Dec. 17 2013 07:37 PM

MCASD director slowly mulls over the selections at one of the world's biggest art fairs

Hugh Davies (center) shows artwork to collectors Maureen Sheehan and Steve Black.
Photo by Susan Myrland

"SEIZE THE MOMENT" shouted the headline of Blouin ArtInfo's special print edition circulated at a series of art fairs held in Miami in early December. If you missed the message, the first two lines of the article made it clear: "These days speed is a required skill at art fairs. The best pieces are swept up instantly by collectors with long arms."

Either Hugh Davies didn't read the newspaper or he didn't care. The director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) was moving through Art Basel Miami Beach, the largest art fair in the Americas, with 258 blue-chip galleries, at his own pace—excruciatingly slow.

"Two years ago, I spent the entire fair like a lawnmower, just mowing and doing every gallery," Davies says. "At the end of the three days, I realized I'd wasted my time, because you reach overload after a couple of hours. You need to take a break."

Davies had already been through the fair at least once. This time, he was accompanying Steve Black and Maureen Sheehan, a couple thinking about building their personal art collection. Davies was happy to linger in one booth after another, showing Black and Sheehan the finer details of a Brice Marden drawing or a 10-foot-square, $240,000 Theaster Gates painting called "Prime Real Estate."

Davies has mixed feelings about fairs, attending only two or three a year. He likes to see so much art in one place, but he says it's not shown under the best conditions.

"I don't think it necessarily serves the artists well," he says. "It serves the collectors and the dealers very well, but not the artists and, to some extent, not the museums."

Gesturing toward an aisle, he adds, "I mean, look at this—no matter how well it's presented, it's like a Costco for art."

Davies appreciates the work at international biennials more. While fairs display what will sell, biennials show what's pushing the envelope. Nevertheless, it's his job to keep up with what his trustees are buying and to work with MCASD chief curator Kathryn Kanjo to find art for the museum. Currently, they're on the hunt for pieces by abstract painter Jack Whitten for a retrospective next year.

"I think this is as beautiful as anything here—gorgeous," says Davies, suddenly distracted by a large crack in the concrete floor.

When reminded that it resembles the Maya Lin installation in the museum's Downtown location a few years ago, he laughs.

"Yes, exactly," he says. "Maybe that's why I like it." 


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