What exactly is Art Basel? You’re not alone in asking. Mixed messages are both a problem and an asset when it comes to the annual December event. Technically speaking, the festivities that culturally connected Americans learn about through New York Times writeups and a flood of social media humble bragging are known as Art Basel Miami Beach. The small clarification provides a key clue in mystery: the North American show is an extension of the original art show founded in 1970 by a group of Basel-based (pronounced Bah-zul, not Bay-zil) gallerists that still happens each summer in the cultural epicenter of Switzerland, nestled where the German, French and Swiss borders meet.


Finding a common thread that ties the countless official and even more numerous unofficial events spanning the five-day affair of Art Basel Miami Beach is a challenge these days. Over its 12-year history, the subtropical incarnation has quickly expanded beyond its original intent of bringing artists, collectors, gallerists, curators and enthusiasts together to include everything from reality TV show premiers to pop-up store outbreaks, celebrity dinners, comeback concerts and other spectacles of all kinds. These latter happenings, along with a mixture of traditional gallery shows, panel discussions and lavish networking parties, are why the affair has earned nicknames like “adult art camp” and “art’s winter playground”.

The Miami festival certainly isn’t apologetic for the looser guidelines it’s applied to “art” in recent years, or its even broader inclusion of culture. By every measurable metric, the approach has been a roaring success. Early stats prove this year’s festival was the most successful ever, featuring 258 leading galleries from across 31 countries and showcasing an estimated $3 billion worth of art, which in turn attracted a recording-breaking 75,000 international visitors.


Despite the distractions, the week’s heavy hitters didn’t lose sight of their primary goal: moving art. While total sales figures are hard to pin down, Nick Korniloff, director and partner of Art Miami (another popular art focused showcase that runs in parallel with Art Basel), reported more than $100 million in sales, up from $80 million in 2012. An increased presence of blue chip art and the generally bullish attitude toward increasing art value certainly helped the bottom line. Jeff Koons’s sculpture “Baroque Egg with Bow (Turqoise/Magenta)” sold for around $9 million alone according to the Wall Street Journal, up from its $5.4 million auction-winning price just four years ago.

Even those lacking cash and credentials can still find plenty of value in the event beyond free champagne and attractive attendees. Gaining access to one of the greatest collections of art on earth, normally scattered across the globe, is a matter of buying a $45 ticket or a slightly pricier weekend pass. Still not creatively satisfied? Pick up separate tickets to Art Miami, Aqua and other coinciding tented events to see even more.


If galleries aren’t your scene, consider checking out a host of open art displays showing all over town. The once-blighted and sketchy warehouse district of Wynwood (a few blocks from the tents of Art Miami) is now a must-see revolving showcase for the world’s best street artists. A stroll down the long, narrow streets is an easy way to experience the colorful array of enormous murals that cover every inch of wall space. How long a piece stays up varies with the space, but those touring during Art Basel get the added benefit of seeing many artists at work spraying their next masterpiece (you can check out an interactive map of what’s shown here).

Those in the area also have the option to experience free creative events being thrown such as De Nolet presented by KETEL ONE® Vodka. The popular vodka brand took up residence in the vibrant district to show its support for artists by hosting the three-day De Nolet presented by KETEL ONE® Vodka festival from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. The unique space was the first of a series of cool events sponsored by KETEL ONE® at major culture gatherings that will include Sundance, SXSW and the Tribeca Film Festival in the months to come.


Over the course of the event, attendees — including us — saw a variety of creatives showcasing their talents and works in an intimate setting designed with flourishes harkening back to KETEL ONE® Vodka’s craft heritage, such as an entryway facade mirroring the De Nolet Windmill found on the grounds of KETEL ONE®’s Schiedam, Holland home. Artists Shaun El C. Leonardo, RAFT, and the sister duo of Prince Rama each held court for a day, sharing their various performance art pieces during the afternoon and evening. An immersive projected video experience by Brooklynite artist Montgomery Knott of Monkey Town integrated selections from all three artists’ works and was present throughout the show; a world-class docket of guest DJs, including DFA Records’ Juan Maclean, Neon Indian, and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, topped off the creative offerings on the scene and provided an ever-changing soundtrack to the weekend. Combined with finely crafted cocktails made by the mixology wizards at Bar Lab and expert-led vodka tasting sessions, the mini festival served as a relaxing haven by day for escaping the Miami heat that transformed into a fun mix of cocktails, mingling, cutting-edge art and, of course, impromptu dancing after sunset.

Art Basel Miami Beach defies definition in many ways, but our own brief time there proved that every facet of the festival’s ever-growing reputation was well deserved. Somehow creativity and capitalism, glamor and glib, refinement and raw attitude all coexist in the glorious eternal summer playground that is Miami in December. It’s an event like no other in the world, and we hope to see you there next year.

KETEL ONE® Vodka. Distilled from Wheat. 40% Alc/Vol. ©2013 Imported by Ketel One USA, Aliso Viejo, CA.