06/23/2011 04:34 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2011

Art Basel: Not Just a Trade Show

Ugo Rondinone, We Run through a Desert on Burning Feet, All of Us Are Glowing Our Faces Look Twisted, 2008-11. Installation at St. Alban Churchyard, Basel, Switzerland. Image courtesy of Art Basel and Galerie Eva Presenhuber.

The 42nd installment of Art Basel, one of the world's oldest art fairs, opens this week. Nearly three hundred modern and contemporary art galleries are scheduled to showcase their portfolios in a variety of formats and exhibitions, and throngs of the world's leading collectors and curators are paying close attention. Yet Art Basel is no longer an exclusive event for the high brow elite of the art world and market. Throughout the past few years, the fair has substantially extended its public programming aimed at an audience that seeks to look and learn, and might not necessarily collect. Open lectures, panels, films, and public artworks make the art fair seem at times like a festival, an additional role to its reputation as the crown jewel of the art market. Art Basel has gradually become open to a wider audience as an educational and entertaining experience.

One key aspect of the fair's commitment to public involvement is the Art Parcours program, which returns to Art Basel for the second time this year. Curated by Jens Hoffman, the Director of the CCA Wattis: Institute for Contemporary Art in San Francisco, Art Parcours consists of large-scale, site-specific public artworks and performances by high-profile artists: Ai Weiwei, Joan Jonas, Anne Chu, Federico Herrero, Chris Johanson, Kris Martin, Ugo Rondinone, Yinka Shonibare, Gabriel Sierra, and artist collective Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Set in the historic area of St. Alban-Tal, these contemporary creations will actively engage with the surrounding architecture and heritage. Various musical and artistic performances will also take place around the works, furthering the dialogue between past and present.

Kris Martin, Festum II, 2010. Installation view at St. Alban Church, Basel, Switzerland. Image courtesy of Art Basel, White Cube, London and Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf.

Apart from expanding its reach beyond the gallery aisles in the main fair, Art Basel has also designed an elaborate lecture series, presumably open to everyone who purchases an entrance ticket (about $25). Art Basel Conversations and Art Basel Salon offer daily discussions and debates between curators, collectors, artists, architects, and the audience. Topics include "The Future of Artistic Practice: The Artist as Urbanist", "Patronage and Politics", and "Public/ Private: How will Museums Be Able to Collect?". For those interested, there is also Art Club - a series of nightly parties featuring different DJs and locations.

Art Salon 2010. Artist Talk: Painting and Misappropriation, Adolf Dietrich and Richard Phillips. v.l.n.r. Gianni Jetzer, Richard Phillips, Beatrix Ruf. Image courtesy of Art Basel.

By establishing itself as a roundtable increasingly open to public input and enjoyment, Art Basel is responding to the widespread changes that the traditional art fair model has been undergoing for the past decade or so. The rapid increase in the sheer amount of international art fairs, especially those in Asia, has dramatically complicated the calendar for many dealers and has boosted competitiveness. The art fair is no longer just an art fair: although still very much driven by and dependent on the market, art fairs everywhere have had to expand their offerings and assert their characters as more than shopping centers, capable of appealing to a growing range of interested audiences. Art is the type of commodity that gains value as it becomes more culturally relevant - making their programming more accessible might actually benefit an art fair's commercial value.

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