This past September, Noah Horowitz, clean-cut, in his mid-30s, and with a mild professorial mien, arrived on time for our interview at Cookshop, a restaurant in the heart of New York’s Chelsea art district. He unbuttoned his suit jacket, sat down, and ordered a lemonade.
We were meeting to talk about his new gig, director of the Americas for Art Basel, the world’s largest and most prestigious contemporary-art fair—a role that could be instrumental in shaping how the global art market advances into new corners of the world. By further establishing its hold on emerging artist-dealer-collector cottage industries in, say, South American boomtowns, Art Basel can ensure that dealers in those cities stay dependent on the fair’s four-day sales saturnalias—whether it’s the 45-year-old flagship event in Basel, Switzerland, the recently formed Art Basel Hong Kong, or, most likely for this region, the 13-year-old Art Basel Miami Beach. It all hinges on the carefully massaged relationships between the fair and emerging targets—collector bases, young art scenes, and new institution meccas—that are popping up in the United States, Canada, and Latin America.
Horowitz’s new job is the product of the global expansion of the art-fair industry over the last 15 years. Many dealers now make a larger proportion of their sales at these events than in their galleries. Last year, the Wall Street Journal counted 200 art fairs on the art world’s annual calendar, and industry leaders like Basel, Frieze, and Paris’s FIAC have themselves expanded over the past decade or so—Art Basel to Miami and Hong Kong, and Frieze to New York and a second fair in London. FIAC has announced a forthcoming Los Angeles edition, though plans for it have been stalled for a year.
“If you find a region, or a city, and all of a sudden one or two galleries from that part of the world get into Art Basel, that’s a big deal,” Horowitz said. “Is that something that’s going to be done overnight? No, absolutely not, but there’s a great precedent. And I think being a fair in Miami Beach, which is easily accessible, is a really, really important part of that. Getting to Miami is a little challenging from Asia, but slightly less challenging from Europe. And it’s eminently easy from really anywhere in the U.S. or South America.”
But Horowitz’s function isn’t really to recruit galleries for the fair. “For the Art Basel show in Miami Beach, the reapplication rate is always somewhere between 98 and 100 percent,” said Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel and Horowitz’s boss. “So the big challenge for Noah is no longer getting galleries to apply to the show, it’s making sure they’re successful once they’re there. It’s working with galleries on what they bring, and also making sure that the great collectors and museum directors—from everywhere from Tierra del Fuego to Montreal and Vancouver—are connected with the right galleries.”
Horowitz’s appointment, in July, came as a surprise to many, including staffers at the Armory Show—where, at the time, he was director and drawing praise for having saved the faltering art fair in just three years. Be that as it may, hints of an imminent departure were apparent to anyone on the art-world social circuit in June.
Just weeks before the announcement, Horowitz cut a swath through the parade of social functions at Art Basel in Switzerland, today the most important art-market gathering on earth. In Basel, Horowitz was seemingly everywhere: standing near Takashi Murakami on a docked yacht as the artist posed with neon-clad Harajuku girls; in the lobby bar of the Trois Rois, the epicenter of late-night Basel hobnobbery; at the Kunsthalle long after the dinner guests had switched from wine to Campari-soda; attending former Art Basel director Sam Keller’s ritzy Fondation Beyeler lawn party, snacking on pâté canapés.
Horowitz would soon be overseeing a fair with outposts on three continents. But with Art Basel courting collectors and dealers in burgeoning art centers—Dallas, São Paulo, Mexico City, Los Angeles—while possibly scouting across oceans for locations to open the next tent in its empire, what makes this Ph.D.-clad intellectual the right guy to lead the armada?
Consider the directors, past and present, of Art Basel. The fair was founded in 1970 after Swiss art dealers Ernst Beyeler, Trudi Bruckner, and Balz Hilt thought Switzerland should have a contemporary-art fair on par with Art Cologne in Germany, perhaps with a bit less Germanic self-seriousness. After Beyeler’s directorship, Lorenzo Rudolf, another Swiss dealer, took over the fair and toward the end of his term conceived of Art Basel Miami Beach. Keller, also Swiss, had been communications director under Rudolf and then, as director, turned the fair in Miami into the biggest art-based spectacle in the history of the United States. Spiegler, the fair’s first American director, came from magazine journalism (including contributing to ARTnews) and oversaw the opening of yet another fair after Art Basel’s parent company, MCH Group, purchased Art HK and rebranded it as Art Basel Hong Kong.
In short, Basel’s top brass do not typically arrive from the academy. Horowitz’s very appearance strikes a contrast. Spiegler favors shirts on the brighter end of the spectrum, wears a diamond stud in his ear, laces up spats each morning, and has a guy in Hong Kong with measurements on file. Horowitz is given to conservative dark-shade suits.
After studying at the University of Virginia, where he was admitted into the elite fraternity known as St. Elmo Hall, and a stint working on Wall Street, Horowitz earned a Ph.D. from London’s Courtauld Institute of Art. His doctoral thesis, which took on the contemporary-art market, was published in 2011 by Princeton University Press as the appendix-heavy tome Art of the Deal. The book, written mostly during the global recession, is a deeply informed if dry pop-academic jaunt into the start of an art bubble that now appears both prescient and dated. Inevitably, there are musings on the exploding phenomenon of the art fair, including a not-so-veiled critique of Keller’s deco-glow vision for Art Basel Miami Beach. Horowitz quotes Keller as saying, by way of explaining the new fair’s location, “There are some wonderful hotels and good restaurants, and it is hot there in December.”
“One may even suggest that contemporary art fairs constitute near perfect embodiments of the experience economy’s penetration into the cultural sector,” Horowitz continues in his book, his tone bordering on contempt. “Not only do they adjoin buyers and sellers of contemporary art goods and services, but they streamline the contemporary art experience into a tightly packaged event—a lifestyle—for the international business elite.”
The penetration that Horowitz refers to has, of course, only become more intense in the last half decade—witness, for instance, the rise of the massive, eye-grabbing work that invites thousands of selfies. This is a reality that Horowitz will have to wade right into this month, when Art Basel hits Miami for its 14th edition there.
In many ways, Horowitz has already proved his mettle. In 2008, when he was defending his thesis, he took a job at the Serpentine Galleries in London, working as an associate while being mentored by its co-director, the ubiquitous curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Horowitz was then in his early 20s. “He did an interview with me for his thesis, when he was still a student, and we were very impressed by him from the beginning,” Obrist recalled of Horowitz, on the phone from London. “He has so many talents,” Obrist went on. “He’s a great researcher and writer, a great interviewer, but also a great organizer. We were aware that he had an amazing skill for fundraising, but he made a brilliant contribution to the scholarly side of things at the same time. And it’s very rare that someone can work in this double capacity.”
This combination of rigorous intelligence regarding market currents and fluency in the less-rigorous cocktail-party talk of collectors pushed Horowitz toward the hustle of the art-fair circuit. Obrist, who admitted to having little knowledge of, or interest in, art fairs, said the shift made sense for Horowitz. In Obrist-ese, it all has to do with the art world’s “polyphony of centers.”
“From the very beginning he had this interest in the geographic expansion of the avant-garde,” Obrist said. “So it made sense that he went to run an art fair.”
The first fair Horowitz ran was a virtual one. In 2009 the art dealers James and Jane Cohan, along with business partners from the tech world Jonas and Alessandra Almgren, were gearing up to launch the world’s first online-only art fair, VIP (which James Cohan jokingly told journalists stood for “Viewing in Pajamas”). They hired Horowitz to run it. Breathless, anticipatory press flowed in from art websites hooked by the idea of “walking” into the Gagosian “booth” and the novelty of buying work over chat.
But the first iteration of the fair, in 2010, was rife with glitches and overwhelmed servers. After a mediocre second year VIP dropped the “Fair” from its title and became an online platform for art galleries. Here, however, it faced competition from a scrum of newly minted online marketplaces like Artsy, Paddle8, and Auctionata. Eventually it was purchased by the market site Artspace, after which VIP dissolved. (James Cohan did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
By then Horowitz had already landed at another fair, one perhaps equally beleaguered. In the fall of 2011 he was hired as the director of New York’s Armory Show. The Armory Show, founded in 1994 as the Gramercy International Art Fair and renamed in 1999, had been purchased in 2007 by the Chicago company Merchandise Mart Properties, which had scaled up the booth count, and dealers had been abandoning it in droves. And the British were coming: Frieze New York’s arrival on Randall’s Island, just a few months away when Horowitz assumed his post, further threatened the Armory’s standing.
“It’s no secret that Frieze was presented as competition to the Armory Show,” said Manuela Paz, the director of VIP relations at the Armory Show when Horowitz came on board (and now a membership director at New Art Dealers Association [NADA], an Art Basel Miami Beach satellite fair whose New York edition coincides with Frieze). “And it was a blessing in disguise for the Armory Show, because it was a game changer in terms of the experience of the fair. It kind of helped the Armory Show to take a harder look at what we were doing and how we could better the fair.”
As director of the Armory Show Horowitz built a VIP lounge with the Pommery flowing. He cut the fat from the bloated exhibitors list. He hired architects from Bade Stageberg Cox to rejigger the space at Piers 92 and 94 on Manhattan’s West Side. He personally convinced megadealer David Zwirner—one of the fair’s dropouts—to buy a booth again. By 2013 Larry Gagosian had also taken a booth and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was on hand to open the doors.
“Noah was dealt a very bad hand at the Armory—it was pretty much left for dead when Frieze New York launched,” said Spiegler. “But he succeeded by doing what [Los Angeles gallerist] Jeff Poe always calls ‘walking the yard’: talking to all the gallerists and delivering what people need.” The consensus among 2015 fairgoers was that Horowitz had shocked the Armory Show back to life. In an interview with the Art Newspaper, which described Horowitz’s tenure as a “quiet rehabilitation,” Horowitz said, “We think we can be the marquee fair in New York, and one of the best fairs in the world.”
That has now become someone else’s job. Horowitz has left a fair that sold $85 million worth of art in its 2015 iteration for one whose Swiss iteration alone sold $3.4 billion in the same year. “One of the main differences between Art Basel Miami Beach and the Armory is that, at the end of the day, the Armory is a New York institution with an international voice—but it’s still a New York institution,” said Horowitz. “Art Basel Miami Beach is the only true major international fair, certainly in terms of what we can do in the entirety of the U.S. and South America.”
“Of course it was a surprise,” said an Armory Show communications manager who had to spin Horowitz’s departure. “But it’s a fantastic career move for him. His contribution to the fair was tremendous, but he felt that the Armory Show is poised in a good place. He helped put us back on track and it was time for a new leader.” (Who that will be is still not clear. Horowitz left the top spot in July. When ARTnews went to press in early November, the Armory Show was nearing a decision.)
To many, Horowitz’s move made a lot of sense. “Noah is the right choice; he’s by far the best choice,” said David Hunt, who has worked with both Art Basel and Horowitz as a curator. “He comes out of a new era where you actually have to have some bona fides. You can’t be just some guy who came out of the fair industry: you need to come out of a background where you’re committed to art, where you study art.”
“I’ve known Noah for years because we were going to a lot of the same fairs and events all over the globle,” said Spiegler. “What struck me about Noah is that he loves art, he has a great knowledge of art both historical and contemporary, and he has a very international vision of the art world. And, of course, he has a really analytical view of the art market.”
At Cookshop, Horowitz, when asked how things were going, said he was settling in, shuttling between New York and Art Basel’s headquarters in Switzerland and taking a few trips to Mexico and South America to meet with collectors. “I think the brand power of Art Basel as an organization is really second to none in the art-fair landscape,” he said. (One fair’s continent-hopping footprint, however, does loom: Frieze, with its 12-year-old flagship in London and that fair’s three-year-old addition for older art, Frieze Masters; a sleek white tent on Randall’s Island that is Frieze New York; plus a new director for the Americas and Asia, Abby Bangser.)
The speculation about Art Basel launching another event somewhere in the world is consistently denied, though it ramped up again when the fair hired Horowitz. The potent rumor going around is that its sights are set on Los Angeles—now squarely in Horowitz’s domain. If so, Art Basel could be the first international fair to take advantage of Tinseltown’s white-hot gallery circuit. Adding fuel to the talk was the tony shindig, thrown by Art Basel in Horowitz’s honor and coinciding with the September opening of the Broad Museum, that was attended by Julian Schnabel, LACMA director Michael Govan, talent-agency heavyweight David Gersh, art flipper extraordinaire Stefan Simchowitz, and a slew of L.A.’s most prominent dealers.
Still, this is no proof of any Basel-related incursion into the City of Angels. Though he has indeed been in L.A. recently, Horowitz has also been to a dizzying number of foreign ports of call. In an e-mail in late October, Horowitz said that, in the last few weeks, he’d been to Miami, Bogotá, Chicago, London, Los Angeles, Basel, and back to New York. “I look forward to a lot more of this in the future,” he wrote, from where on earth, I have no idea.
Nate Freeman is senior staff writer at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 58 under the title “The Doctor Is In.”