Art is on a high, art fairs are sparkling social events. Everywhere.
Last autumn the magazine "Bunte" ran with the headline "3, 2, 1 - Party and Art" for the 2006 Frieze Art Fair London. The "cream of international society" gathered there "to spend money - something they celebrated on a grand scale". Competition for audiences, renowned exhibitors and media attention is correspondingly keen.
For years now the big exhibitions of contemporary art have been on a roll. Once a year Art Basel takes an extremely successful outing to Miami, from September 19 to 23, 2007 Art Cologne is going to Palma de Mallorca for the first time, and "Berliner Liste goes Cologne" with an offshoot. Even focusing on Germany alone, it is striking just how dynamic - and obviously attractive - this market is. Not only is a new art fair, dc düsseldorf contemporary (Gruner + Jahr Expo Media), launching in 2007, smaller regional and specialised fairs are also increasingly setting out their stalls.
Much of this flurry - or creative chaos, depending on one's viewpoint - is arguably driven by the subject matter itself: hardly any other market segment has undergone such sensational development in recent years as art. Dealing in pictures, sculptures and the like depends like none other on the zeitgeist, taste, subjective value judgements and a highly individualised clientele.
Simply treading water is not an option here, which is importantly why show design is constantly being modified. Concerts with DJs, visitor programmes, collector training sessions and VIP patronage, guided tours for kids, and friends of art societies form the attractive fringe programme. Gone are the days when stands were arranged "rabbit-hutch style" one behind the other like cool mini gallery rooms. For this year's fine art fair frankfurt (faff) Michael Neff again engaged Berlin-based architects Kühn/Malvezzi to handle the design side. After one-artist shows in 2006 ("high & low") Neff is focusing this time on the current fashion for sculpture.
For this he has given the "‘ornamental fish' in the big pool of art fairs" a name, Quality Street, and a motto to go with it, Nestlé specially having released its chocolate brand name for the sculpture exhibition. This may not be such a fortunate choice of label after all, though, giving as it does the impression to an impartial observer that the brand owner has "bought" its own exhibit. What has become standard practice in sport and at big music events would still take a lot of getting used to in the art world.
The oblong hall will be split lengthwise by a central aisle for the sculptures, the main focus of this year's exhibit, with the booths meandering in strict formation on both sides. The classically white walls are being retained, however. With 60 exhibitors, it would otherwise have been impossible to make out a single sculpture.
As in Frankfurt, officials in Cologne are likewise looking to a considerably leaner show, opting as from last year to provide a stage for 180 exhibitors instead of the previous 250. But unlike Frankfurt, the city on the Rhine is going for tradition. Cologne can boast the oldest art fair in the world, it is still the major German art trade centre, and it offers the art of an entire century. Talking to artfacts.net, Gérard F. Goodrow said he was therefore banking on "slow art" and internationalisation, aiming to lift the proportion of foreign galleries above the previous 50%. He sees the shift in exhibition date to April, when no other fairs take place, as a good way of achieving this. The move is triggering a timetable merry-go-round, with Cologne Fine Art and Exponatec being moved to autumn time slots in return.
As with other art fairs, the selection criteria are stringent. A jury is to be found in all decision panels. This year, too, far too many gallerists will be jostling for far too few places, precisely at such highly-prized shows as in Cologne, Berlin und Frankfurt. Some find the admission criteria all too arcane, but that is an old bone of contention bearing witness to financial realities. Many galleries (art dealers without retail outlets are not admitted to the fairs) hope for business in a big way there, so the exhibition places are hotly contested.
And indeed, some exhibitors generate way over half their annual sales there. But even those turning in less stellar performances hope that participating in the show will considerably raise their profile and hence their stock. This is underscored by calls from the Bavarian Gallery Association for one, whose chairperson Renate Bender insists that it is common practice in other German states to subsidise exhibition participations. After all, she says, the art scene is an important locational factor, also signalling "that Bavaria offers more than laptops and lederhosen". This has been recognised in Berlin, where the "State Initiative Project Future" bestows annual awards on the two "best stands" at the Art Forum.
Other opinions are voiced, though. Munich's Rupert Walser gallery was not the only one in 2006 "not to take part in an art fair this year or last". Like Walser, more and more galleries select very carefully which of the shows to attend that are now springing up all over the place. The costs are considerable, and not infrequently the intensive preparations get in the way of running the gallery effectively. The "fault", at least in the self-critical view of former Cologne gallerist Rudolf Zwirner, lies in his invention over thirty years ago of the art fair. His brainchild at the time, the Kölner Kunstmarkt, now operates under the name Art Cologne.
In his address when receiving the 2006 Art Cologne Award for his services to the art market he admits that the trend towards buying at exhibitions and the resultant withdrawal of (potential) buyers from the galleries "is not down to the auction houses alone". "Without a doubt, the blame goes to the inventors of the art fair, and that was Hein Stünke and myself. We had no idea of the mischief we would cause.
Others, like the Steinle Gallery, don't even attempt to play with the "big boys", delighting instead in the opportunities offered to newcomers. Art Karlsruhe is one. Set up in 2004, it quickly made a good name for itself. Eva Kraus from the Munich gallery considers the high benchmark set important. "It would be tedious for visitors if everything were not high end and effervescent," she says. The art historian is excited by exhibition zones showing very young trends, such as "Open Space" in Cologne and "Sculpture Zones" in Karlsruhe, which she describes as real luxury, focusing less on selling and more on image.
Turnover, money alone doesn't make for a successful (art) fair. In an interview with the "Welt" newspaper, dc düsseldorf's director Walter Gehlen astounded representatives of other fairs with a one million advertising budget. But publicity alone is no guarantee of success, Goodrow (Cologne) countered; if an exhibition is really doing well "you don't need an advertising budget at all" because "at the end of the day it's only the big names that count" (Neff). And they're not coming to Germany at present.
Preview Berlin, for example, had vertical take-off without a budget as a parallel event to the Berlin Art Forum. Created at the beginning of 2005 on the initiative of four galleries and art rooms, it acts as a platform for "a young generation of national and international galleries and project rooms" focusing on "emerging artists". The successful fledgling fair sees itself "as an enhancement of the established exhibition market", underscoring this with its choice of special event locations: in 2007 it is moving from the bakery factory to Hangar 2 at Tempelhof Airport, into a 4,200m2, almost 20metre-high hall.
After just over ten years of international operation, Art Forum itself can claim to be the "number one international contemporary art fair in Germany" at eye level with Frieze (London), the Armory Show (New York) and Art Basel Miami Beach, press officer Anne Maier proudly concludes. In its fringe programme for patrons and collectors the fair looks to cooperate with small parallel shows such as Preview, Berliner Liste and Berliner Kunstsalon.
The message from Frankfurt, for one, is that art fairs act as welcome accentuation in the exhibition companies day-to-day operations: faff makes a "nice change" with lots of celebrities and a distinguished ambiance. Clients there are not from the usual companies; gallerists perceive themselves more as members of the art community. Be that as it may, ultimately everything still revolves around business. Strictly speaking, there's no money in art fairs for exhibition companies. However: "Most importantly, you get PR and attention," Sabrina van der Ley says in the Welt interview.
What other fair has such catwalk character as van der Ley's Berlin Art Forum, where the great and the good gather to see and be seen? Cologne's artfair 21 - its new name as from 2007 - also has social sex appeal. Why else would PR agency peterka & rosenthal last year have raffled among its clientele (mainly from the legal profession) exclusive tickets to a private Art Forum viewing and party attended by politician Guido Westerwelle, leader of Germany's liberal FDP party, Patrick Adenauer and Elfie Scho-Antwerpes, mayor of Cologne? Asked how many art fairs the German market could still cope with, agency head Christopher P. Peterka replied: "As many as erotic fairs." Michael Neff from Frankfurt even ventured the opinion that good art was "like good sex".
But Peterka also takes the industry severely to task: "First of all art fairs need to develop a USP. Many believe that their mere existence as a fair defining itself through art, that is to say individual expression, is unique enough." Simply gathering galleries together is not sufficient, however. "A recognisable, sharply honed profile is necessary." Whether it's the courage to climb on board, peaceful coexistence (Cologne, Berlin) or new premises (Art Basel Miami with containers) - art lover and connoisseur Peterka considers "a fully air-conditioned art fair in the Arabian desert just as likely in the near future as the first airborne ‘A380 Contemporary' stopping over at all the lucrative hotspots in the collectors world".
Diversification, international offshoots, ever-new concepts - art fairs will never die, even if they may not be as numerous as at present. They are simply too attractive for all concerned, for a clientele on a never-ending international pleasure circuit. "The future will show what the future has in store," Birgit Maria Sturm from the German association of art publishers augurs. But one thing is certain: "Art fairs are trendy, and they'll stay that way."
Anne Katharina Kniess
m+a report Nr.1 / 2007 vom 13.02.2007
m+a report vom 13. Februar 2007