Art Brussels Faces Off Against Art Flippers
Speaking with Art Brussels artistic director Katerina Gregos as collectors begin to pour into the halls of the fair’s latest edition on Friday morning, I’m surprised by the frankness with which the curator discusses art flippers, inflated prices, and—what to most fair directors would be an unspeakable phrase—art-fair fatigue. “Everyone is tired, collectors too,” she says. “There are more than 300 art fairs now. The model needs to be self-critical. Running through aisles and white cubes packed with works doesn’t serve anyone well: neither the collectors, nor the galleries, nor the artists.” Has exhaustion from running the artistic side of the Brussels fair while also curating both the Belgian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and the Thessaloniki Biennial acted like a kind of truth serum on Gregos?
The 2015 edition of Art Brussels marks its most international to date—with galleries from 33 countries found in its two halls—and, in my initial perusal, its strongest ever set of young and emerging presentations, which make up more than half of the fair as a whole. But this third edition with Gregos at the helm is also the fair’s last in its current form. As she and Art Brussels managing director Anne Vierstraete recently announced, next year the fair will move from the remote Brussels Expo to Tour & Taxis, an early 20th-century former customs office located in the city center. “At this stage in our development, the time is ripe for change,” proclaims Vierstraete. And change the fair will. The smaller location will bring about “a presumed reduction” in the number of galleries who exhibit at the fair, which currently sits at 191 (this year, 30 percent of which are new additions to the roster). Plus, the duration of the event will extend from four to five days.
The change will also be a more radical step toward addressing an art world in which, as Vierstraete describes, “works of very young artists are sold at crazily high prices. Buyers speculate and aim for return on investment, selling artworks much too early in the artists’ careers.” She asks rhetorically, “Are we talking about art or are we talking about money?”
Gregos and Vierstraete admit that they aren’t naive; art fairs are largely places for galleries to sell and collectors to buy art. But they want to have a more proactive role in shaping the landscape in which that happens, as well as the players involved. “We try to promote young galleries who not only do interesting commercial work but also promote young artists through production, publication, and education,” says Gregos. “We want to be a place where the public can discover artists at the beginning of their careers and at a point where prices are not wildly inflated. We are very critical of that as a fair. We don’t want to take part in the flipping or exploitation of young artists.”
The move to Tour & Taxis for 2016 was only just confirmed, so not much can be read into its impact on the significant changes to the layout this year. Most prominent among those is a mixing of galleries within the fair’s major sections—Prime (which includes 87 established galleries), Young (90 galleries presenting emerging artists), Discovery (a new addition specifically aimed at showing unknown names), and Solo (which should be self-explanatory)—as opposed to previous years’ more structured layout. It is also hard to say at this early stage what effect the addition of the Independent fair, which will coincide with Art Brussels next year, will have on the main event’s list of exhibitors.
The artists and galleries selected for Art Brussels’s Solo and Young prizes this year do, however, offer what might be an ideal type put forth for the fair’s future. Take Sicilian gallery Laveronica, for example. The gallery, which shares the Young prize this year with Mumbai-based Gallery Maskara, has curated a show called “What game are we playing?” for their booth, featuring works by Johanna Billing, Igor Grubic, and Adelita Husni-Bey and inspired by Eric Berne’s 1964 book Games People Play, which examines the therapeutic application of play as a mirror of reality.
The pieces are the antithesis of the shiny selfie bait and crapstraction that has come to be known as “art-fair art.” Grubic’s 2002 offering Velvet Underground is the standout, consisting of photographs of the artist dressed up as various animals in a prison in Lepoglava, Croatia, next to transcripts of interviews with convicts describing the corresponding toy animal they most liked as a child. (It’s worth noting that the very act of presenting work by a relatively young artist not within the year it was produced has itself become a rarity on the fair circuit, with collectors encountering a fear-of-missing-out adherence to the new.) These curatorial and against-the-grain projects are what Art Brussels seems out to support, with Solo co-winner Germaine Kruip’s presentation at G262 Sofie Van de Velde also featuring quiet works that require more focused time to appreciate than is typically allocated by fairgoers.
Honoré ∂'O’s works at Kristof De Clercq, which were also honored with the Solo prize on Friday, are more Instagram friendly. Each appears as if part of a series of lab experiments, the use-value of which is probably slim to none—at least for now. It’s not all that dissimilar to how directors Gregos and Vierstraete might suggest collectors to collect: with a penchant for risk and trust in the inherent, rather than monetary, values put forth by good art. Whether those currently assembled to buy in Brussels will follow that tack remains to be seen as the weekend progresses.