Art Brussels Directors Explain Why a Smaller Fair May Be Better
When the 34th edition of Art Brussels opens to the public next Friday, visitors may notice a few changes. The Belgian fair has relocated from its previous home on the outskirts of the city to the downtown Tour & Taxis, a historic former customs house. The shift to a smaller space also means a more curated exhibitor list—Art Brussels will feature 141 galleries this year, 50 fewer than in 2015.
What won’t change is the fair’s commitment to fostering young artists and galleries whose work might not be tailored to a commercial environment. Since her appointment in 2012, artistic director Katerina Gregos—joined by managing director Anne Vierstraete in 2013—has worked to create an international fair with a reputation for emerging talent and tightly curated sections. And while Gregos will be leaving her post this summer to pursue her independent curatorial practice full-time (during her tenure as artistic director, she curated both the Belgian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale and the 5th Thessaloniki Biennial), the fair has hinted that she will return to collaborate on future projects. Ahead of next week’s opening, Artsy caught up with both Gregos and Vierstraete around the impact of the new venue and how their latest section is fighting “art-historical amnesia.”
Artsy: At the start of last year’s fair, the two of you gave the art world and art market of today a serious dressing-down. “Are we talking about art or are we talking about money?” you asked, Anne. How will your move to Tour & Taxis address this lack of depth in collectors’ interest?
Anne Vierstraete: Indeed, one might ask when analyzing the art market during the years following 2008: What is happening to art in a world where artists have to produce now for delivery yesterday, where the works of some very young artists are sold at crazily high prices, where buyers speculate and aim for return on investment, thus selling artworks at a point which is much too early in the career of the artist to enter the secondary market? At present, and certainly in Europe, it seems like the global art market is undergoing some kind of slowdown. Quality has always been our primary concern—that’s what Art Brussels strives for. Within this context, quality of work needs to be emphasized more than ever. Our move to Tour & Taxis was a strategic step towards reducing the size of Art Brussels, and thus the number of galleries. Reducing the number of galleries allowed us to be more stringent in the selection process. It is notable that among the 141 galleries for Art Brussels 2016, we count 34 newcomers. We constantly strive to improve the quality of art on view. Our aims are to renew, surprise and innovate, ensure good hospitality, and create good viewing conditions for art.
Katerina Gregos: This question is addressed in the different sections in different ways, but first and foremost we try to challenge the high degree of homogenization we witness at art fairs—i.e. too much of the same kind of art such as neo-formalism or “crapstraction”—starting with the selection of galleries. We strive for greater diversity and representation of a wider range of media and practices. We make a special effort to include the kind of work that does not easily find its way into art fairs, such as more socio-politically engaged work. For example, in the Solo section this year we have 24 galleries presenting projects by artists from 18 countries across Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, and Asia. The section includes a diverse variety of practices by emerging, established, and historic artists of different generations, each who take positions ranging from the conceptual, formal, and minimal to the political and postcolonial—the last of which is an important aspect of contemporary artistic production today which does not easily find its way into art fairs. We try to bring together “unusual suspects” in terms of galleries that are doing important work in promoting artists who are more often shown in museums, biennials, and institutions. In the Discovery section, we present artists who have not yet achieved wide recognition internationally and are therefore still reasonably priced. Our artistic program is also very content-rich, from the exclusive exhibition “Cabinet d’Amis: The Accidental Collection of Jan Hoet”—which could have easily been staged in a museum—to the nonprofit spaces, which bring a more experimental edge to the fair.
Artsy: What is the biggest challenge of running a fair today?
AV: Running a contemporary art fair today is indeed quite an interesting challenge but, especially in such a rapidly changing world, we see real opportunities in the format. Competition is fierce in our business. The art fair market is diversified, globalized, and operating on a world scale, and there is a clear divide between the fairs of world renown and the other numerous players. All of these players struggle for a place in an overcharged calendar. Furthermore, consumer patterns are changing, and, increasingly, collecting art is considered trendy. For people who are not in the know who start buying art, it is very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff and thus to distinguish which art is of a significant quality and also if the price asked for the artwork is adequate. Galleries look for new and neglected markets which could offer the most success in regards to sales, and collectors and art advisors must travel all over the world in order to be part of the game. The main challenge is to set up clear differentiation between competitors. Collectors will rank one fair against another based on their additional offerings, on top of what the fair has on view. So being part of a strong community and closely working together with our partners in the town of the fair is essential towards strengthening the global attraction power. So, as a fair organizer, one needs to be closely connected to both the national constituents of the contemporary art scene and the main players of the international scene and build on strong arguments of differentiation towards convincing both galleries and visitors that one’s event is a not-to-be-missed rendezvous in the yearly art calendar.
Artsy: Moving to the center of the city, is your hope that collectors and other visitors will return to the fair more often during the week than in the past?
AV: Our aim with moving to the center of the city was clearly to be better connected with the Brussels gallery scene and with all our partners in the OFF program of the fair, who have excellent exhibitions on view over the run of Art Brussels. And as we will facilitate free shuttles for the circulation between several key areas in town, we hope to see people coming back several times to the fair. In addition to the exhibitions in the galleries, the fair’s exhibition “Cabinet d’Amis: The Accidental Collection of Jan Hoet,” and the artistic program in general, there will be a rich discursive program including conversations, debates, and performances, and high-quality catering at Art Brussels. Plus the Brussels Design Market is also taking place on the site of Tour & Taxis during the weekend, so there will be very good reasons for visiting the fair every day anew.
Artsy: How will the new location affect the physical layout of the fair and the booths?
KG: First and foremost, the move enabled us to streamline our profile in favor of better clarity to suit a smaller space. This year, as you will have noticed, we added a tagline: “from Discovery to Rediscovery.” We eliminated the Young section in order to enlarge the Discovery section from 14 to 30 galleries; we added Rediscovery; and we maintained Prime, which brings together galleries presenting mid-career and established artists. As a result we have three clear, identifiable sections. As far as the physical layout of the booths is concerned it is not much different than before, though the sections are perhaps a bit more mixed and evenly distributed amongst each other, with the exception of Discovery, which is concentrated in one area. It is a section we wish to highlight, as it is part of our core identity.
Artsy: In light of the recent attacks, followed by fearmongering and sensationalism across the media landscape, I have to ask for any in doubt: Is Brussels safe?
AV: The authorities have outlined security standards in Brussels to ensure safe conditions for the population. The heart of the city quickly returned to normal life, and, as you know, Brussels is an extremely vibrant city. So, museums are open, concerts are happening, people are eating at restaurants, going to the shopping areas, enjoying walking in the streets, and taking trams, buses, and the metro.
For Art Brussels, we have taken extra steps and measures to ensure that high security is maintained this year since the safety of participants and attendees is of utmost importance. We have sought out expert advice and continue to follow the guidelines of the authorities on maintaining security. Offering free shuttles to and from the main railway stations, as well as several museum and shopping areas, is part of our wish to provide transportation around town, an initiative that is shared by Art Brussels, Visit Brussels, and Tour & Taxis.
KG: I would say that Brussels is as safe as London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, or any other cosmopolitan European city with multicultural populations.
Artsy: Katerina, you’ll be leaving the fair after this edition. What have been the crowning moments of your four-year tenure?
KG: That is for others to judge, and I personally don’t think of my four years at the fair in terms of crowning moments, but in terms of building up several things over time. But some of the things I am proud of are refining the criteria of the selection process as a member of the gallery selection committee, contributing to sharpening the profile of the fair and consolidating its reputation as a “discovery” fair, instigating some new sections like Rediscovery, and giving it a more edgy character through the establishment of the nonprofit section, which was not there before. In addition, I am really happy with the very high quality of the discursive program and incredible guests we’ve had over the last four years, such as Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Bik Van der Pol, and John Roberts, as well as some extremely well-attended events such as the concerts with artists’ bands last year. Finally, I believe we have managed to position ourselves in quite a distinctive way among other art fairs, in a sense that one can expect several surprises at Art Brussels and not anticipate the usual expected galleries and artists.
Artsy: How have you seen the art market change over those years?
KG: I have seen the art market change tremendously over the last 15 years. Apart from the fact that it has expanded considerably, art has—unfortunately—become too trendy. New—and often questionable—money, and the surge in the number of wealthy people in the world, means more and more people are getting into art for all the wrong reasons: social mobility, investment, power-tripping, and self-promotion. Artists are often the victims of vicious speculation that is a result of these unpleasant motivations. There are too many people buying with their ears and fewer people buying with their eyes, their brains, and their hearts. Luckily, there are exceptions. Perhaps it sounds naïve, but I do not see art as a negotiable commodity, something that one attaches economic value to. For me, art is an important guide in my life, a touchstone which helps me to reflect, question, understand, measure, and sharpen my own ideas about this interesting but uncertain and ever-changing world we live in.
Artsy: This year, you’re introducing a new section, Rediscovery. What was the impetus behind placing greater focus on older artists?
KG: The Rediscovery in fact connects to Discovery, but in reverse, time-wise. It extends the Discovery profile in a more historical sense, thus playing a role in the development of the fair’s existing “Discovery profile.” Fourteen galleries will present works by important artists, living and deceased, from the historic avant-garde, who have been under-estimated, overlooked, or unduly forgotten. The selection will focus on art made between 1917 and 1987, linking the beginnings of conceptual art with the advent of neo-conceptual practices and highlighting the importance of art-historical memory. Rediscovery, in fact, was set up with the aim of counteracting the “presentism” and the sense of art-historical amnesia inherent in contemporary art fairs, by profiling surprising, unknown, and original artists that have not yet broken into the art-historical mainstream, or who were once pivotal but now marginalized.
Art Brussels will run at Tour and Taxis, Brussels, Apr. 22–24, 2016.