Noah Horowitz, CEO of Art Basel: ‘I don’t see a crisis in the art market in the immediate future’

At the end of the second day of Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) — one of North America’s major contemporary art fairs — Noah Horowitz’s face reflected the soul of the event. This past Sunday, he closed its door with the sensation of having overcome a slowdown that — between geopolitical and economic uncertainties — is stalking the art market after 15 unstoppable years.

Horowitz is CEO of the Swiss company Art Basel, which holds art shows in Basel, Hong Kong, Paris and, as of 21 years ago, Miami. On Thursday, December 7, he sat in the botanical gardens in front of the Miami Beach Convention Center, where the event was held. He looked relaxed. “Confident,” he confirmed, in an interview with EL PAÍS, that the good numbers recorded by most of the 277 galleries invited to the 2023 edition were proof of the “resilience” of the art business.

A 44-year-old American, he was director of ABMB between 2015 and 2021, the year in which he left the company to briefly go to the Sotheby’s Auction House. However, in October 2022, he returned to lead the Swiss company’s 120 employees. Since then, he has dedicated himself to bringing order to the organization.

Art Basel belongs to the MCH Group. For those in the world of exhibiting, buying and selling art, it’s the equivalent of the Formula 1 circuit. This comparison isn’t random (nor original): it was used in the only interview that James Murdoch gave regarding his involvement in MCH. He is the fourth of Rupert Murdoch’s six children… Murdoch, of course, being the media magnate who owns assets such as Fox News and The Wall Street Journal.

In 2020, James’ venture capital firm — Lupa Systems — became a key investor in MCH. Formula 1, he noted in a podcast this past June, “sets down in a city [and there are] lots of different events that happen. There’s a race, there’s culture, people come from all over… and then they pick up and they go to the next town or city, much like a traveling circus.” Art Basel has a similar strategy.

“Murdoch,” Horowitz notes, “is a very thoughtful businessman who understands what he can contribute [as] a realistic entrepreneur. He adds a lot to the company’s board.”

Question. Are you a fan of the HBO series Succession?

Answer. I’m not going to answer that question (smiles).

Q. To what extent do you consider Art Basel responsible for Miami no longer being considered — at least for a few days — the superficial capital of America?

A. That’s the image people used to have of Miami. We’re not the only ones responsible for that change… although we’ve played [a big role]. Miami wouldn’t be the same without this fair. People used to have a distorted image of the city. Today, it’s become more robust in its cultural offering. The pandemic gave it another big boost, many people are moving here from places like New York. Lots of the VIPs who came to the fair years ago now have second homes in Miami. There’s also been a phenomenon of philanthropy taking root, which has allowed many new art centers to open.

Q. How do you interpret this year’s edition of ABMB? Did you expect more sales? Less?

A. I refuse to speak in terms of what I expect or don’t expect before a show [concludes]. But the signs have been very encouraging. In all my years working with Art Basel, I don’t think I’ve seen so many VIP confirmations from big collectors. [Over the past week], many said that they would come.

Sales were really strong on the opening day, although gallery owners speak of a slower pace when it comes to closing operations. We’re talking about six-figures, as well as in the low sevens… but also above that (tens of millions). The younger galleries are also satisfied. There is, however, a little less urgency. All of these analyses must be [made with the understanding that] this is a fair with 277 galleries. Each has its own experience. A five-day event is open to analysis until some time after its closure.

A visitor to Art Basel Miami Beach, in front of the piece 'Coyota/e,' by Hector Dionicio Mendoza, on Wednesday, December 6, 2023.
A visitor to Art Basel Miami Beach, in front of the piece ‘Coyota/e,’ by Hector Dionicio Mendoza, on Wednesday, December 6, 2023. CRISTOBAL HERRERA-ULASHKEVICH (EFE)

Q. As someone with a PhD in Art History, you’ve generally dedicated yourself to the past. But now that you’re in the business of envisioning the future, do you see a crisis looming that will stop 15 years of growth in its tracks?

A. I don’t see that there’s going to be a crisis in the art market in the immediate future. Although we have to be sober and realistic. [We have to] recognize that the market is going through totally volatile times. We’re preparing the March report (2024) and while I don’t have the exact numbers, I can tell you that we will see a decrease in the total number of sales. I still don’t know how that breaks down between the auction business and the gallery owners. We’re operating in a high interest rate environment. [But while] not all regions are as active, the U.S. market is proving to be very strong and very resilient. We saw it at the New York auctions. There, the works on sale [were of less value], but the performance was very good… this gave us a baseline of stability. So, while I don’t so much see a crisis on the horizon, I do see a market that’s going to be much more thoughtful and intentional about where money is spent. I feel optimistic about what the future holds.

Q. Is there room in the world for more fairs?

A. There’s always room for a new art fair if it hits an appropriate segment of the market. That’s why I don’t want to answer in absolute terms. But if we look at the data from the collector survey that we published mid-year — and the market survey, which we do with [the Swiss bank] UBS — then it’s clear that people are attending fewer events than before. I think collectors think a little better about the places they travel to. Fairs that offer less added value — whether in sales or in another aspect — will feel more pressure in an environment in which costs are rising. There are more and more outlets to choose from, whether for digital purchase, or to attend an experience like ABMB.

Q. Does Art Basel’s expansion model imply a risk of excessive regionalization? That is to say: Latin American art stays in Miami, Asian art stays in Hong Kong, European art stays in Basel and Paris

A. The art world has grown a lot and there are more communities of collectors and separate swarms of local institutions. That’s why I think it’s healthy that not all important art fairs are totally international and that they acquire a regional identity to serve these groups. When a dealer from London comes to Miami, he wants to find clients from Dallas or Rio de Janeiro.

Q. In an interview with EL PAÍS last year, you claimed that you don’t have to be rich to be an art collector. It’s hard to believe you in Miami, a playground for multi-millionaires…

A. There could be a debate about what it means to collect art. Is it just about buying paintings and sculptures, or also clothes? We designed a sneaker with [an artist named] Pamela Rosenkranz… we sell it for the same price as a new sneaker. It doesn’t cost $2,500 dollars, it costs $170. There are many ways to enjoy art — this is also present in ABMB. People think that the works at the fair are very expensive, but you can also buy things for less than $10,000. I’m not [suggesting] that those prices are attainable for the vast majority of people subsisting on the average household income in Miami-Dade County, don’t get me wrong. But they’re accessible to people who might not think they have the ability to buy at ABMB.

[You can] support working artists with your purchase, and you’ll acquire an object with a deep meaning… I think that’s a beautiful thing. We cannot forget that large collections were built by paying much lower prices than the current market values for [certain pieces]. You have to be curious about what’s new. I believe that the art market — and culture more broadly — continues to reward curiosity.

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