Art Market

MCH Group Takes Stake in ART DÜSSELDORF in Move to Create New Dominant Rhineland Fair

Alexander Forbes
Feb 9, 2017 11:46PM

ART DÜSSELDORF new co-owners Walter Gehlen (Founding Director and Partner of ART DÜSSELDORF), Marco Fazzone (Managing Director of Design and Regional Art Fairs, MCH Group), René Kamm (Group Chief Executive Officer (CEO), MCH Group) and Andreas Lohaus (Founding Director and Partner of ART DÜSSELDORF). © Nils vom Lande

There’s a new art fair in Europe. Art Basel’s parent company, the MCH Group, announced on Thursday that it has acquired a 25.1% stake in art.fair International GmbH, the Cologne, Germany-based owners of ART DÜSSELDORF. The fair’s inaugural edition will take place in November at Düsseldorf’s skylit Areal Böhler.

Ambitions for the new fair are high. “ART DÜSSELDORF will become the leading regional art fair in Germany, the Benelux region, and the Rhineland,” said MCH Group Managing Director of Design & Regional Art Fairs Marco Fazzone. The regions have among the highest concentration of art collectors globally.

A representative for MCH Group later confirmed that this does indeed put the Düsseldorf fair in contention with established art fairs in the region like the 51-year-old Art Cologne and Art Brussels, which was founded in 1968. The representative added that the Düsseldof fair is, however, “interested in friendly, neighborly relations.”

Art Cologne director Daniel Hug said that he is “not particularly worried” about ART DÜSSELDORF’s addition to the fair calendar. “It’s not really competition for us,” said Hug when reached by phone, citing the roughly six-month gap between ART DÜSSELDORF and his fair. If anything, Hug suggested, it’s an indication that MCH has seen an opportunity to capitalize on the strong collecting base Art Cologne has helped foster for half a century.

Similarly, Art Brussels managing director Anne Vierstraete pointed to a “surge of art world activity” since her fair was founded. Vierstraete also said her team is “confident about the offering of the fair,” which performed well last year despite the addition of Independent Brussels.

Though MCH Group indicated it has the option to buy a majority stake of ART DÜSSELDORF in the future, founders Andreas Lohaus and Walter Gehlen retain the remaining 74.9% of the fair for now. The pair previously ran ART.FAIR in Cologne for 14 editions, the last of which took place in October. It started as a satellite fair to Art Cologne before moving to the fall and into Koelnmesse. However, ART.FAIR consistently drew lower-quality galleries and almost exclusively local collectors.

While running ART.FAIR, Lohaus and Gehlen also launched a fair in Düsseldorf in April 2007. Called Düsseldorf Contemporary, the event ran for just one edition before closing due to poor sales. A statement distributed by organizers at the time said, “All indications are that art-market activity concentrates on a few art fairs with international and not just German significance.”

Much has changed in the art market in the decade since, including a recent resurgence in regional fairs in key market locations. Gehlen said ART DÜSSELDORF is “a totally different concept” from ART.FAIR and is not connected to the previous venture except by the team producing it. The ART.FAIR website now redirects to that of ART DÜSSELDORF.

Applications are currently open and the organizers say they plan to welcome between 100 and 120 galleries to the new art fair, with focus laid primarily on galleries showing emerging and established contemporary artists. A handful of secondary market dealers are also expected to participate.

“We want the fair to have an exquisite character and so we’ve kept the number of galleries low,” said Lohaus.

Smaller fairs have been on the rise lately, with a number of boutique fairs springing up around the globe. Art Brussels cut its number of participants by roughly 50 galleries last year when it moved into a new location in the city center.

While Lohaus and Gehlen could not yet confirm any tentpole participants, they said that galleries had responded well to the smaller format. “The galleries we have been addressing have never said that they wish we were aiming for 200 or 250 exhibitors,” said Gehlen, adding that “it’s important for visitors to be able to see the fair in one day.”

The acquisition of a stake in ART DÜSSELDORF is the second such move since the MCH Group announced last March that it had begun an initiative to acquire regional art fairs—or initiate new art fairs—around the globe. MCH Group subsequently announced in September that it had taken a co-ownership stake in India Art Fair. At 60.3%, that stake is significantly larger than its commitment to ART DÜSSELDORF, at least in terms of control.

At the time of the initial announcement MCH said it was in conversation with SME London and Angus Montgomery, which currently operate London’s Art16, India Art Fair, Photo Shanghai, and Art International Istanbul, among other events. However, aside from India Art Fair, no further acquisitions out of the SME London and Angus Montgomery portfolio have materialized as of yet.

MCH Group has been careful to emphasize that its regional fair initiative is entirely separate from its hallmark art market events, Art Basel. It has also said that Art Basel will not expand beyond its three current fairs in Basel, Miami Beach, and Hong Kong. 

Not all in the art market are convinced of the separation between MCH’s regional fairs initiative and Art Basel, however. Art Cologne’s Hug suggested that the proximity of the two gives Art Basel too much influence over the fair landscape.

“Its this self-elected point of view that Art Basel is the global fair and everything else is a regional fair,” he said, “and that all the other strong fairs, whether it’s Art Cologne or FIAC or The Armory Show or ARCO Madrid, are on the same level” with much smaller, low-quality art fairs.

Ultimately, in order to achieve MCH and art.fair International’s ambition for ART DÜSSELDORF to knock off Cologne and Brussels, the fair will have to engage and bring on a large number of Art Basel galleries. (The MCH Group’s initial announcement of the regional fair initiative appeared to indicate that wouldn’t be the case.) And this at a time when dealers have reported being increasingly price-sensitive and cautious about the number of fairs they attend, given the contraction in the art market over the past 18 months.

But Lohaus and Gehlen are undaunted. The pair say they are keen to use their new partner’s growing network of connections to high-quality galleries, curators, and collectors to their full advantage.

“We are not coming in alone,” said Lohaus. “We are coming with MCH.”

Alexander Forbes
Alexander Forbes is Artsy’s Senior Director of Collector Services & Private Sales.