applications for 13,000. The Superbowl may attract 150,000 in the appointed city for the weekend, but art week in Miami attracts 500,000 guests and it goes on all week. Those that somehow know the statistics on private jets’ flight patterns say that this is the event that prompts the largest accumulation of private jets in one place during that year. Indeed, it’s multiples ahead of the next biggest event.

At 3am in the morning, sections of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach can resemble the roads around a football stadium five minutes before kickoff. That’s the thing about Miami in the first week of December, it’s kicking off everywhere all the time. It’s actually very difficult to know when the visitors are catching up on sleep - it may well be during daylight hours or maybe it’s not at all. This is December’s Burning Man. By Friday, most normal people are a spent force.

A friend of mine unfortunately got bumped from his hotel room at 8pm as a result of some issue with his credit card and was left without accommodation for one night.This is not good news at this time of year - there are three options - hook up with someone with a hotel room, sleep on the beach or get totally fleeced by booking a new room at the last minute. Options 1 and 2 will normally be suboptimal and option 3 will involve spending $2,000 for a room that even Basil Fawlty would not sell. If the last minute buyer has aspirations of a sea view, it will be more like $5,000. Torquay has never looked better value. A suite will be $15,000.

The elite have earned the right not to attend, but it seems that in the main, they still do. The galleries that we work with around the world all regard Miami as the blue riband art fair of the year. Some fairs we attend are really fairly turgid, lame affairs - especially the photographic ones. One dealer we respect, described attending a recent European event as a bit like going to the dentist for root canal work. The one in Milan, for instance, is not strong in terms of collectable photography.

Jordan Belfort signing The Wolves of Wall Street


Photo London has made its mark in May in London and the organisers work damn hard, but in terms of footfall, the quality of art, the level of sales and the attendant energy, it is crushed by the shows in Miami. Some fairs try to demand attention by artist diversity and a whiff of political populism, whereas Art Basel Miami Beach earns attention through depth, quality and transaction levels.

I have no doubt that Miami is the art week in the calendar year that matters the most to us, whereas Photo London increasingly seems to lack commercial relevance. On the VIP opening night of Art Miami, attendees come to shop, whereas at the VIP night at Photo London, people come to look. That is fine - and Somerset House is a wonderful venue - but galleries and artists need sales to continue to do what they do. I am not sure whether any of our dedicated photography galleries around the world will apply for a booth next year at Photo London - because US art fairs attract collectors that buy, not camera buffs that mistake a commercial fair for a pop-up museum of photography.

There is another dynamic at play here, in that whilst America and the UK both have great divides and political landscapes that may not be currently peopled by “Hall of Famers”, the UK is now a vulnerable and static economy of 67 million people, whereas the US economy is on fire with 330 million enjoying GDP growth of 2%. It was appropriate that on the Friday morning of the fair - the day the general public arrive in Miami in their thousands, the US Labor Department announced that US employers have added 268,000 jobs in November. The US unemployment rate is now at its lowest since 1969.

America is integral to our plans and we do spend much of our time here. We are always in awe of the collaborative nature of American society and the opportunites that affords. As if to make the point, after we left Miami, we spoke at private events in homes in Orlando, Nashville and New York the next three nights. In total, these dinners were attended by over 300 people.

I worked as a UK investment banker for nine years and then ran a UK hedge fund for 17 years and I hope that this gives me some understanding as to where we are as a country in 2019. It gives me no pleasure to say that I think the UK has never been less relevant. I am not sure when the UK’s economy will grow again at 2%, but it will be some time away. The only area we really punch above our weight now is in the arts.

The more time I spend in America, the more I despair for our insularity back home and our sense of misplaced self-importance. London is a great city and plays centre stage, but Britain is now a bit player. Weeks like last week in Miami ram that home with sad clarity.

We are going backwards in the global game and it won’t stop soon. Also, South Beach in Miami may be noisy but it is also safe, whereas Harrods in Knightsbridge manifestly is not. If there’s to be a sequel to Scarface, it needs to be made in London where the crime is, not Miami where it is not.

Every year at Art Miami we monitor the number of photographs in the show as a percentage of the overall art count. After all, if photography is increasingly seen as a true art form, this percentage number should intuitively rise every year. So, it is instructive that this percentage number by our maths has not really risen above the 4 - 5% that it reached a couple of years back. We have no point to make on this, other than maybe to suggest that the photography fine art market has no momentum - especially if female form work remains in the post “Me Too” doghouse. These are tough times for Victoria’s Secret and they are therefore tough times for photographers that take pictures of nudes - no matter how talented they may be. The photography fine art marketplace is having a challenging year and we are watching every development like a hawk.

When I first went to Art Basel Miami in 2014 I was shocked by the size and stature of the event and dreamt that one day I could be an exhibited artist - even just one print on the wall between the toilets and an exit sign would have made me happy - even if the wall in question was in a gas station. Roll on to 2019 and I was excited to see 11 of my works on show at Art Miami. I didn’t count the totals for other artists, but I sense that kind of aggregate number was up there. It was a landmark week on many levels and we did make some headlines.

$200,000 is a great deal of money for one photograph - especially when there are another 15 behind it. I am flattered that Leonardo DiCaprio signed the work and persuaded Martin Scorsese to do the same. I hope that we will raise a considerable amount of money for conservation as a result. We have certainly made a good start. I never imagined the chain of events that have led to this uplifting conclusion to the year, but in some sense, I do feel we deserve it - nothing has been left on the table in 2019 - we have all worked extremely hard. Page 3 of the New York Post last Thursday will be one to keep for my grandchildren.

I totally recognise that the picture’s value elevation comes from the signatures of one of the greatest actors in the world and one of the greatest directors. They make for a powerful combination and I am sure that their next collaboration is not far away. Equally I guess that they would not have put their name to my homage to The Wolf of Wall Street if I had not done justice to their epic work. That was always my guiding thought - I had to do Scorsese’s film justice. These men don’t do mediocre.

The final print is certainly impactful and grabs the eye. I watched incognito at the impressive Maddox booth in Art Miami where the photograph was centre stage and there is no doubt that it stopped traffic - more than any other picture that I have taken (including Mankind). That was most instructive - particularly in Miami - where every fair visitor is bombarded by visual stimulants. If one piece of art can regularly stop “the run of the billionaires” - as Art Week here is known, then it has a chance of being relevant and coveted.

Of course, the photograph is blessed with a narrative that investment bankers, investment managers and traders understand, but the film had an appeal beyond that monied community and I think I saw unequivocal proof of that last week. The best photographs have three qualities - firstly, they can never be taken again, secondly, they can be looked at for a long time and thirdly, there will be nothing in the image that you would change. The Wolves of Wall Street ticks all those boxes and that is why it has created a stir.

With the book tour in full force and exhibitions in Amsterdam, Dallas and Chicago since our last report there has been less time in the field than I would like but we had always planned it this way.

Nevertheless, we have been shooting in Montana and Northern Norway in November and we are happy with the highlights that are included in this last monthly of the year.

I know that we keep on going back to that same bar in the mountains of Montana - The Pioneer Bar in Virginia City. But I have no problems with that because we have yet to find a better bar to shoot in the way that I do - with a wide angle lens close to the central characters. I am also familiar with the light and the composition options that I arrive with confidence and creative courage.

The image we took this time - The Last Chance Saloon - had a cast of 11 - that constituted a big step up from before and it worked. If we are spending $50,000 on a day’s shoot, I would much rather play at home than away. This photograph is not just a product of a day’s work, it is a product of six years investment in the community and a broad collaboration with the state of Montana. I think it is a fairly bad ass picture - which is what I was looking for.

This year will close for us with a very special show. Aspen has long been on my wish list as a resort destination, but we wanted to wait for the right gallery to open up for us. It is of course a very seasonal market, but between Christmas and New Year it is a very busy town - indeed it is busy through to Easter. Casterline Goodman has a great reputation as a gallery and we are looking forward to collaborating with them. I will be in Aspen with my family from 28th December and could not be more excited for the show.

It’s been quite a year. Have a wonderful Christmas and thank you for showing an interest in what we do. Without the support of collectors and followers around the world, we would have no game and we also understand that the job of keeping that interest starts again next year. Someone at Art Basel asked me to name my best picture. The answer is always the same, “I have not taken it yet”.