Art Rotterdam Director Fons Hof on the Key to Fostering New Collectors and Why He Thinks Rotterdam Could Be the Next Berlin

  • Portrait of Fons Hof courtesy of Art Rotterdam.

Seventeen years can seem like an eternity in the life of an art fair, especially one focused on young artists’ work—but that’s how long Fons Hof, the current director of Art Rotterdam, has been at the fair. Hof was running Amsterdam’s Galerie Hof & Huyser, which he’d started with Michael Huyser in 1993, when a gallery union floated the idea of a new national fair in his native Netherlands. Leading the charge with two other dealers, Hof and the group founded the fair in Europe’s busiest port city, and it opened for the first time in 2000. For the past seven years, however, Hof has been at its helm, the only one of the founders who remains, charged with (among other endeavors) securing the futures of a generation of young artists from the Netherlands and beyond.

Opening this week, the 17th edition of Art Rotterdam brings more than 100 galleries together in the city’s historic Van Nelle Factory, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A big victory under Hof’s leadership was, unexpectedly, outgrowing the centrally located Cruise Terminal location where it began, sparking the fair’s 2014 move from the Rotterdam riverside into this vibrantly redeveloped treasure of industrial architecture a few kilometers away.

Artsy spoke with Hof in the lead-up to the fair about the critical mass of engaged Dutch collectors, the onset of a “Berlin effect” in Rotterdam, and why emerging artists are particularly suited for art market in the Netherlands.


Ian Epstein: There’s been something of a booming market for contemporary art in recent years—particularly for young artists—and many fairs have, like Art Rotterdam, branded themselves around the idea of being a place for discovering new talents. What sets your fair apart from the crowd?

Fons Hof: Well, the fair is about young artists—so even the big collectors come here for new developments, to discover young artists. A lot of young galleries start their careers at Art Rotterdam, and a lot of international artists get started out of the fair. Then there is the market in the Netherlands itself, which is comprised of a lot of collectors buying at a smaller price-point. This group is, relatively, much larger compared to surrounding countries. In Belgium, for example, you have more big collectors, but this group is quite isolated, elite, and aside from them, there are not many people buying art. So price-wise, young art fits really well because a lot of people in the Netherlands are buying art—not as a collector getting tens or hundreds of pieces—but they are buying a piece once a year, one every two years, perhaps two times a year. They’re not serious collectors, but they are art buyers, so the market here is very good for young art, and in that context, the fair fits really well to the market.

IE: At the same time, we’ve seen the secondary market for emerging contemporary art fizzle slightly over the past 12 months, compared to 2014. Do you think that has had any influence over what galleries have brought to the fair this year?

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FH: No—I don’t get the feeling that the effects of that are very big. The effect is larger on upmarket galleries selling very expensive pieces. There are professional collectors who are really involved with auction prices, but most people are not buying with the idea of selling; they don’t see it that much as an investment. I don’t see it, especially with the market on young art. What I see is that more and more people are interested in buying art, and they want to step in—not at such a high level—but they are interested in buying, in committing themselves, in spending money on it, in making it a part of their lifestyle. We see a huge interest in that. More and more people are finding pleasure in buying art.

IE: Your fair’s strength in presenting works priced at under €10,000 presumably makes it particularly attractive to younger collectors, relatively new to buying art. What can we do in the art world to encourage more individuals to start collecting?

FH: I think we have to explain much better. Explain why the pieces you’re selling as a gallery are so interesting. Explain who is influencing these artists as they make their work, give more art-historical context. And explain online—galleries always want to have a one-to-one meeting with someone in the gallery over a glass of wine. That’s old-fashioned. Young people making money—they’re very busy! They have kids. They go on vacation. The time for collecting, for going into this art world, is limited.

What Art Rotterdam does now, for example, is make a film to introduce the fair. We asked the noted Dutch art critic and historian, Hans den Hartog Jager, to select artists in the fair and to provide art-historical context. So we give people guidance—we take a non-professional, hobbyist collector, who is an art lover and a culture consumer but isn’t completely in the art world—and give them some guidance and more context for the pieces they see. I think explaining is the future.

IE: Is there anything else that could be done to foster collecting?

FH: More openness about pricing. How does a gallery price a work? Why is a work a certain price? Explain it—whether it has to do with a museum show, inclusion in a collection—be more open about it.

We come from an era of not being open about pricing. But times are changing. Being discreet is getting a little suspicious. Why not be open? Why am I not allowed to know the price of this piece? That’s crazy. For every other product in the world, you can find the price on the internet. There’s nothing to hide.

People who are buying art today don’t have so much of a problem anymore with other people knowing the price that they paid. Why not put sales you made to museums, to institutions, to big collectors on the internet? Why not show them to people—and why not put your price list on your website?

IE: We’ve been hearing a lot of chatter around young artists and designers from northern Europe descending on Rotterdam over the past year. While it’s probably still pretty preemptive to start calling it the new Berlin, what do you think is particularly attractive about the city to young artists?

FH: You go to Berlin, and you want to be there as an artist or writer because everybody is there. But Berlin is getting more and more expensive. Twenty years ago, when it [arose as an art capital], it was very cheap. This was the reason artists went to Berlin. Today, Rotterdam has an aspect of that; it is comparable to Berlin. First off, Rotterdam is a production city. I always say in Amsterdam, they sell it; in Rotterdam, they produce it. There are far, far more artists, designers, and architects in Rotterdam than in other cities in the Netherlands, so that also contributes to this Berlin effect. Second, price-wise, it’s a harbor city, and the container ships are getting larger and larger, and now they are so big that they’re building new harbors farther out in the North Sea. The old harbor facilities are empty, so there are a lot of old warehouses, storage spaces, and old harbor buildings—there is a large supply of potential studio spaces, and this also makes the price quite low—the Berlin effect again.


  • Ryan Mendoza’s Detroit House being installed at Art Rotterdam. Photo by Frank Hanswijk, courtesy of Art Rotterdam.

IE: Speaking of the rise and fall of cities, this year’s fair sees the premiere of Ryan Mendoza’s major installation, Detroit Home, a derelict house that has been moved from the motor city to Rotterdam. How did you choose this project?

FH: I heard Jeroen Dijkstra, owner of Livingstone Gallery, talking about how Mendoza, an artist of his, had bought this house and wanted to show it in Europe. It is very personal for the artist because he’s American, and he left the United States over 20 years ago. He lives in Berlin and Italy, so it’s symbolic for him to take a house from his home country to his new European country. Immediately, I said to Jeroen: “That’s it!” I was looking for something spectacular, and this was the right thing. It’s a lot about Detroit, about the crisis and this idea that a city stops because the car factories leave the area. As Europeans, we cannot believe it because here, a city is a city. It’s fixed. It doesn’t change. Americans are quite different about that: A city has a function, and if the function stops, then the city changes, or goes away—people go to another spot.

IE: Moving to the Van Nelle Factory site also gave you a tremendous amount of space to inaugurate a special showcase of video art at the fair with the Projections section. What led you, initially, to want to highlight video?

FH: We were thinking about how there is something problematic about the setting for video art at an art fair, because it’s usually displayed in a video room, which is more or less a black box that can either be part of the booth or next to the booth. This space is what’s problematic.

An art fair is dynamic: It’s about buying, selling, comparing, talking to people, meeting people, networking, and then suddenly you’re in this black box, and if you watch what’s in there for one-and-a-half minutes you feel like you’ve been watching for ages. On the one hand we wanted to create a dynamic environment, and on the other hand it’s also a section where we can slow down the pace. If people enter this section, they stop talking, they can sit down, but it’s still interactive. It’s one blacked-out space of around 900 square meters [approximately 10,000 square feet]. There are 12 very large, five-meter-wide [16-foot] screening walls. You can walk around and see everything, sit down beneath a sound shower to hear the sound of a particular video or use headphones. You can talk with the gallery. So it’s dynamic and it fits in with the fair really well, but the pace is a bit slower.

IE: It hasn’t typically been a medium that most collectors are ready to purchase. Have you seen that change at all over the past two editions?

FH: Well, of course, it is more and more collected, which I think is because private collections have become more public. There are more large-scale collectors who add a public dimension to their collections—opening up their house, for example, or building a space where they can receive people, or building a museum-like space where you can see the work in their collection. I must say that it’s only these collections with a kind of public function who I see buying video art, and as the number of collectors with a public function is growing and growing, therefore the market for video art is too.

IE: So it coincides, perhaps, with the rise of private museums and spaces like them that we’ve also been seeing in the last few years?

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FH: Yes! For example, one of the main private museums under construction in Europe now is being built for the private collection of Joop van Caldenborgh, the main collector of the Netherlands. He has a separate space dedicated only to video, and he is also a very prominent buyer of video art. If a collection is becoming more public, then they start thinking about video art. So a private collector who is only buying to have beautiful art in his house is most likely not buying video art.

There are two sides to video art: The buyers side is elite, with a very small group of collectors. At the same time, on the experience side, people are much more accustomed to looking at a moving image than to art. A large group of people love it—they understand the medium immediately, you don’t have to explain it. Installations, painting—these are not as common to people as film. So it reaches a very broad public.


Ian Epstein


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