Controversial Deal Keeps Art Basel In Miami Beach


HECTOR GABINO / EL NUEVO HERALD FILE PHOTO. Since its debut in 2002, Art Basel Miami Beach has become the center of a massive festival stretching from South Beach to Miami’s Design District, encompassing dozens of smaller galleries and street-side art exhibitions.

Art Basel, the country’s biggest contemporary art show, will return to Miami Beach through 2011 under a hard-fought deal with the city that gives the show’s owner a financial stake in the Miami Beach Convention Center.

The center’s four-day art show has exploded into a week of festivals from the mainland to Miami Beach, with a global following paying sky-high hotel rates and generating a stream of private jets that tourism officials say rivals a Super Bowl.

But until now, Art Basel had refused to commit to the show for more than one year, leaving city officials to ponder losing the tourism draw to another U.S. location in their annual negotiations with Basel executives.

That changed Wednesday when city commissioners ousted the management of the convention center in favor of a partnership between Global Spectrum, a Comcast subsidiary, and Basel parent firm Messe Schweiz. The deal calls for Global to manage the facility and Messe Schweiz to market it abroad.

Other shows criticized the deal for giving Art Basel and other Messe Schweiz events an advantage in securing space and dates at the busy convention center. But supporters praised the arrangement as a chance to replicate past success with Basel, Miami Beach’s most high-profile event.

“Look at what Basel has done for the city,” said Commissioner Saul Gross. Global Spectrum is “being hired to further an alliance with the most successful show we’ve booked, which is Art Basel.”


Since its debut in 2002, Art Basel Miami Beach has become the center of a massive festival stretching from South Beach to Miami\’s Design District, encompassing dozens of smaller galleries and street-side art exhibitions. A draw for celebrities and international media, it attracts an estimated 40,000 visitors and 210 galleries from around the world.

But Basel became a lightning rod for critics of Global Spectrum’s plan to replace rival SMG as manager of the city-owned convention center. SMG, the country’s largest expo operator, took over the facility in 1990 and won the endorsement of a city selection committee when its three-year contract came up for renewal this summer.

“From the beginning, this has been about people’s fears of losing Basel,” Commissioner Jonah Wolfson said. He cast the lone vote against the Global Spectrum contract, deriding it as a deal “inviting corruption” for giving Messe Schweiz a dual role as tenant and landlord at the convention center. “It stinks.”

Messe Schweiz (“Swiss Exhibitions” in English) owns 30 shows in Europe and has pledged to bring at least one to Miami Beach. It also will run a European sales office for the convention center in an effort to lure other foreign shows to the facility. In exchange, it would receive about $52,000 out of the maximum $750,000 Global Spectrum could earn each year in the contract.

Global executives and lobbyists insisted Messe Schweiz would have no management role at the convention center, and that city officials would approve all deals for shows with ties to the Swiss company.

But the arrangement gives Global an incentive to keep Messe Schweiz happy, since Miami Beach can cancel the management contract if Messe Schweiz drops out of the partnership or Art Basel leaves the city. The Miami Beach facility will be Global’s biggest expo center, and the Philadelphia company hopes to use it as a springboard to a larger national portfolio.

Other trade shows questioned whether Global would treat them fairly as Messe Schweiz looks to expand in Miami Beach.

“Bringing in a competitor to run this building is going to make people think [twice] about using this building,” said Marc Rosenstock, whose Illinois company runs the Americas’ Fire and Security Expo in Miami Beach each June. “My choice at this point would be to move our show.”

Art Basel is the third largest show at the convention center, behind an annual car expo and the Miami International Boat Show.

With each successful year, it seemed less likely Basel might drop its profitable Miami Beach show for another location. City officials doubted the show could find a city to compete with the Miami area’s international appeal and the warm Decembers needed to serve as a winter foil for the namesake June show in Basel, Switzerland.


While Miami Beach reserved convention center space several years ahead for Basel, the show refused to commit to them. (A contract for the upcoming 2008 Basel show was only signed this summer, tourism director Max Sklar said.) Basel executives saw the short-term commitments as an advantage they’re surrendering in hopes of growing business in Miami Beach.

“This is something really we did because of this management contract with Global Spectrum,” said Messe Schweiz CEO Rene Kamm. “This is a sacrifice.”

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