Chinese artist Zhang Huan (Photo Courtesy: Getty Images by Jeff Greenberg)

In December 2019—the last time Art Basel Miami Beach was held in person—absurdist artist Maurizio Cattelan duct-taped a fresh banana to a white wall at precisely a 37-degree angle 68 inches above the floor in the Perrotin gallery’s booth. The price tag for the piece, titled Comedian, and its accompanying certificate of authenticity? $120,000. Two editions quickly sold—reportedly, one to Colette boutique founder Sarah Andelman, and the other to Miami couple Billy and Beatrice Cox, who called the work the “unicorn of the art world.” The cost of owning the already mythic third edition was quickly raised to $150,000.

But the perishable piece’s infamy reached its zenith (and sparked even more public debate about what constitutes a masterpiece) when performance artist David Datuna came along and ate one of the bananas. “I really love this installation. It’s very delicious,” he later captioned a video of the moment on Instagram.

It remains to be seen if this year’s edition of Art Basel Miami Beach will create more historic, buzzworthy moments like these, but one thing is certain: After two years away, everyone from gallerists and artists to art patrons, collectors, and the just plain curious are more than ready to return to South Florida and the show that’s on the cusp of celebrating its landmark 20th anniversary.

It’s been quite a journey so far. In 1970, three top gallerists, Trudl Bruckner, Ernst Beyeler, and Balz Hilt, launched what was then known as “Art” in Basel, Switzerland, to compete with Germany’s Art Cologne show. The first show in the city straddling the French and German borders attracted 16,000 visitors and featured 90 galleries from ten countries.

“Increased free time, good salaries, far-reaching means of communication, and intensive exhibition activity have all led to more and more people becoming interested in contemporary art,” reads a catalog from that first fair.

Thirty years later, those words still rang true for former Basel director Lorenzo Rudolf, whose nine-year run helming the organization ended in 2000. Rather than the cooler climes of Switzerland, though, Rudolf turned his eye to the burgeoning art scene in Miami Beach for his next project, since it was—and still is—the vibrant nexus of North American and Latin cultures. A truly iconic experience was created after Beyeler apprentice Sam Keller fine-tuned what Rudolf noted was “the idea of contemporary art as a lifestyle choice” and launched ABMB in 2002. The results of that inaugural year were stunning: 30,000 visitors and 160 galleries from 23 countries—roughly double what the original Art Basel accomplished at its debut. And, it’s grown exponentially ever since.

Art Basel Miami Beach’s flair for creating scenes to be seen has also escalated, sometimes with unintended results. In 2015, a woman was stabbed in the Nova sector in the shadow of Miami artist Naomi Fisher’s installation The Swamp of Sagittarius. Onlookers reportedly thought they were watching performance art and Fisher later said one eyewitness told her he initially thought the very real blood gushing from the victim’s wounds was fake.

The parties in Miami during the fair are a bit less dramatic—but they too have become the stuff of legend for different reasons. “Without question, my favorite happening year after year is the epic Wynwood Walls Artist dinner,” Jessica Goldman Srebnick, Co-Chair, Goldman Properties and Founder/CEO of Goldman Global Arts, tells Grazia Gazette: NYFW.

Goldman Srebnick’s outdoor museum Wynwood Walls managed to revitalize a formerly decaying neighborhood and now features a collection of giant graffiti and street art murals by Aiko, FAILE, Kenny Scharf, Ryan McGinness, and other famed art stars. “To see the best street artists in the world all together at one time in one of the most iconic venues for street art is a sight to see,” she says.

If current estimates are any indicator, a lot of eyes will be on a huge range of work during ABMB 2021. This December, more than 4,000 artists and nearly 300 galleries will showcase projects at the Miami Beach Convention Center’s 500,000 square feet of exhibition space, including large-scale pieces in the newer sector, “Meridians,” emerging artists with cutting-edge designs in “Nova,” and a single creator’s body of work or themed group exhibitions in “Kabinett.”

Over time, the fair has famously launched both artists and galleries, but it’s also helped put Miami on the map as one of the most glamourous, dynamic, and culturally relevant artistic destinations in the world. In addition, ABMB has spawned off-site satellite fairs, pop-ups, parties, and other programming during the concurrent Miami Art Week, which runs this year from November 27 to December 6. Pérez Art Museum Miami, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and other leading institutions across the area often now save their best exhibitions for Art Basel Miami Beach’s arrival.

Goldman Srebnick calls this period in the city “a celebration of creativity at its best.” A “yearly celebration,” Art Basel Miami Beach has been a gift to the art world on a global and local level, and continues to foster industry dialogue and connection across borders.

“It has fueled a global artistic community, it has fueled careers and businesses, and it has ignited a new generation of artists to express themselves through various mediums on the critical topics facing our society and our planet,” she says, adding: “That is more than an art fair; that is a purpose.”