Curators from fair to fair

These days, the logic of the art market is to promote financial transactions of the purchases of works that take place at international fairs. This situation has introduced new dynamics into both the acquisition and the reception of an art work.

In the face of this panorama appears AF·FAIR (Another Fucking FAIR), driven by a collective of artists and curators who propose transforming their studio into a commercial art fair with the collaboration of various curators. AF·FAIR calls for more visits to studios and fewer fairs as a way to deepen their practices and establish links beyond commercial relationships.

Site-Specific Conversation (Beatriz and Zaida) has brought together various reflections and, as a parallel activity for AF·FAIR, has organised a conversation about curatorial practices in the context of the fairs. To do so, three curators with experience in this field have been invited: Rosa Lleó (Barcelona, 1980), Juan Canela (Seville, 1980) and David Armengol (Barcelona, 1973).

Zaida

To begin the conversation we’d like to know which fairs you’ve participated in and what your collaboration entailed.

Rosa

I’ll focus on my participation in ARCOmadrid 2017, in the Future section. ARCO invited the curator Chus Martínez to curate this section with the established concept, and the architecture studio andresjaquearchitects to design the space. Chus also invited the Swiss curator Elise Lammer and myself to be part of the curatorial team. Even though the topic was already decided and was very general, we did not want to fall into the idea of ‘future’ as a prediction of what will be sold next. Our reflection revolved around the idea that the future does not exist, or rather, we as curators cannot predict what is going to happen.

The three of us normally work in non-commercial contexts, so maybe that’s why we planned this section thinking about inviting artists, rather than galleries. Each of us proposed a few artists and from there we contacted their galleries. At the beginning it was a fairly organic process – because we were used to working with non-profit organisations and spaces, we thought of the programme, as I said, in terms of artists. But later, with experience, we realised that maybe that had not been the best way because of the amount of agents involved. In the other types of spaces where I work, such as The Green Parrot, the relationship with artists is more relaxed, without such rigid plans and schedules. But of course, in such a big fair things have to work differently. It was all pretty complex… especially the timings. At the fair, everything happens during one week, and while you’re there you can’t reflect on what you’re doing at the time. There’s no organic evolution.  

The communication in these kinds of contexts is complex too: you have to communicate through a very long chain of people and that doesn’t make things any easier.

I should also say that I’m not against this context being a commercial one either, since, deep down, commercial transactions exist in all contexts (biennials, institutions…), but at a fair it’s more evident because the galleries are there.  

I find it interesting that more and more curators are working together fairs, but you also have to recognise that it’s a difficult context to take time to work and think.

Juan

The first time I took part was with Bar Project at Swab, Barcelona, in a section for young galleries. Actually, that wasn’t my first contact with fairs – before working as an independent curator I’d worked at a gallery, NoguerasBlanchard, for five years. I’d gone with the gallery to many fairs but from the other side, the gallery side, or rather I knew the context from the perspective of a gallerist.

Later, as an independent curator, I worked with Swab again but this time organising a performance section. The program was commissioned by the director. In terms of the performance I asked him not to deal with galleries, but instead directly with the artists. If we’d contacted the galleries they probably wouldn’t have wanted to participate, maybe because performance is a fairly uncommercial format or because it was a small fair. The programme was really good in a lot of ways but difficult in others, because doing performance in a fair context is complicated. 

Years later I took part in ARCO, doing the Opening section, and for two years I collaborated with other curators. This section invites galleries that have been running for less than seven years. As Rosa said, ARCO is a very big deal –it’s a fair where it’s easier to attract galleries and this makes things easier for you when choosing who you want to work with.

In this case, I thought about both artists and galleries. What I was thinking about the most was what kind of galleries were operating today in the world and what new models have been applied. One example would be Proyectos Ultravioleta in Guatemala –they’re a collective of artists who ended up forming a gallery, and participating in international fairs allows them to do projects in their own country.

You have to be aware of the context, and in a fair, at the end of the day, however much you’re trying to have a more discursive context with collaborations with curators, the objective of the fair is to be a space for buying and selling, just like a gallery. It’s clear, even more so when you’re there, that your work as a curator is not the same as in any other place, no other context is the same; it’s not the same working for a non-profit as it is for a large institution or a small institution… But the difference with the fair is that you are not deciding together with the artist, but with the gallery in the middle, and you always have to keep this in mind because the person putting up the money is the gallery owner.

 

 

David

I also took part in Swab, but my relationship with this fair was a little different. It was a commission by the director of the fair. I proposed including a section of independent spaces. As Juan and Rosa mentioned, the curatorial practice appears in the fair in a parallel way – it seems that it will be discursive and complement the programmes, but there’s a high intensity in which only gallery owners and artists seem to be at stake; the contents and the containers of this system. I wasn’t sure whether to participate, because I don’t have a comfortable relationship with this context, though after thinking it over I did it for two years. I accepted because I thought I could bring a contextual perspective. I proposed a small in-depth study of what independent spaces are. I don’t know if it was a good idea to introduce them in this context, but I thought it was necessary since part of the artistic practices are taking place in non-profits. I sincerely enjoyed taking part, I had a good time even though I saw that they had different constraints to how I like to work. My desire as a curator is to work with artists, and at a fair you work with organisations. One of the problems of working with organisations is that they’re based on money. At Swab they wanted to treat these spaces similar to the rest of the galleries, and that wasn’t possible. Even just arguing that they shouldn’t pay is already very difficult, because the mentality of the fair is a different one.

I think in this context relationships can be more tense than usual. At least when it comes to our wishes as curators, as I said, in terms of working with artists, working with the content, and achieving a mutually beneficial relationship between artist and curator.

Beatriz

Following on from David’s point, in terms of what Swab wanted in requiring the same financial conditions for non-profits as for commercial galleries, I read an article recently which said that Art Basel’ team is rethinking the financial conditions required for galleries. So, they were thinking that galleries who require more space should pay more proportionally than galleries who request less space. The article stressed that this was not an act of generosity, but a measure to ensure that smaller galleries are not left out of the circuit and the fairs do not lose potential clients because the fairs would end up dying out.

Rosa

In the ARCO’s Future section the galleries were invited.

I also have experience on the other side, as with The Green Parrot I was invited by David at Swab and there I met the director of ART-O-RAMA, Marsella, who invited me to participate in the fair. Because it was a non-profit space we didn’t have to pay for the stand, but there are other expenses. Anyway, I have to say that it was a really good experience; artists June Crespo and David Bestué did a very good work and our stand worked in terms of visibility and sales.

As a space policy we were clear that we would not attend fairs that charged a fee. After ART-O-RAMA we turned down invitations to many fairs because we had to pay.

Juan

Normally you pay to attend fairs. And in fact, this works against small and medium-sized galleries and even curators, since when the galleries pay they ask a lot more for what they’re exhibiting. As a curator you can select an artist’s work, but if it’s not sellable I doubt that the gallery owner would agree to take it to the fair. And this is when you enter into a discussion, that you wouldn’t have in other contexts, about what will or won’t sell. We must be aware and be able to discuss and practice mediation between gallery owners, artists and the fair.

Right now I’m working for Artissima in a young artists’ section and I’m also finding myself limited by these constraints, because the galleries have to pay.

The gallery sector is going through a very bad time. It’s difficult to maintain the system since fairs are very expensive, and if you don’t sell you don’t make back your investment.

Zaida

Maybe more than the art fairs dying, as the article about Art Basel said, it’s the galleries that are dying.

Juan

Every day galleries are closing. Fair committees are made up of large galleries, and they’re not interested in changing anything. A simple possibility would be to pay based on the prices that you have at the stand. Small and medium-sized galleries, even when they sell everything from their stand, often don’t end up covering all the costs that the fair entails, while large galleries can triple their profit because their prices hover around €100,000.

Beyond that, as Rosa said, in a fair we’re working directly with the market but when you work on an exhibition for an institution, artists are also getting a commercial revenue. Then each of them is free to be as close or far from it as they want. Personally I like working at both fairs and galleries, I guess because I have experience in having worked for one and understanding what that work entails. I think that galleries do important work. Maybe because of the way the market functions today it’s unsustainable, but we need to look for ways to turn it around and see how the galleries work.

 Beatriz

I’d like to talk to you about a subject, which we discussed with Zaida, in terms of how curators, apart from adding a discursive value and selecting artists for fairs, adopt the role of “scout”, in the sense of seeking out galleries that could form part of the overall programme of a fair.

Juan

It is like that. In fact the name for Opening comes from “Opening up the way”. If a gallery is invited personally by a specific curator, they’ll have more interest in attending than if they’re just invited by the fair. There are many strategies for getting galleries to attend fairs. For our part, we have think about which galleries interest us and why: is it how they work with a certain artist; how they work in general; how they treat artists; how they invest the money they earn… a lot of things. This role is also where we can provide our vision. In particular, I often invite galleries that I have visited in advance and which have interested me for some reason.

Zaida

As we’ve seen, fairs are increasingly diversifying their offer, to the extent that in the latest edition of ARCO they organised, as Rosa explained to us, a section that was more similar to an exhibition. Do you consider a fair as a place to host more exhibition projects?

Juan

You expect to see an exhibition and the end result is something else. For years in Buenos Aires they’ve also been organising an exhibition where they invite curators, but it hasn’t ended up working for several reasons.

Rosa

It’s difficult to think about an exhibition in a fair, since many galleries want to present various pieces by the same artist and they come with the idea of a stand in mind.

Zaida

The fact that ARCO didn’t repeat it the next time could be indicative of something…

 

Juan

It is important to be honest; know where you are and understand what it is, and don’t cease to be a fair. ARCO is also the first art institution in the country, before MNCARS even existed. There are people who visit ARCO each year who don’t go to museums, and the only thing they know about contemporary art is what they see there.

David

I would say straight out that no, it’s not the place for exhibitions. There are always going to be excessive constraints that limit that experience. However good the curatorial relationship with artists, even if it’s a very rich process and many things can come of it, there are always going to be constraints. We have such a rich working procedure that means things can be one way or another, but then what is at stake in this exhibition habitat carries a lot of weight. I think that there will always be too many conditions, no matter how good the exhibition, or how good the intention or expectations. In the end, curating in a fair will always depend on the instrumental elements that will work against them and won’t allow things to flow as the artists or curators would like.

Beatriz

One solution might be to hold the exhibition away from the venue. If it’s not located in the same place, it wouldn’t share the same dynamics, the public might be different and it would have visibility, which is what the fairs sell.

Juan

On the subject of the huge number of people passing through, don’t forget that this is a phenomenon specific to ARCO and it’s not what usually happens at other fairs. I don’t think it’s necessary for a fair to organise an exhibition – there are plenty of other wonderful places doing exhibitions.

Rosa

There are sections that make more sense for a fair, like Opening. And they’re beneficial for everything

Audience intervention: Jordi Pino

I find what you have discussed very interesting. The curatorship of a fair is a double-edged sword – it seems that it is a lure, it energises the space and attracts a different type of audience with dynamics that are not usually found in a gallery. But also, as David said, it seems dangerous to me to agree to things that go against the good practices that you follow. Like, for example, not having the budget, or that your presence serves as a tool to soften the hardest part of the fairs.

Juan

Financial conditions can also be bad in other spaces such as museums, and so on. In terms of instrumentalisation, you’re thinking about these double standards all the time, especially in such an explicit context.

 

 

Zaida

Fairs are dangerous too because they can become the only contact that some members of the public have with contemporary art.

  Beatriz

Well, in any case the link between curators at fairs is always growing. Fairs that include curated programmes, galleries who also strive to present curated stands, and who often work with curators in their spaces.

Audience intervention: Rafel G. Bianchi

I’ve lived as an artist with a gallery and I think that the fair entails, or has led to, a certain paradox which in the end wouldn’t be accepted: a fair is there to sell. All of us people involved must be aware of this and accept it without prejudice. Personally, whenever I was asked for a piece for a fair I wasn’t about to screw myself over, or the gallery owner. Maybe I’m not able to do something I’d like at a price that’s affordable for the market? That is the idea.

Because we think of ARCO as the space for contemporary art so it had to be “everything”, and it’s not “everything” it’s a “fucking fair” and this isn’t (AF·FAIR). It seems unbelievable that we’d think of those of us taking part in the fair as prostituting ourselves. No. We’re professionals and as professionals we adapt to the circumstances. You don’t have to disguise it with talks, presentations etc. – that’s not what the fair is.

Juan

It’s all part of the same thing – why have professional discussions? I’ve organised a few and what they want is for people with power within the art sector to come and generate sales.

Curators also take advantage of these professional discussions.

David

Maybe these professional discussions work. What happens with the talks can also be down to the time. The intensity of the fair occupies a huge amount of time. It’s very difficult to follow quality conversations if you don’t have time, and this also generates an internal competition.

Rosa

We’ve also organised talks and they didn’t work.

David

In spite of everything, by including curators in the fair you can have a positive interpretation, because it indicates taking extra care and that is what we do. The artists are there as a raw material, the galleries are their representatives, the selling is the system. Deep down it may all be instrumental, it may be many other things that we’ve already spoken about, but there’s a positive: your work is always going to benefit the artists and the fair because we care a little more about the content – the galleries do too but in a different way. We establish a much more intensive dialogue, that at least is the basis of our work and, when things are well run, it can be done at a fair.

Beatriz

Maybe when organising talks, taking into account the spatial and temporal framework where they are going to take place, which it’s not appropriate for anything. The crowd means that there’s… there is noise… The dynamics of the conversation have to be adjusted.

David

Right now (at AF·FAIR) in micro, with a critical and more parodic approach to the fair, it is also happening, a set of relationships are created which are then exhibited and presented, I think it also has its positive side.

Zaida

We would have to find other channels to continue producing outside of the art market, since most artists are not part of that system.

 

Juan

It’s true that the art is something else. Fairs these days are a business that only works for the organisers and the big galleries – things are going badly for everyone else and it’s very difficult to gain access to this system. I don’t know either if the solution is to forget the system, or to take advantage of what works to try and bring new approaches, while always being aware of what it is.

David

Barcelona Gallery Weekend came up with another model, it seems to be inspired by a fair in terms of the community but it’s designed differently, inviting collectors to visit the galleries in cities. Perhaps it has created an alternative to the fair.

Rosa

There is an initiative promoted by several international galleries called Condo. The way it works is a group of galleries in a specific city (such as London) each play host to another gallery, one they have some similarity to, from another part of the world, hosting an exhibition in their space. In this way they’ve also pooled resources and acted as a community.

 

trama34 is the work space and cultural association that AF·FAIR organized. It is constituted by the artists María I. Barros, Matteo Guidi, Samuel Labadie, Diego Paonessa, Germán Portal, Mireia c. Saladrigues, Mario Santamaría, Marc Serra and the curator Zaida Trallero.

 

The images that illustrate the conversation show the event.


 

 

 

 

 

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