Artissima Director Sarah Cosulich Canarutto on Launching (and Re-Launching) the Careers of Artists

Now in its 22nd edition, Italy’s Artissima art fair is dedicated to contemporary art and experimentation. Since taking over as director in 2012, Sarah Cosulich Canarutto has overseen a steady program of growth within the fair and increased collaboration with Turin’s many esteemed art foundations and museums. 

  • Portrait of Sarah Cosulich by Miche D’Ottavio. Courtesy Artissima.

    Portrait of Sarah Cosulich by Miche D’Ottavio. Courtesy Artissima.

With a greater emphasis on bringing young, research-oriented curators and collectors into the fold, Canarutto has this year developed what might be Artissima’s most focused program yet. Speaking to Artsy in the midst of last-minute installation, Canarutto conveyed her enthusiasm for Turin’s rich history. But what really comes through is her commitment to shaping Artissima—and ensuring it maintains a strong place among contemporary fairs. 

Alicia Reuter: Artissima always holds a few surprises—from the presentation of 80 edible cakes inspired by artists in 2011 to Maurizio Cattelan’s contentious “SHIT AND DIE” exhibition in 2014. What will happen this year?  

Sarah Cosulich Canarutto: Artissima depends on context, and the context is Turin. We are strongly tied to the city and all of its forces. This year, the city is supporting Artissima by putting its focus on the collections of its museums, foundations, and institutions. There will be fantastic exhibitions like Hans-Peter Feldmann, Urs Fischer, and Andro Wekua at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo [as part of Artissima’s In Mostra section], Christian Boltanski at Fondazione Merz, and Boris Mikhailov at CAMERA. It’s quite a full program that maximizes the network and energy of the city. 

  • Artissima 2014. Photo by Giorgio Perottino. Courtesy Artissima. 

    Artissima 2014. Photo by Giorgio Perottino. Courtesy Artissima. 

In terms of new initiatives, we’ve completely rethought the role of the collector. Artissima puts a lot of effort into expanding its base and inviting outstanding collectors from all over the world, while also trying to give a role to collectors within the fair—to have them as active participants, not just through acquisitions but also as the energy and fuel of the fair. We’ve asked curators to invite collectors and collectors to invite curators.

For example, [collectors] are going to be taking part in the six prizes, including a new prize dedicated to photography. So, in addition to the international curators we always involve, we’ve added one collector to each jury. The format of the Walkie Talkies, our itinerant conversations around the booths, is also new. They are usually headed by curators, but this year they will feature one curator and one collector in dialogue, offering a diversity of perspectives for this very informal approach. 

AR: Artissima has several sections. Every year the Present Future section presents emerging artists. How do these artists fare with collectors?

SCC: Collectors tell me that they have bought works at Artissima by artists who have later had fantastic careers. The big advantage for a fair like ours is that we do research through the curators, giving us the chance to bring on emerging artists for the first time. Just as an example, Rachel Rose came with her Paris gallery, High Art, last year and won the Present Future prize. This year she will present Interiors (2015) at Castello di Rivoli as part of that award. Just looking at her career: last year she wasn’t at all well-known in the art world, and right now she has a show at the Serpentine Gallery, she won the Frieze Artist Award, plus she has a solo presentation at the Whitney Museum. The fact that she came with a gallery that was struggling to even be able to present her at a commercial fair is quite extraordinary.

AR: In the past, Back to the Future focused on the “rediscovery” of works from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. How did this section come about?

SCC: It was created by Francesco Manacorda in 2010, but at that time it was very different. The booths were spread throughout the fair, it was only dedicated to the ’60s and ’70s, and it was not proposed by curators. When I arrived, I realized the incredible significance and potential of the section, and I concentrated it in the center of the fair and involved curators that were not just selecting but actively proposing. I wanted to know what they thought was relevant. Last year, it began to include the ’80s, and this year it will only focus on 1975-85. We say that Artissima is dedicated to experimentation and research, to young artists, but to me it’s important that we don’t only consider young artists in terms of generation. It also means young in terms of attitude and approach. 

AR: And has Back to the Future successfully re-launched careers?

SCC: Look at what happened with Tetsumi Kudo from Galerie Christophe Gaillard in Paris. He was really an almost unknown artist, but collectors like François Pinault bought works at Artissima last year because they had seen the works before they were shown at “Slip of the Tongue,” curated by Danh Vō at Punta della Dogana. Now Kudo has a major show at Hauser & Wirth in London. This is incredible to witness, because it means that there’s amazing research going into Artissima that is opening up opportunities for discovery—to launch or re-launch artists to the public. 

  • William Hunt, Sub-optimal Expression Output Interface, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Rotwand.  

    William Hunt, Sub-optimal Expression Output Interface, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Rotwand.  

AR: We haven’t talked about the Per4m section. The program includes performances by Julien Bismuth, Christian Falsnaes, Iza Tarasewicz, and William Hunt, among others. Why did Artissima decide to expand into performance?

SCC: It’s been quite an adventure for us and we’ve put a lot of effort into it. What we want to show is that performance has as much of a place as other mediums. This year Per4m includes 12 performances. We’ve been able to focus on young artists with the goal of reflecting the complexity and diversity of performance.

AR: At Artissima, what are the signifiers of a healthy market?

SCC: I think there is a growing awareness of the importance of selection. Having such a focused identity at Artissima, we can look at the emerging market, but we also look for collectors who are quite focused in terms of research, who want to discover and are willing to take risks, and who are not just there to buy contemporary [art] in general.

It’s something I think about in relationship to the market in the East or in Russia. We can attract those who are already quite sophisticated and knowledgeable about their artists and what they want to collect. It’s very hard to analyze a general trend, but I can analyze a trend for these kinds of collectors. The majority of the works at Artissima go from €10,000 to 40,000; we’ve grown in a controlled way in terms of emerging markets. It’s also growth in terms of our target.

AR: How do you see Artissima evolving in terms of competition with the big-name fairs?

SCC: I think the secret to making the fair more competitive would be to make it even more specific—to continue to focus its research, because we cannot compete with Basel or Frieze if we don’t try to do something different. This is a fair that is not expensive for galleries, and which puts them in contact with an incredible number of museum curators and directors. And these directors and museum curators aren’t just coming once, they’re collaborating with the fair. There’s also a huge advantage to the city. There are wonderful institutions and unique places like Casa Mollino. There are so many secret and magical spots. I think the fair has to reflect this very peculiar characteristic. 

Alicia Reuter

Explore Artissima 2015 on Artsy.