After several editions indelibly marked by crisis, ARCOmadrid is finally back on its feet. On Wednesday, confidence was once again coursing through the event’s airy 200,000-square-meter venue Feria de Madrid in the North-Eastern outskirts of Madrid, as droves of collectors, dealers, and VIPs were given their first glimpses of the fair’s 34th edition. Even within the first hours, red dots were appearing next to works. The Spanish art market’s recovery over recent years has been dampened by a controversially-high 21% VAT on cultural goods and services in the country. Yet, despite the higher cost of doing business, the sun is now shining again on the Spanish capital in more ways than one.
Excitement was palpable among the 212 galleries from 29 different countries on view at ARCO this year. “Sales were quite strong at the opening,” enthused Guillermo Romero Parra of Madrid’s Parra & Romero gallery. The gallery saw heavy interest in works by Mexican-born, London-based text artist Stefan Brüggemann in the fair’s first few hours. “It seems that the Spanish economy and especially Madrid has already had a very good recovery,” Parra added. This positive, hopeful sentiment was echoed throughout ARCO’s lively aisles. “Until now we had a fantastic fair. It’s been very international,” added Michael Rienzner of Galerie Krinzinger. The Vienna-based gallery appears to have benefitted from the ARCO’s invitation and transportation of 300 collectors from around the globe, and has received significant interest in works by Secundino Hernández, Jonathan Meese, and the exciting though not yet internationally well-known Austrian artist Martha Jungwirth.
But even in its headiest moments, ARCO remains a distinctly European, tranquilo affair in contrast to some of its more high-profile brethren. The five-day event, which opens to the public today, saunters along at a flâneur’s pace. Collectors here tend to take their time before making purchases. “I think it will take some time at this fair to close some deals, but it’s probably like this everywhere at the moment,” explains Alexander Levy. The Berlin-based gallerist is at ARCO for the second year running and is exhibiting works by Sinta Werner that deal with our perception of architecture. Two collages have already been sold. “People take their time to think about buying, which is good because it’s not important that the sale happens on the first day.”
Since 1996, ARCO has included special regional programs. This year, the focus is on Colombia and Latin America at large. Somewhat inevitably, darling of the contemporary art world Oscar Murillo takes a prominent role in curator, Mexico’s Museo Tamayo director Juan A. Gaitán’s selection. (The artist is showing concurrently at London’s CARLOS/ISHIKAWA booth and at Madrid’s new €13 million Centro Cultural Daoíz y Velarde.) His autobiographical 12-screen film sequence sold for $125,000.
But there are plenty of other highlights, such as Poland’s LETO gallery, who have done well with Aleksandra Waliszewska’s bizarre-yet-beguiling gouaches. A collector also snapped up Angelika Markul’s expansive, dreamlike video Room of Silence (2013), which had previously been displayed at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo. Across the fair, angry and irreverent references to social conflict and violence have been replaced by more abstract and cerebral works.
Most striking, however, is the renewed self-assurance of the Spanish art market. “For the first time in years, we have a list of collectors, both public and private, that have committed to buy,” said an ebullient Carlos Urroz, ARCO’s director since 2010. The Museo Reina Sofía’s director Manuel Borja-Villel was spotted wandering around making acquisitions in the fair’s first days. As further evidence of ARCO’s primacy within the Iberian peninsula, Urroz cites a 2014 study compiled by Clare McAndrew for the Fundación Arte y Mecenazgo (Art and Patronage Foundation), which revealed that ARCO contributed 100 million euros to the Spanish economy last year alone, generating 60% of all art fair sales in the country.
Dealers have taken note. One of Spain’s heavyweight galleries, Helga de Alvear, opted for an enormous booth this year, divided between solo presentations of German photographer Candida Höfer’s astounding chiaroscuro images and Katharina Grosse, whose hulking, digitalized tree-like floor sculpture was popular but as yet unsold.
One ARCO’s greatest assets continues to be its layout and space it gives to exhibitors and collectors alike. “Fairs that give more freedom to look have become the place to meet new collectors. And in this respect ARCO has made great efforts,” Joan de Muga of Galería Joan Prats tells me. “The reality is that for a number of years, fair transactions have outweighed those at the galleries.” A third of the fair’s stands feature works by only one or two artists, which appears to have engendered a greater engagement with each individual’s work—the discussions can go on all day. They’re discussions that are turning into sales too. According to ARCO’s internal estimates, the fair moved €26 million in art in its first two days alone.
And it’s not just painting being snapped up. “Collectors are not afraid to buy outside of the usual scope this year,” suggests dealer Ellen de Bruijne, after selling Revolver (Universidad Nacional) (2013), a theatrical video work by Otto Berchem. Digital, forward-looking themes have gained a marked increase in traction with buyers at ARCO in 2015.
For all the recent talk of emerging artists and the globalized art market, however, it is clear that ARCO remains focused on its home base in Europe both in its makeup and style. The mouthwatering selection of galleries from across the continent, featured in this edition—Galerie Thomas Schulte, Air de Paris, Galerija Gregor Podnar, Southard Reid, Aanant & Zoo, and Klemm’s—is testament to that ambition. “In London, New York, or Hong Kong, many conversations are no longer than ‘Hi, price?’” one Berlin dealer confides. “ARCO is always interesting and there is always work to buy, but importantly, it maintains a unique prestige too.”