The Stand of Berlin's König Galerie at Art Basel 2016
© Christian Werner

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  • TEXT INGO NIERMANN
  • PHOTOS CHRISTIAN WERNER
  • ILLUSTRATION CRISTÓBAL SCHMAL

Every year in June, the sleepy Swiss city of Basel ­radically transforms into an international art scene hub.

  When it comes to Art Basel (June 12–18), no simile is too strong. What the UK’s Daily ­Telegraph calls “the Olympics of the art world” is “a mecca” to art dealer Kenny Schachter, who thinks every collector and gallerist “physically and financially able to” should make the trip at least once in their life because buying art at Art Basel is tantamount to a religious act.

A proper ceremony requires patience. That’s why Art Basel opens with a breakfast first thing Monday morning. For famous auctioneer Simon de Pury, collecting art is “an obsession, an incurable addiction.” So just imagine the torment suffered by the 500 or so invited guests as they are led through the exhibition hall onto the patio, unable to glimpse a single work of art or break through the line of attractive young guards, before indulging in abundant Champagne, raspberries and the latest rumors about artists and gallery owners.

When Art Basel first opened in 1970, the only other art fair was Germany’s Art Cologne. Today, there are dozens competing all over the world. But since Art Basel concentrated more on quality than quantity, its importance grew. “Ninety-nine percent of all gallerists who have ever exhibited at the fair want to come back,” is Hamburg collector Harald Falckenberg’s estimation. Still, the number of exhibitors has remained around 300 for the past 47 years. That’s why even giant galleries such as Hauser & Wirth, Larry Gagosian and David Zwirner have to reapply for a spot every year. In contrast, the number of visitors has risen steadily; these days, some 100 000, unperturbed by the admission fee of 50 Swiss francs (47 euros), flock to Basel every year, briefly tripling its population of 200 000.

They pay for the privilege of purchasing art – and even then, admission is granted only on the last four days of the week-long fair. Monday through Wednesday, Art Basel is reserved for the VIPs, and selecting them is a year-round job. Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen have all been to Art Basel. Venerable big-time collectors, such as Americans Mera and Don Rubell, Nicoletta Fiorucci from Italy and Friedrich Christian “Mick” Flick from Germany are regulars.

The Herzog & de Meuron exhibition hall

The Herzog & de Meuron exhibition hall

© Christian Werner
Art fair visitors in front of an Ai Weiwei installation

Art fair visitors in front of an Ai Weiwei installation

© Christian Werner

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  After the VIP breakfast, everyone proceeds to the opening of Liste, a fair for young and emerging artists held at Werkraum Warteck pp in a former brewery close by. The wait for a taxi or for Uber can be long during the fair, and even the limousine service hardly helps, so most people walk, and thanks to numerous high heels, in a rather sedate procession. The rest of the year, the yellow-brick Warteck building – a warren of corridors, stairways and niches – is home to local artists’ studios. If you’re lucky, you will find yourself at the bottom of the staircase to the Turmstübli tower bar, where, squeezed in with a hundred others, you can catch impressive views of the city: south, across the Rhine and east, to the Roche Tower, Switzerland’s tallest (178-meter) skyscraper. Triangular and tapering on one side, it seems inspired by a lump of cheese. Like the new exhibition hall, the Museum of Cultures and the Laurenz Foundation’s Schaulager art warehouse, it is the work of Swiss star architects Herzog & de Meuron.

Art Basel and Liste are held on the right bank of the Rhine, across the river from the quaint old town. That is also where the Parcours fringe program is held, featuring sculptures, videos and performances, all put together by Basel curator Samuel Leuenberger. He brings all his contacts into play so that visitors can enter the city’s oldest grammar school and oldest private garden, where art almost becomes a sideline. To keep the visitors on their toes and allow the locals to catch an eyeful of their extravagant outfits, the pilgrims are shepherded back after the Liste opening to the exhibition site, where Art Unlimited opens on the Monday afternoon. It’s a special space reserved for works of especially large format, such as a multi-part video installation or an original-size replica of a patio centered around a pool.

The view of the old town across the Rhine

Not a painting, but still beautiful: the view of the old town across the Rhine

© Dagmar Schwelle/laif

  Art Basel proper begins on the Tuesday at 11 a.m., the opening eagerly awaited by long lines of VIPs through which, every year, the unsettling rumor circulates that some super-VIPs have already gained admittance to the hallowed halls one or even two hours earlier. Given the growing number of multimillionaires and billionaires, it would seem to be only a matter of time before a new category of super-super-VIPs is afforded even more exclusive access at six in the morning.

Oh no, will super-super VIPs start gaining access even earlier?

The fair owes some of its popularity with collectors to its peaceful location. At the U.S. offshoot, Art Basel Miami Beach, everything revolves around seeing and being seen, whereas in Switzerland, the upper crust can feel certain they will not be bothered by paparazzi or eccentrics. Art Basel does operate a bag scan these days, but old established restaurants still admit all comers. During the event, though, many hotels are hopelessly full. The venerable Hotel Krafft right on the Rhine is fully occupied by Art Basel regulars – despite charging over twice the usual room rates. Try booking ten years ahead and you will make it onto the waiting list. Before the fair, local art world acquaintances regularly receive requests for balcony space for an air mattress. Quite a few wealthy Baselers leave town for the duration and rent our their villa for thousands of francs a day – to collectors bringing an entourage of chef, yoga guru, hairdresser and art consultant and wishing to throw their own parties. Sedate parts of town decorated with old wagon wheels, like Bruderholz, are overrun by metrosexual hipsters from all over the world. Most Baselers take the Art Basel circus in their stride, if not with some pride. How practical, after all, to be a metropolis once a year and then return to the quiet life!

Art fair visitors

See and be seen – Art Basel is a veritable catwalk for the chic hipsteria

© Christian Werner
Art fair visitor with Rolex

The Rolex is part of the show

© Christian Werner
“White Cube Hotel“ by the art collective Die Bande

“White Cube Hotel“ by the art collective Die Bande

© Christian Werner
Deconstructed pickup truck behind the city's department of public works and transportation

Deconstructed pickup truck behind the city's department of public works and transportation

© Christian Werner
The beach at Tinguely Musuem

The beach at Tinguely Musuem: first art, then a dip in the river

© Dagmar Schwelle/laif

  Many locals get in on the act themselves and let rip for one week in the year: Several art, photo and design fairs have docked onto Art Basel. The Swiss Art Awards have a large hall full of young Swiss art; I Never Read is a lovingly installed market for art books; and all around the fair, parked flatbed trucks show art outside. Parties take people to frivolous places, like the all-pink Club Velvet most people would never venture into the rest of the year. Here, collectors and gallerists meet for a drink at the end of the day with the rank and file of upcoming artists, freelance curators and assistants.

But where can you spend the rest of the night if you don’t happen to be a millionaire? Following the award-winning renovation of the glass extension to the local St. Alban youth hostel by the architects at Buchner Bründler’s in 2010, it immediately became an insider tip. Even Johann König, owner of the König Galerie in Berlin, stays here. Be warned, though: The double rooms are fully booked at least a year in advance. A place in a six-bed dorm for just under 50 francs per person can be had at shorter notice. The “White Cube Hotel,” created last year by the Basel art collective Die Bande, is unbeatably cheap. Spending the night in a one-person tent – breakfast included – puts you back only 28 francs per night, and you’re even part of the artwork! If the idea catches on, the entire fair could turn into a place where everyone watches everyone else sleep, eat and party. Most of what changes hands here is two-dimensional art that can be hung on the wall, so since the exhibition halls are pretty high, there’s still plenty of room for more.