From the Medicis through to Peggy Guggenheim and Charles Saatchi, larger-than-life characters-patrons, collectors, dealers and the like - have long exerted a profound influence on the direction of art. One such is the dynamic Sam Keller, former director of Art Basel and its offspring, Art Basel Miami Beach. Born and raised in Basel, Switzerland, where he studied art history and philosophy, Mr Keller has spent most of his working life involved with art fairs. So it came as a surprise when he announced, in June 2006, not just his resignation from Art Basel but also his plan to take over, in 2008, as director of the Fondation Beyeler, one of the world's finest private museums of 20th-century paintings and sculpture, situated just outside Basel on the edge of open countryside.
Built up over five decades by Hildy and Ernst Beyeler, the art dealer son of a Swiss Railway employee, this impressive collection was transferred to a foundation in 1982 to make it permanently accessible to the public; nonetheless, it was not until 1989 that the collection was publicly exhibited in its entirety, at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. The Fondation Beyeler, designed by Renzo Piano, finally opened in 1997. Nowadays comprising some 200 works of late-19th- and 20th-century art, the collection reflects not only the artistic tastes of the Beyelers but also Ernst's keen eye for a neglected Picasso or an undervalued Impressionist - a talent that helped establish him, up until his death in February this year, as perhaps the greatest art dealer of the post-war age. Underlying this talent, of course, was a deep sensitivity: 'Art must touch you and leave a strong visual and mental impression on you,' he once said.
Taking over the collection at the age of just 41, Sam Keller certainly had a hard act to follow. What, I wonder, attracted him to art in the first place? His family was of modest means, and not especially interested in art. Nonetheless, the young Sam Keller, constantly curious and eager to experience the world through his own eyes, proved immediately responsive to art, guarding 'like a treasure' the first example that he came across, a portfolio of reproductions by Vincent van Gogh. Moreover, an abundance of great art was virtually at his doorstep, Basel being home to Europe's oldest public art collection along with many other fine museums, architectural landmarks and public sculptures, not to mention the world's leading modern and contemporary art fair. Epiphany struck at the age of 11, during a school excursion to a contemporary art exhibition being staged in an old factory and featuring installation artists associated with the Nouveau Realist movement. He was fascinated in particular by the kinetic machines of Jean Tinguely. (Tinguely's Carnival Fountain, 1977, in Basel's Theater-platz, remains one of Mr Keller's favourite pieces of public art.) As a student he worked for various art magazines and galleries at the Basel art fair. In 1994, by then a graduate, he began working for Art Basel itself; this was his gateway into the international art world.
I ask Mr Keller what he feels he has gained from running art fairs. 'Many things – different things from different art fairs,' he replies. 'It's important to have a passion for art and people, as well as a high level of curiosity and creativity. At Art Basel we were convinced that focusing on quality was key: there was a strict selection procedure for galleries. We also believed that art is both universal and attached to its cultural context. So it was important to go where the art you were showing originated from in order to fully understand it. Our goal was always to offer the best in contemporary art and to present it in the best possible way. This sometimes meant creating platforms for new forms such as video and film, installations and performance. The involvement of artists was crucial. We also introduced an educational element by collecting experts together and setting up round table discussions. The aim was to make Art Basel a forum that brought together the commercial and cultural aspects of art in order to promote and sell the work of particular artists and provide an atmosphere in which networking and cultural and professional exchange could take place in ways that were both educative and enjoyable. When running an art fair it's crucial to listen to your clients – not only the galleries but also artists, collectors, curators and even the critics.'