Where Art Stars Were the Rock Stars

Diddy and Isabelle Bscher (Mike Coppola/Getty Images Entertainment); Kehinde Wiley (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Fiscal cliff or not, collectors at this year's Art Basel Miami Beach — which concluded on Dec. 9 — snapped up artwork like bargain hunters at a sample sale. In the early hours of the VIP opening on Dec. 5, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs expanded his art collection with a $15,000 piece by Brett Murray titled Manifesto — a wall sculpture that reads "Promises Promises Promises." Murray, an artist from Cape Town, South Africa, had garnered attention earlier this year for The Spear, a painting that depicted the country's president, Jacob Zuma, posed like Lenin but with his fly open.

But when Combs — who also reportedly picked up a much-coveted Ivan Navarro sculpture at Paul Kasmin's Gallery — made his statement-piece purchase, it had a different kind of head-turning effect. "P. Diddy walked in today and said, 'Right, I get it; I want to get it,' and that caused quite an art stir," Neil Dundas from the Goodman Gallery told The Root.


One artist who wished Diddy had bought his work Tell_Raw 91, which is an ode to Big Daddy Kane, is Kamau Amu Patton. He ran after the rap impresario's car, to no avail. The piece showed at satellite art fair NADA, or the New Art Dealers Alliance, through the James Fuentes Gallery. The artist, who was booked to deejay an art party during the week, said, "Kane resonates with me."

In fact, there were roughly two dozen satellite fairs surrounding Art Basel, which was held at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Many of the artists were treated like rock stars. It was common to see installation artist Theaster Gates, visual artist Mickalene Thomas, painter Kehinde Wiley and others surrounded by fans. LaToya Ruby Frazier, who displayed her photographs at this, her first Art Basel show, dressed the part in a sequined mini with major heels. "Sometimes it doesn't seem so real," said Frazier, who has a show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

For artist Adam Pendleton, who showed with the Pace Gallery, Art Basel was not a new experience, but it was an opportunity for him to get even more exposure. He was a featured speaker during Art Basel Conversations. "I hope it's an opportunity for people to learn more about my work," said Pendleton, who also told The Root that he noticed how black participation had grown over the years. "The more voices, the better."

While artists are the new celebrities at the fairs, there was no lack of star power in attendance, either. Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Will Smith, just to name a few, made the scene. Rapper Rick Ross bought a photograph titled Love Is the Drug by Richard Mosse from Jack Shainman's Gallery. Ross even Instagrammed a photo in front of the work and wrote, "Just purchased my 1st piece from Art Basel."


In addition, Pharrell Williams spoke at Design Miami. With the spotlight on him literally, Williams said that he "felt like a rotisserie chicken." Later, at a party, he told The Root, "The unity in the name of art, fashion and design is a beautiful thing."

That unity was demonstrated on Friday night at Danny and Russell Simmons' party for their collaboration with Bombay Sapphire's Artisan Series. This year Rush Arts Gallery — which is owned and operated by the Simmons brothers — showed at the Fountain Art Fair, while the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series showed at the Scope Art Fair. Rush has been participating in Art Basel Week in one form or another since the fair started 11 years ago.


"We want to be part of the national conversation, not just the artists we show but the gallery itself," Danny Simmons told The Root. "Kehinde, Mickalene, so many young artists came through Rush and then went on to the Studio Museum [in Harlem] and out into the world. It's my vision that people all over the world know about Rush and its mission. So being a part of Basel does that." However, it's his role as an artist that he cherishes even more. This year he made his first short art film for the Artisan Series with four other artists, including the actress Persia White.

Someone else jumping into the Miami show scene was June Kelly. For the first time in her 25-year career as a black gallerist in New York's SoHo neighborhood, she took a booth at the satellite fair Art Miami. Kelly brought work by Chris Ofili, as well as lesser-known artists including Philemona Williamson. "The number of people that have come by and expressed interest in the work, looked at the booth, thought it was fabulous what we have, and we are different … a lot of people don't know the names, and I feel good about that," Kelly told The Root. Chicago gallerist Rhona Hoffman, who has been showing black artists since 1978, when she mounted a show with Charles Gaines, was featuring three other black artists: Derrick Adams, Xaviera Simmons and Kehinde Wiley.


By Saturday morning, people were tired and feet were hurting, but it was standing room only at Black Art in America's collectors' lecture at the Wolfsonian Museum, where Susan L. Taylor, the former editor of Essence magazine, told The Root, "This is my first time [at Art Basel], and I am already making my reservation to come back next year."

She was being shown around by famed curator Lowery Sims, as well as collectors Toni and Carl Randolph. The couple have been on one of the host committees for the Miami fair since its beginning and have a vast collection, some of which they are in the process of donating to the Frost Museum. "It's nice to live with art," Carl Randolph said. "It's wonderful for people to collect what they love, whether it costs 10 cents or whether it costs $100,000. If it moves you, it's important."


In a sense, blacks of all socioeconomic backgrounds have always been collectors. Walk into a black home and you will see some form of art that they are extremely proud of. Black Art in America, which is run by Najee Dorsey, tried to encourage that notion this year through the several events that Dorsey organized during the week under the umbrella Do You Basel?

"It's important and it needed to be done, and I was willing to take the lead," Dorsey told The Root. "I am passionate about it. I am an artist, I am a collector, I'm a patron."


He explained that he got his inspiration to do the art series from an unlikely source. "I heard the president say, 'You be the change that you are looking for.' " Mission accomplished.

Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.

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