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Perry Farrell, Rossellini Brave Hordes at Art Basel Miami Beach

"Beatriz M" by Jeronimo Elespe. The 2010 work is oil paint on aluminum. Source: Eleven Rivington via Bloomberg

New York art collector Richard Ekstract is one of the 40,000 revelers, wranglers and would-be aesthetes seeking the warmer latitudes of the ninth annual Art Basel Miami Beach art fair this week.

The trade show features more than 250 international dealers and first dibs go today to invited VIPs. Lesser mortals have Dec. 2-5 to embellish their personal Xanadus.

“You try to go and pray you don’t buy anything,” Ekstract said ahead of the show.

The sprawling Miami Beach Convention Center holds the main event, with 15 satellite fairs in its orbit. Specialties include Middle Eastern art (Zoom), West Coast dealers (Aqua) and graffiti and street art (Graffiti Gone Global).

When culture cloys, there are plenty of amusements. Isabella Rossellini will be screening a series of witty short videos about animal sex in the lobby of the Wolfsonian design museum.

Julian Schnabel has teamed up with Maybach, the luxury marquee of Daimler AG, and will unveil his “Queequeg -- the Maybach Sculpture.”

Rocker Perry Farrell will slough off some of his 51 years to perform at the Bardot nightclub.

“The entire world of fashion, architecture, you name it, all want to feed off of the contemporary art world,” said art adviser Candace Worth. “Everyone has an angle and reason to be here.”

Heat and Crowds

I queried a few Art Basel-bound regulars to find out why they brave the heat and crowds.

“I’ve always been interested in anything with a cord, plug or battery,” said Tulsa, Oklahoma, collector George Kravis II, who sold his radio stations 12 years ago and now chases design objects dating from 1900 to the present.

The philanthropist, brother of financier Henry Kravis, will attend the fair with a group of Tulsa collectors, including Rand Suffolk, director of the Philbrook Museum of Art, where Kravis recently donated 250 works from his design collection and has been a trustee for more than 40 years.

The Design Miami fair is “my main interest now,” said Kravis, who also visits the Wolfsonian museum and Miami’s pastel-hued Art Deco architecture. His collection, which he stores at home and in a Tulsa warehouse, includes vintage vacuum cleaners, a clock by American design guru Paul Frankl, mid-century furniture plus Bakelite radios.

Others look for the undiscovered. “There are so many people you know at the main fair, and everyone tries to schmooze you,” said Ekstract, a retired magazine publisher and entrepreneur.

Newbie Artists

He finds refuge at the smaller outposts featuring newbie artists. “I’m looking for something that charges me, that sends me up,” he said.

The odds are tough, he concedes. “Nine out of ten artists are never heard from again.”

Ana Sokoloff, a contemporary art adviser with a Latin American specialty, will be making the rounds with clients from Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico. Their wish lists include names like Dan Graham and sculptor Thea Djordjadze. For Sokoloff, the fair is “95 percent work and five percent sleep,” she said. “I try not to go to parties. I don’t really enjoy the bad service you get because Miami is overwhelmed.”

Recession Helps

Augusto Arbizo, director of Manhattan’s Eleven Rivington gallery, participates in the beachside NADA fair, for younger dealers showing plenty of work priced below $10,000.

Already, a fleet-footed collector couple have reserved three large-scale painted plywood panels by artist Michael DeLucia, which Arbizo will give their debut at the fair.

His prediction? Art will be better than ever: the recession pushes art quality up.

“When the attention is not on the market, artists go back to their studios,” said Arbizo. “They hunker down and make good work.”

At the other end of the dollar spectrum, there is New York dealer James Cohan, who is presenting installations priced at $10,000 to $400,000 by artists including Yinka Shonibare, Trenton Doyle Hancock and Folkert de Jong.

“It’s important to show the best, and not necessarily the most easily consumable,” said Cohan.

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