The world’s most important art fair is back where it all started in 1970—the Swiss city of Basel. The 50th edition was scheduled to take place in June 2020. A slight snag, one that we are all aware of, prevented it from happening, but now it is definitely going ahead.
Having been around for a little while, I have personally attended every single one of the 49 previous editions. Basel becomes the place to be for that one week. The city is not fully equipped to handle so many high-net-worth and high maintenance individuals all at once, but there is nowhere else where the world’s most successful art fair could ever take place.
The Hotel des Trois Rois is the place to stay. There has been a hotel on that spot since 1255, and, from Napoleon to Queen Elizabeth II, Voltaire to Picasso, everybody who is somebody has stayed there. Occasionally, people who believe they are somebody stay there. That is why I was totally devastated to hear that this year no room would be available to me, despite having stayed there for years. Normally you only lose your room when you die. In Monty Python fashion, I protested: “I am not dead yet!” It seems to have worked, as to my great relief I will be able to recuperate in “my” room.
As an auctioneer I would always fantasize about how much one could raise by auctioning a room at the Trois Rois during Art Basel (or at the Hotel Cipriani during the opening week of the Venice Biennale). There are, of course, plenty of other hotels to accommodate the art lovers flogging to Basel, but none have quite the same charm.
The bar is where all the action is at night. The two restaurants too good to miss are the Kunsthalle Restaurant and Chez Donati. While they are in no way gastronomic temples, the atmosphere with artists, collectors, dealers, and curators is electric.
At the fair itself, the stands selling fabulous bratwurst (veal sausages) in the courtyard have more V.I.P.’s queuing up than the actual V.I.P. rooms of the fair’s sponsors.
Now that we have dealt with lodging and food, let’s talk about the real reason for visiting Basel. I must, however, first disclose that I am totally biased, having been born and raised in the city.
The Kunstmuseum Basel is one of my favorite museums in the world. Beside the MoMA in New York, there is probably no better place to see 20th-century art. This year, the museum has a double whammy, with shows from Camille Pissarro and Kara Walker.
The Fondation Beyeler, created by the legendary art dealer and co-founder of ArtBasel Ernst Beyeler, not only exhibits his world class collection, but also the best temporary exhibitions, which year after year beat Swiss attendance records. During Art Basel it will present ”Close-Up,” a show focusing on the best female artists from Berthe Morisot to Elizabeth Peyton. In October it is staging possibly the most important Goya exhibition ever held outside of Spain.
The Kunsthalle Basel is an institution with no permanent collection, devoted to showing the works of young emerging artists. In the 1950s, it was the first cultural entity in Europe to exhibit America’s Abstract Expressionists. During the art fair its exhibition will showcase the rising art star Matthew Angelo Harrison.
The Schaulager, which opened in 2003 combining storage and display of contemporary art, is showing its latest acquisitions from the Emanuel Hoffman Foundation.
I could go on. Despite a population of just 200,000, Basel’s cultural offerings can only compare to the world’s infinitely larger metropolitan cities.
Art Basel is on from September 24 to September 26
Simon de Pury is a Swiss art collector and the author of The Auctioneer: Adventures in the Art Trade