The hundreds of gallery owners who apply each year to secure a coveted booth at Art Basel, the Swiss art fair, spend weeks on their admission applications. They describe the evolution of their galleries, track the history of their exhibitions and list the biographies of their artists. Then there is the matter of the “mock booths,” intricate sketches, miniature models, even virtual tours, of their planned exhibition spaces, complete with tiny reproductions of the exact works they hope to exhibit.
All to impress the fair’s selection jury, six fellow dealers who have become among the most powerful gatekeepers — and tastemakers — in the art world.
“It is like the Olympics,” said the New York dealer Fergus McCaffrey, “or the European Champions League, and every good gallery and their artists wants desperately to compete.”
As the art market explodes in value and collecting becomes a global treasure hunt, the importance of showing at art fairs has soared, too. Fairs now account for about 40 percent of gallery sales by value, and as collectors flock to destination bazaars in places like Paris, London, New York, Miami and Maastricht in the Netherlands, dealers, museum curators and art-world groupies follow.
Galleries seeking to exhibit at Art Basel encounter an intense, juried competition. While the fair says it works to find new faces, prime selling space on the ground floor is dominated by a roster of established dealers.
And perhaps no fair, dealers say, is harder to get into than Basel, where for the privilege of paying $50,000 to $80,000, galleries get to sell to the highest of high-end collectors, build relationships and burnish their reputations by sharing space with the best dealers in the world.
“It is like getting admitted to a club,” said Jeffrey Deitch, a private art dealer and former museum director and gallerist who waited seven years before the doors opened to him in 2006.
At first glance, the chances of being selected for the fair, which begins on Tuesday, don’t seem so slim, with about 900 galleries from around the world vying for the nearly 300 booths. But a look at the last seven years of the Basel lineup reveals a reality of much longer odds for newcomers, as a roster of veteran galleries end up dominating the fair year after year.
The result for Basel aspirants can be a regimen of yearly disappointment, even for well-established names.
Anke Kempkes, a respected Manhattan dealer, has applied unsuccessfully at least five times. Dorsey Waxter, who is president of the Art Dealers Association of America and helps organize the popular New York Art Show, has failed for years to get in.
“I have been with the in-crowd at the Art Show but I am not in Basel,” Ms. Waxter said.
A Little Fair Grows Bigger
It wasn’t always this way. When Art Basel began 45 years ago in a staid Swiss town best known for banking regulations, it was primarily a fair for European galleries hoping to sell Modern and contemporary art to the growing ranks of mainly European collectors.
Galleries were usually invited back year after year. But a jury system, introduced later in the 1970s to screen applicants, gradually became more rigorous as Basel leveraged its Swiss efficiency, convenient location and five-star service to attract and cultivate an ever wealthier and more demanding clientele.
Today, V.I.P. collectors are lavished with Champagne breakfasts, lectures, tours, BMW car service, and most important, early access to the fair so they can buy the best art first.
These days Basel draws about 92,000 visitors to its six days of connoisseurship, selling and schmoozing. Many attendees are just window shoppers paying $50 for a day pass to watch the world’s richest people buy the planet’s most expensive art, like the person who paid around $34 million last year to walk away with a Warhol “fright wig” self-portrait (sold by Skarstedt, of New York and London). Axa, an insurance company that is one of the fair’s sponsors, estimates that more than $3 billion worth of art will be put up for sale at the fair this year.
As Art Basel’s influence has grown, so too has the power of its jurors, each of whom typically serves for five to 10 years.
“I imagine,” said Amy Cappellazzo, an art adviser, with perhaps a touch of understatement, “being a member of this committee would make you popular among your peer group.”
Marc Spiegler, the director of Art Basel, a Swiss company that also runs art fairs in Miami and Hong Kong, said he chooses the committee for Basel with an eye to balancing geography and taste, seeking experienced jurors of such standing that other dealers will accept being judged by them. Because five of the six votes are needed to readmit an existing gallery and four of six to put a new gallery into contention for the remaining slots, he said there was no way for a single juror to torpedo a gallery’s chances.
The jurors, who separately operate German, Swiss, Italian and American galleries, begin their work about 11 months before the fair. In a series of gatherings, they and their advisers discuss their selections, vote, consider appeals and ponder larger questions: Should they include contemporary Chinese artists? Yes. Art by artists coming of age in the digital era? Definitely.
Once the fair starts, jurors arrive each morning at 8 to make sure that galleries that have sold items the day before do not replace the empty spaces on their walls with inferior art. If they have, dealers could be shown the door.
For their efforts, jurors are paid a small honorarium and expenses, and they routinely have their ears chewed by eager supplicants.
“Someone is trying to kiss you somewhere — metaphorically speaking,” a former juror, Claes Nordenhake, said of the lobbying. “And you know that the reason is not because they love or respect you but because they want to come close to the fair.”
Gerd Harry Lybke, director of a German gallery, Eigen +Art, a frequent Basel exhibitor who was denied admission in 2011 but readmitted the next year and now regularly shows, said the selection panel should consist of museum directors and curators rather than rival dealers.
“If it were a car fair, would the judges be other car companies?” he said.
Dealers have sued (unsuccessfully), and in the late 1990s the Swiss authorities, reacting to the fair’s market power, reviewed whether the fair violated the country’s antitrust provisions. No violations were found, but the authorities convinced the fair to create an appeals process for rejected galleries. (About 50 galleries a year appeal; about five eventually get in, after the fair asks them to up their games.)
“We bend over backwards to be fair,” said Lucy Mitchell-Innes, a juror, who formerly ran Sotheby’s contemporary art department and co-owns the New York gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash.
The committee looks for galleries that, among other things, are cutting edge, reflect geographic diversity in the art market and can demonstrate they have developed an artist’s career.
“They have to evolve,” Mr. Spiegler said of the galleries.
He said he travels the world encouraging emerging galleries to apply.
“There is no tenure at Art Basel,” Mr. Spiegler said. “There is no seniority.”
But that depends on how you define tenure and seniority.
Try, Try, Try Again
Most galleries admitted for the first time, or after at least one year’s absence, end up in second-tier locations at the fair, according to six years of fair data. And most are not invited back the next year. More established dealers — the Gagosians, Paces and Zwirners, who derive power from their superstar clients and artists — dominate the inner aisles of the ground and second floors of the main hall, considered by many the most sought-after real estate in the art fair world.
Mr. Spiegler said the fair had reconfigured the ground floor layout this year to place booths exhibiting similar art next to one another, a decision that meant lots of galleries had to switch places. And the lineup of roughly 220 dealers in the fair’s main section, known as the Galleries sector, will feature a host of faces not present five years ago, he said.
“We feel that a turnover of 60 galleries in five years in the Galleries sector is a reflection of the development and changes within the art market,” he said.
Newcomers do break into the elite ranks and stick around, sometimes replacing veteran galleries. Consider Mr. McCaffrey, the New York dealer, who first applied for the 2011 fair, was admitted in 2012 and has returned every year since. He described his selection as “one of the most memorable moments of my life.”
Commercially, it makes sense to favor galleries whose status and drawing power is part of the fair’s appeal. “These galleries make the whole fair stronger to the benefit of everyone,” said Sam Keller, Mr. Spiegler’s predecessor in directing the fair. “You think twice before you kick any of them out.”
And the veterans do not approach the fair lightly. A representative for the Manhattan gallery David Zwirner said that it saves its best material for Basel. A glossy catalog of Zwirner artists goes out to 1,500 buyers on the eve of the fair.
Smaller galleries keep trying for Basel, and its alluring imprimatur. “It confers legitimacy,” said Cristin Tierney, a New York gallerist who failed to win entry this year but still plans to visit Basel.
Mr. Spiegler says the fair’s power sits heavily with those who make the decisions. “We know it is an existential issue for some galleries,” he said.
Ms. Waxter, who was rejected again this year, said she had no hard feelings. “That is what happens,” she said. “That’s life.”