miart deputy director Alessandro Rabottini and artistic director Vincenzo de Bellis. Photo by Marco De Scalzi.
It was 2012 when curator Vincenzo de Bellis took up the challenge of recasting a small, regional art fair in Milan into a full-fledged hub on the international fair circuit. This Friday, miart’s 21st edition opens to the public as proof of de Bellis’s magical touch. Across the fair’s five sections and 154 exhibitors, miart now attracts top-tier contemporary galleries like Sadie Coles HQ, Massimo De Carlo, and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, and offers a strong showing of modern masterworks, innovative design, and projects by emerging artists.
Two weeks ago, news broke of de Bellis’s appointment as curator of Walker Art Center, making this his fourth and final year as artistic director of the fair. As he passes miart’s torch on to Alessandro Rabottini, the fair’s former curatorial coordinator who was recently named deputy director, Artsy caught up with both curators-cum-fair impresarios to uncover the strategies behind miart’s fast ascent and ambitious plans for its future.
Artsy: When you started at miart in 2012, the fair catered more to the region as opposed to an international audience. That, of course, has really changed in the past several years. What was your growth strategy?
Vincenzo de Bellis: When I first came in, the fair was more or less regional—barely international—and made up of 92 galleries. We all thought that Milan could and should have an international fair, because it’s really the center for contemporary art in Italy. The biggest number of both galleries and artists live here, so there was no reason not to have a very substantial fair.
Since the beginning, the idea was to reconsider the old system of the fair. So after I built a new team of curators, designers, etc., we decided to go a step further to organize different sections. We changed the parameters of the two existing sections, Established and Emergent, then added two more sections which were super curatorially driven: THENnow and Object, the latter which was intended to bring design into the fair.
Those were the initial starting points, but the main challenge was to bring in the big, most important galleries, because miart wasn’t on their radar at the time. This was the most difficult thing to do.
Artsy: How did you convince them?
VB: Well, it was very complicated. I think they already trusted the new group of people involved. Alessandro was already on board as the curatorial coordinator, along with other curators, and the galleries knew them or their reputations. The new team, as a whole, convinced them, because we represented a new generation coming in and thinking differently.
The content of the fair also changed, which definitely had an impact. We didn’t really bring up the idea of commercial success when we were talking with galleries; we were thinking more in terms of new content and, together, doing something for the city.
Artsy: You’ve both underlined the importance of curatorial involvement in the fair context—you’re both curators yourselves. Why this emphasis on a curatorial approach, and how does it benefit collectors?
Alessandro Rabottini: Well, Vincenzo was talking about creating a context for the fair—and it’s this context that inspires trust in exhibitors. For example, if you take the THENnow section, it requires an understanding of what’s going on with younger generations of artists along with an understanding about what’s happened in the past—and not only in terms of the established artists, but also those who should be reconsidered. In order to do that, you need to find curators with a vision, who can put things into perspective. When you do that, really unexpected things happen. And the collectors see that; they’re usually very prepared with knowledge and information, too, and they can engage in that dialogue.
VB: It’s also about finding the right people to do that. Since the beginning, we’ve made it very clear that these curatorial platforms are kind of caught in the framework of the market, which is something that is very important to address in a fair. We now have several curatorial sections, but we don’t want to overwhelm people with curatorial ideas. So it’s about being able to think in terms of the market, and then, within the market, presenting something slightly different.
Artsy: This year, you’re introducing a new curatorially driven section called Decades, which tracks the development of 20th-century art across nine booths. What was your thinking behind this?
VB: We had two goals with Decades. The first was to show the influence of galleries, not only as commercial enterprises, but also as places where meaning is being produced. Historically speaking, the most important changes in the art world have started, or been solidified, in galleries. In terms of Italy, the first Arte Povera exhibition was presented in a gallery context, which means that the gallery offered not only a means to sell works, but also to present new ideas. We wanted to provide a platform that would underline this role of the gallery. On the other hand, we wanted to expand the curatorial approach we already established in the contemporary section to the modern part of the fair.
Artsy: How do you measure the success of miart, and have the success metrics for art fairs changed since you both joined in 2012?
VB: All fairs, including miart, measure a fair’s success on gallery sales—that doesn’t really change over time or across the fair landscape. On the other hand, we know that you can’t only measure a fair’s success in terms of sales. Over the past four years the quality of the galleries taking part in our fair has really grown, and for us, that’s great success—and everyone in the art world noticed that shift. We think that the best compliment people can give us is that we created the right context for the galleries to show their best art, and not only art that is most sought-after, but challenging, lesser-known work, too.
Another very important measure we use is the success of the fair within the city, because miart is now a huge catalyst for all art and design professionals here. A super-strong art week, which involves every single public or private institution and commercial gallery in the city, has developed during the fair. This brings a lot of people to town and has really created a shift in terms of the city’s role and cultural reach. But of course, it’s not only because of the fair. miart is just one part of a bigger renaissance that Milan has experienced. The World’s Fair that happened last year played a key role, and so do the private institutions.
Artsy: As art fairs continue to multiply or expand globally, and with the MCH Group having recently announced its plan to buy up regional fairs, how does miart differentiate itself?
AR: Well, every art fair is located in a specific context. We try to use the fair as a means to introduce people to the breadth of Milan’s culture, and how it can interact with art and culture around the world. This comes through in the layout of Milan itself—it’s a very international city, but the scale is limited. You can walk to the fair and also see the exhibitions in town, at the museums, galleries, and foundations. Everything is really, really close. What that means for us, is that a lot of collectors come back to the fair two or more times. They don’t just attend the opening, so the conversations they have with the exhibitors are extended, profound. They can take their time.
VB: I’d add that one of the most important features of the fair over the last four years is that it’s really rooted in some specific Italian issues. This is a place where you can see Italian art that you probably wouldn’t see elsewhere. This is because many of the great Italian galleries have treasures that stay in storage. We try to give visibility to these works, even if they’re not super hot on the market. And sometimes we’ve found that, after showing at miart, artists who didn’t have a market developed one.
Artsy: As talk of the market cooling persists, how does miart respond to or roll with market shifts?
VB: The market is the main focus for every fair, but again, miart is not only a marketplace—it’s a walkable fair where people can really think about and spend time with the work. That’s what makes us more confident, even when the market shifts. And we have a very strong modern section to fall back on, too.
AR: For me, it’s important to understand what we’re really talking about when we say that the market is supposedly cooling down. If we agree on the fact that certain markets have been exaggerated in the past several years, what we’re witnessing today is actually a more reasonable approach to selling and buying—and that’s a good thing. On top of that, when you talk with collectors who have been buying for a long time, they say that they’ve witnessed different phases of the market over the last decade and that usually, in the moments when newcomers are a little more skeptical, that’s the time to buy, because you can access better works for better prices.
Artsy: What is miart’s vision for itself over the next several years?
AR: I hope that the fair will take the last four years as a starting point. Of course, you have to keep improvising and improving, but looking at what Vincenzo has done over the last several years, you can see that something solid is happening in Milan. I hope that the fair and the city can continue to work together in that direction, and I’m confident about it.
May 4–8, 2018, Park Avenue Armory