“Art Basel and Diversity:  The Truth About the Art World ”  by Debra Hand

I already know.  

The title alone will put some in the mainstream art world on the defensive even before they read the first word of this article.  Likewise, some who have long felt excluded from the mainstream art world will be buttering their popcorn and settling in for a good clap-back.  

But what’s the point of fighting for justice if the only reward is winning arguments rather than effecting change and creating a more just humanity?  So, this article is about some plain truths I hope will lead to thoughtful approaches to equity creation in the art world.  It is deeply needed in every sector.      

Creating change requires looking at the facts from all sides and formulating a decisive plan of action.  So, what are the facts here, and what is the change I seek?

When writing about Black art, I’ve always spoken about the lack of diversity in the mainstream art world, and I’ve discussed the history of museums and its place in this narrative.  By the way, when I reference the “mainstream art world,” I am specifically talking about that planet in the art world universe that promotes itself as the critical source of expertise for all things art:  those who decide (for the rest of the world) which art is significant and which art is not; which art has monetary value, and which does not. This is that art world that is perpetually spun on its axis by the index fingers of very few hands.  And those hands are attached to shot-callers at major museums, auction houses, International art fair organizers, mega-dealer galleries, and biennial curators.    

In the past, when the mainstream art world has paused to let on new players in any of the aforementioned categories, those players have rarely been Black.  This is a truth well-known to the mainstream art-world.  In fact, public museums are busily in the corrective action mode trying to reverse this tradition — as are mega-dealer galleries, and biennial hosts.  But what about art fair organizers?  And, specifically, what about Art Basel, the preeminent fair of fairs?  Do they owe the art world a contribution to diversity?  If so, how does that happen?

Columbus Museum

For the sake of looking at the facts, art fairs and public museums operate in two entirely different categories.  Public museums are not-for-profit institutions that rely in part on Federal and State funding.  Those institutions have an absolute duty to represent the diversity of all of the American taxpayers that are helping to fund their existence.  They cannot morally or justly take money from every race and use it to only celebrate White male artists.

Nevertheless, this has been the tradition of museums so those wanting to see more diversity in museums have both a moral and legal ground to stand on in challenging them.  Museums have a clear obligation to diversify their collections and educational materials, as well as to expand their understanding of how other cultures want to be represented in art.  

An art fair, however, is a business endeavor.  It is an investment where the products on the shelves happen to reflect culture.  On that note, to become part of the Art Basel world, it would be highly practical to approach them the way you would approach any business.  If you’re hoping to get them to become more diverse, you should probably ask yourself this:  If I did the hard work of building a business from just an idea, and that business became successful after years of sweating, toiling, investing and maybe even borrowing against the farm, do I owe it to others to permit them to use my platform in hopes of growing their businesses?  Um, probably not. 

This is why it was so easy for Marc Spiegler, Global Director of Art Basel, to clap-back when the organization was recently confronted for lacking diversity and for not having more representation of Black artists.  

The fact is, art fair organizers are in the business of creating art venues and art audiences that they then charge galleries to have access to.  The participating galleries then decide which artists they want to risk their investment on showcasing.  Some galleries that show at Art Basel have been with them from the beginning when Art Basel was scuffling to become a blip on the art-world horizon.  The galleries who participated early on had to make a great investment in what was (then) only the dream of 3 people who founded Art Basel.  The point is, as a result of years of work and investment, that dream produced a hugely-respected worldwide platform.  And nowhere along their journey did they exclude any other entrepreneur from pursuing similar investments.    

Fortunately, there are some Black entrepreneurs who have stepped up to make investments in art platforms that create international exposure for artists of color.  PRIZM Art Fair, founded by Mikhaile Solomon comes to mind.  And art collectors are also stepping up in big ways to support Black art and culture.       

As for Art Basel, the biggest game in town, there is not a cultural group out there that doesn’t want in.  Who wouldn’t want access to their immense collectors’ base?    

Columbus Museum

Years ago, when I’d walk the floors of the convention center during Art Basel in Miami, I always felt like an outsider looking in.  Mainly because I was.  Looking at the prices being commanded and the “sold!” announcements flashing in the trade journals, I made the mistake of comparing my culture to the cultures reflected there.  I made the mistake of saying to myself, “our art is just as great.  Why can’t we be included in this event?  Why can’t our art sell for these prices?”  Back then my mistake was in thinking that cultures could be compared by any measure.  The whole concept of culture revolves around identifying the specific traditions and ideologies of an individual group.  So what was I comparing?  Every cultural group has a right to its culture.  There was nothing to compare.  But I also had to learn something else.  I had to learn, over time, that there is a big difference between creating art as a reflection of culture, and creating an art business, even when those activities overlap as they do for career artists, gallery owners and anyone else in the business of selling art.  The fact is, culture exists entirely on its own, even without the sale of art.        

Art Basel cannot exclude anyone from the creation of culture through art.  But attending Art Basel for most Black artists, collectors and galleries will instantly create a longing to see the work of Black artists on such a world stage.  I certainly would love to see the work of Black artists presented to such a broad audience, and I want to see Black galleries doing business at the price-points reflected at Art Basel.  In reality, it’s the business model of Art Basel that I long for Black artists to have access to.   I long to see Black culture have international platforms where work by Black artists can be viewed, understood, respected, and valued both culturally and financially on the same level as Art Basel has grown its business to.  Absent that option, why wouldn’t Black artists and galleries want to participate in Art Basel, the world’s most prestigious art fair?  I get it.  I deeply understand how it feels to long for diversity at Art Basel.  

However, unlike with challenging a museum that lacks diversity, I remain mindful of one crucial fact.  Art Basel is a business.  It is an investment.  Realistically, I know that I cannot demand a business entity to partner with me in the building of my business or brand.  In fact, to approach any potential business partnership that way will immediately reduce my chances for anyone wanting to do business with me.  The fact is, business partnerships are created by relationships, and relationships are created by proximity to or access to the people you are trying to partner with. In the art world, relationship building is critical, and it is required at every level from collectors, to venue organizers, to galleries, to curators, to art writers and publishers.  It is also a key element in organizing art fairs because relationships with corporate sponsors are needed to help support these massive business endeavors.  

In fact, when it comes to creating more diversity in the art world, corporate sponsorship is where significant leverage exists for people of color. If a corporation’s profits are coming from diverse communities and they choose only to sponsor artistic presentations that celebrate a single racial group, this is something they should have to answer for if they want to keep the business of diverse communities.  If their idea of being good corporate citizens and giving back never includes your community, you have leverage to challenge that.  Likewise, publicly funded museums can be legally and morally challenged to reflect all of America.    

But, as for Art Basel… can more diversity be legally demanded of its organizers?  Uh, that would be a giant Nope.  But!!!!!! 

…just as I’ve asked those who feel excluded by Art Basel to put yourselves in the shoes of any business owner that has succeeded through hard work and investment, I would also ask Art Basel organizers to consider one thing, and it is this:  

As you look out at a world crying out for diversity and change…and as you look out knowing that you possess one of the most powerful platforms on Earth for creating more equality in the art world, I hope you search your imaginations for even greater ways to contribute to humanity.  Regardless of what Art Basel started out to become, you are now the primary player in the business of worldwide culture, and the world is more diverse than currently represented in the mainstream art world.  With all of your power, will you play a part in the solution?  I surely hope you will. 

As always, to each and every reader of our articles, we welcome your opinion in the comments’ section below.  Thank you and stay well!  

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Paul Laurence Dunbar by Debra Hand

Debra Hand is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer.  She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park.  Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma;  Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University.  She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.

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