Art Cologne Breaks the #1 Rule for Art Fairs—And It Works

If one were to write a rulebook for art fair directors, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” might make an appearance in its very first pages. Fairs annually tout a host of additions and special features for their upcoming edition. But on the whole, the repeat visitor is unlikely to notice major changes to the bones of the beast. Collectors and, in turn, the gallerists and dealers who sell to them, aren’t generally all that fond of change. This is especially the case when it means they can’t autopilot to their favorite galleries’ long-held real estate on the fair map to place a hold on—or, better yet, throw down some plastic for—their most sought-after pieces.

In the seven years since Daniel Hug took the helm of Art Cologne, sales and exhibitor quality have been on a steady rise. The fair, unrivaled in Germany, certainly ain’t broke. Quite the opposite, in fact. Yet 2015 sees the most dramatic change to its structure since Hug’s first year in the Rhineland: the addition of a third floor, splitting the fair into relatively distinct sections for modern and postwar, established contemporary, and nascent to emerging art. It’s a move that has ruffled some feathers. But in my perusal of the fair’s aisles ahead of Wednesday’s VIP preview, at least from an experiential point-of-view, the change is a big win for the world’s oldest fair.

Ahead of Art Cologne’s 49th edition, Hug told Artsy that when he took over, “the quality of galleries was at a point where it made sense to have an established first floor, mixing the blue chip contemporary and the modern and postwar galleries.” Meanwhile, he explained, “upstairs, we had the younger contemporary galleries and the New Contemporaries,” referring to Art Cologne’s section for galleries roughly under 10 years old. “Now, after six years of this configuration, we basically have different needs.”

That’s due to a number of changes. Most significantly, during his tenure, Hug has managed to recruit or woo back a host of upper-tier, established contemporary gallerists to Art Cologne—the likes of David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Sprüth Magers, Helga de Alvear, Contemporary Fine Arts, and Thaddaeus Ropac. Two years ago, Zwirner, Hauser, and Ropac got tapped to move down to the first floor. This is, in part, a nod to increasingly fervent interest in younger and more international established contemporary artists among the fair’s deep-pocketed contingent of Rhineland and Benelux collectors. Much of this crowd had, in the past, stuck to Germans of around Art Cologne’s own vintage (1967): Uecker, Richter, Graubner, Mack, Polke, Lüpertz, and the like. (Hug is forthright about the fact that the move left a bad taste in the mouths of some of those left upstairs.)

Meanwhile, the director has cut out a huge number of exhibitors, now just over 200, down from a high of around 300. The 2015 edition sees a further reduction in participants from 2014. It should be noted that some of those losses, such as Esther Schipper and Victoria Miro, are unwelcomed. But Art Cologne has won some great additions for 2015, too, Blain | Southern, Massimo de Carlo, Meyer Kainer, and Pearl Lam among them.

Last year, Art Cologne redefined its relationship with the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA), moving from NADA having its own mini-fair within the fair to a co-branded section called Collaborations. The resulting multi-gallery presentations were some of the best at last year’s fair. But a lack of specific delineation between those booths and others made the top floor a bit unwieldy, with its numerous, smaller stands.

“The key is making the fair more manageable for the visitor. That’s really the ultimate goal,” says Hug of his new master plan. Though Art Cologne remains focused on progressive art practices, Hug sees the visitorship splitting roughly in two—each half with a tendency towards one extreme of the fair’s genre range, a nod to contemporary art’s dominance across the market. “One group will have more of a tendency to go for the young contemporary art upstairs and another will have a tendency to go downstairs to see historical artworks.” Whether as amuse-bouche or dessert, upstairs and down can now be seen more or less in their entirety through a single loop of their half-floor layout.

And they can be seen with purpose. What has been achieved, most importantly, is a clear remit for each floor. Before, it was too easy to get distracted by a stellar Baselitz or Genzken at the front of the first floor and never make it back far enough in the hall to take a close look at an equally impressive but less immediately eye-grabbing Kirchner or Dix. Likewise, by the time you had checked off your hit-list of hip knowns in the center of floor two, you might well have lost steam to peruse its perimeter—filled with galleries and artists hipper-still, but not yet as prominently placed on the art world’s radar.

Bigger booths have allowed dealers across the modern section to unequivocally raise the bar this year. Artworks have more room to breathe. And the presentations are vastly more inviting and curated in appearance than many of the stands used to be: each looks much more like an Axel Vervoordt, Galerie Thomas, or Galerie von Vertes booth than not, and even those big-shots seem to have brought better works this year than last. The trend carries through on the two other floors as well.

The “grain of salt” estimation might suggest that this apparent increase in quality is partially a function of measuring like against like, that each of the floors feels, collectively, more cohesively put together than in the past. But whatever the psychology behind it, as long as collectors are able to successfully acquaint themselves with the new layout, it should play out positively. In a way, Hug has given himself an insurance policy there, too. This is, after all, the 49th edition of Art Cologne. By the time the world’s oldest art fair gets around to ringing in its 50th jubilee next year, all this change will be old news.

—Alexander Forbes


Explore Art Cologne 2015 on Artsy.

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