If the 1990s is the decade of biennales, the turn of the century is definitely that of art fairs. In 1970 there were three main fairs – Art Cologne as the oldest, followed by Art Basel and Art Actuel. In the last seven years, we saw the number of fairs grew from 68 in 2005 to 189 in 2011*. For many galleries, fairs are a way to reach out to the global market, to make new contacts and to be part of today’s event-driven “to see and to be seen” culture. Showing art and buying art have become a “fair marathon” for galleries and collectors. For some, the art market has finally become democratized; for others, the art market has become “supermarketized”.

Most of the art fairs are set up by fair organizing companies and operated by the same business model and commercial logics that are applied to almost all kind of fairs; thus the question of “uniqueness” which is the intrinsic value of what is on offer. What are the possible alternatives if we are tired of the monotonous setting of art fairs? If art fairs are an inevitable part of the circuit, how can art regain its forces without retreating to the paranoid schizophrenia asylum?

Katerina Gregos, the internationally acclaimed curator based in Brussels, has recently accepted our interview in her new capacity as the Artistic Director of Art Brussels 2013. The fair, celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, has become one of the most important art fairs in the international circuit. Its former director, Karen Randers, passed away prematurely last October. It is at her will that Gregos became the first Artistic Director of the fair. In the interview, Gregos answered our questions about the art fair phenomenon, the relationship between art and the art-market, and her initiatives for Art Brussels 2013. We look forward to another interview with Katerina Gregos to talk about the art scene in Belgium.  

Featuring 187 galleries and 2 000 artists from all over the world, Art Brussels 2013 will take place from 17 April to 21 April in Expo Hall in Brussels.

Selina Ting
9 April 2013

*Figures released by The Art Newspaper in 2012.

Art Fairs – According to a Curator

Selina Ting [ST]: As a curator, how do you see the phenomenon of art fairs that spreads at every corner of the world? What are the roles of art fairs in the art world, according to you?

Katerina Gregos [KG] : Obviously, whether we like it or not, art fairs are forces to be reckoned with today. They have become enormously important for galleries, artists, collectors. They do have a role. They have become an important component of the art world, bridging commerce and creativity and providing an important locus for the showcasing of art, networking, discursive activities, possibilities for artists to gain an income and collectors and institutions to build their collections. At the same time, they also have a somewhat problematic status. As a curator, I can find good things about art fairs and things that one can be critical about. I think art fairs are places where one can discover art, where artists and galleries can make an income, where networking can be done, where ideas can be heard, where surprises can be witnessed – in the best case scenario. But they are also places of inflation, of accumulation, which lead to one of the problematic aspects of art fairs, i.e. the spatial situation. You have the successive line-up of booths, limited space, not necessarily good lighting, generic white cube architecture, etc. It’s not the best place to view art. My feeling about the standard art fair format is mixed in the sense that on the one hand, its serves an important function. On the other hand, I believe that they can be much improved.

ST: When you were first offered of the position of Art Brussels’ Artistic Director, what were your considerations? And what made you finally decide to take the job?

KG: It’s a good question. I had to think about it for a long time because I am not coming with experience in the commercial art world but rather from institutions, public spaces and biennales. I hesitated at the beginning because I am a curator and I continue to be a curator. Making exhibitions is extremely important for me. Working with artists is what fuels my own sense of creativity. I’d rather not be involved in the commercial aspect precisely because it’s not my domain. But the fact that my role is the Artistic Director made me overcome certain qualms because I can do what I know best and that is to develop artistic content and vision. I was initially concerned with what degree of artistic freedom I would have and how creative I can be within the role. But I have been very lucky to work with a visionary team of Art Brussels, and a gifted forward-thinking Business Director, Anne Lafère, who is extremely supportive of what I am doing. Everything that I proposed is actually going to be realized. So I feel that in a way within the limitation of what an art fair is, – meaning that the quality of an art fair depends, to a large degree, on the galleries that participate and the artists that they present and not on what I do as a curator – I have the artistic freedom that allows me to engender change, and I don’t think I would have been able to do the job, if it were otherwise. On top of these, I can continue with my other curatorial activities, which I would not have given up. This also gives me an added-advantage in doing Art Brussels because I am still curating, I am still in contact with artists and developments in international contemporary art in museums, biennales, galleries, etc. So I consider myself to be in a very privileged position. On the other hand, being the Artistic Director of an art fair is not the same as being a curator. In an art fair you have to work within the parameters of what you have, some of which can be challenged, others not. But I nevertheless consider it as a challenging project. Besides, I live in Brussels. It’s important for me to do something in the city and I do want to contribute something to the city that I really enjoy living in.

ST: Do you know other museum curators or independent curators who also work with art fairs?

KG: Yes, Francesco Manacorda was the director of Artissima and now he’s the artistic director of Tate Liverpool. Sarah Cosulich Canarutto was a museum curator and now the director of Artissima, to name two examples. It’s not a novelty. I think that a curator’s view can be very useful for art fairs.

ST: As you just said, the Artistic Director of an art fair has very limited power in the curatorial decision of the art fair since it depends largely on the galleries. Nevertheless, as an experienced international curator, what advice can you give to galleries in order to enhance the quality of their booth?

KG: In fact, the first thing that I did as the Artistic Director of Art Brussels was to write a letter to the 187 galleries admitted in the fair. In this, I outlined my vision of what would make a better fair, and invited them to really think about their participation, their presentations, to think about the number of artists that they are bringing, to think about their booth more curatorially in order to make a more coherent presentation and to challenge them to think about the scenography of their booth. Maybe this sounds a little bit naïve, I don’t know, or idealistic! [Laughs] It remains to be seen if the galleries are going to respond. Some of them told me that they have really read my letter, have been inspired by it and are trying their best. Some of them told me that I am bit naïve and they only care about business. Others don’t need my advice as they know exactly what they are doing in this respect. But even if a small number respond to this request, automatically the fair will be improved.

ST: As a curator, what kind of project would you like to see in an art fair that can challenge you?

KG: I am a fan of solo projects in art fairs because they provide an opportunity to discover the work of an artist in-depth but of course, financially that’s quite dangerous for a gallery. But I would envisage an art fair with more solo exhibitions, more curated projects and sections, and automatically it would thus become a more interesting space. This is not only from the curator’s point of view, but collectors are also tired of the orthodox ‘mix-and-match’, indexical model. They all travel a lot, attend all the biggest art fairs, and they have seen everything! So why repeat the same formula? Most people are getting tired of it!

Art Brussels 2013 – Accordingly to the Artistic Director

ST: Let’s come back to Art Brussels. In what way is the structure of Art Brussels differed from the previous editions?

KG: It’s important to mention that for the first time, Art Brussels has an Artistic Director. The previous director, Karen Renders, who built up the fair to what it is today and has to be given credit for this, unfortunately passed away prematurely in October 2012. Now Art Brussels has a new model which I believe it is a very good one – there is a Business Director, Anne Lafère, who has an incredible experience in managing over 30 fairs, and an Artistic Director. We can both do what we know best. It’s really a winning combination.

ST: What are your functions as the Artistic Director and what are your main concerns?

KG: As the Artistic Director, it’s an enormous challenge to rethink how to improve the content and the experience of the fair, the architecture and the spatial question. Of course, it’s a long-term process. I only started working on the fair in November 2012. The things that I have proposed this year are mostly realistic creative solutions to start giving Art Brussels a different identity, a different position. My role is exactly this, i.e. to provide a long-term vision and strategy and to see how to make it a better fair. It is already a very good fair, one of the best fairs in Europe. But of course, the art fair model as it exists today has perhaps reached tipping point that we need to rethink how it should be done. The current model is just too much, too fatiguing, and at times doesn’t put art in its right place.

ST: Does it mean that it’s a long-term collaboration between you and Art Brussels?

KG: No, it’s for the moment a one-year contract so that we can evaluate the collaboration and see if Art Brussels is happy with my work and also if I can realize what I would like to realize. Of course, you can’t change an art fair in one edition, it’s a long-term strategy.

ST: In practice, how does your approach differ from the previous director, Karen Renders?

KG: I always say that the art fair is like the proverbial wheel, you cannot reinvent it, but you can improve it. You cannot reinvent it exactly because of the economic considerations and constraints. So I started by going to the basics. First of all, I want to focus on the fair itself. So I cancelled projects that were outside of the fair, such as the Sculpture in the City, Video in the City, so that we can focus all the energy on making Art Brussels the best it can be, inside the fair grounds.

Another difference is that, as in every art fair, the galleries are selected by committees of gallery members. Directors normally don’t have a vote. Karen didn’t have one, for example. But I do have a vote in the selection committees. Because coming from the international art world, I have a good knowledge of galleries and artists, etc. I also have an objective position to be able to cast a vote in the selection of the galleries since I don’t have any commercial interests. So I sit in the International Selection Committee, the First Call Committee, and I am the one who selects the solo shows. That is new.

ST: What are the new initiatives that Art Brussels visitors can expect this year?

KG: One thing is the question of architecture and space. It was too late in the process to make any significant, radical changes to the way the art fair is structured, but I definitely wanted a change in the scenography. So, after some research into Belgian architects and designers, we shortlisted three candidates. We finally commissioned the young Belgian designer, Tom Mares in collaboration with artist Walt Van Beek, to rethink the scenography ad the ‘look and feel’ of the fair, and to redesign all the entrances, the places of social interaction, the VIP lounge, the restaurants, etc. Basically, they are developing a concept which is closer to the artistic spirit of the fair and moving away from the rather corporate environment that was seen in Art Brussels in the past. We also changed the entire graphic identity and the graphic design which is now done by Sara de Bondt Studio, London.

A new initiative is the Curators’ Project that I initiated and which we are co-organizing in partnership with BAM, the Flemish Institute for Audiovisual and Media art. I think it’s really important to bring curators back to the art fair. Sometimes, a gallery might not sell so well but if they are able to make good contacts with curators for possible future collaborations, it would be a tremendous added-value. We started by inviting 30 curators (institutional and independent) to Brussels and we have set up a curators’ program for them to visit the fair, private collections and exhibitions in Brussels. We are also developing a Brussels artists’ database (international and Belgian) and facilitating studio visits.

Another thing that I am thinking is how to strengthen the ties of the art fair with the city of Brussels and how to use Art Brussels as a force to assist and empower other institutions and individuals in the Brussels art scene. For example, this year, I have invited six artist and curator-run spaces (Komplot, Etablissement d’en face projects, Institut de Carton, Maison Gregoire, SIC and La Loge), and I gave them a free booth and a carte-blanche to do whatever they want. I think these spaces are a very important part of the Brussels art scene given that we don’t have many strong institutions in the city except perhaps WIELS and Argos. I am also interested in introducing the non-commercial element in the fair by giving a big international platform to these six important spaces. There are also few special projects by Kendell Geers, Han Hoogerbrugge and Maarten Vanden Eynde.

ST: What about the debates and conferences? I am personally really looking forward to them.

KG: Yes, I will introduce a very rich and coherent discursive program that was perhaps lacking in Art Brussels in the previous years. I have developed the project called THE STAGE where all the talks, lectures, debates and a series of selected performances will take place, at the entrance of Hall 3. The Stage is the discursive ‘heart’ of the fair, and provides the necessary counterpart to the commercial activities. It is hopefully going to be the place where ideas and people (artists, collectors, gallerists, curators, scholars, critics and the like) gather in order to propose, discuss and exchange ideas, plans and visions. It is a great opportunity to meet new as well old friends, colleagues, relations, acquaintances, etc.; a perfect opportunity to establish, enlarge, strengthen and improve ones network and listen to the ideas that currently matter. [Click here for the full programme of The Stage]

Some of the highlights include: The Extra Mile: Engaged Collecting. From the private museum and beyond, for which I have invited Chris Dercon, Director of Tate Modern to moderate. This will look at models of collecting and art patronage that move beyond the norm of the private museum to collectors who are adopting a more enlightened approach, which goes beyond the showcasing of their personal collections.

There will also be an almost full-day round table debate and artistic presentations entitled The Value of Our Love. Artistic Practice and its Economic Reality, which will reflect on value creation in times of a changing economy. I think an art fair is an incredible, appropriate context to talk about this. Of course, money is made and gained in art fairs, but there is also another economy in the art world that is beyond the commercial economy where artists, curators, writers are not paid properly and the squeeze in public funding is having a negative effect on the livelihoods of artists. This symposium has been initiated, by invitation, by JUBILEE (BE/NL), a platform for research and artistic production founded by Vincent Meessen, Vermeir & Heiremans, Justin Bennett and Katrien Reist.

There is also a series of talks initiated by Chris Fitzpatrick from Objectif Exhibitions entitled “Tilting the Collector” which focuses on collecting practices that are beyond the object-base and are more immaterial, and ephemeral; collecting practices that push our idea of ‘collecting’ into significantly more expansive corporality than collecting is usually associated with.

Another new project will be THE CINEMA a specially designed structure with comfortable cinema seating, in Hall 1, where one can view shorter duration videos and films, on two screens, in an appropriate setting. As an art form, video mostly has a very problematic and awkward role in art fairs, as it is not shown in the right conditions. I have tried to alleviate this situation by creating this structure. [Click for the full program of The Cinema]

I think, all in all, it will be a very rich program. It’s a necessary counterpart to the commercial activities that are going on in the Art Brussels.

ST: Very exciting program indeed. From the topics of the debates, I have the impression that you are launching different challenges to the collectors and somehow putting them in an uneasy position.

KG: It’s not to put them in an uneasy position. Art today is not only about the production of the tangible objects. There are extremely interesting time-base or immaterial art forms that have equal validity but don’t occupy a place in the market because there are certain segments of collecting that are still very traditional and bounded to the object-based. But when you think of the works of artists such as Tino Sehgal, for example, it takes an enlightened collector to think about different possibilities of collecting and supporting art. So the choice of the topics in our discursive program is to highlight other art practices that are generally quite accepted in museums and biennales but a bit lagging behind in the art fair circuit.

On Art and the Capitalist System of Art

ST: At the very beginning of our interview, you mentioned the mixed feeling that you have towards art fairs since there are both positive and negative aspects in the system. Does the mixed feeling also come from the elusive relationship between art and a dominating or even overwhelming art market?

KG: Of course an art fair is structured out of economic concern. Personally I am not one of these people who have a strong hostility towards art fairs. Regardless of what one thinks of them, and despite the fact that a certain amount of critique is not unjustified, I also believe that there exist a lot of double-standards regarding them. In a way, we are all implicated in the commercial system, which is also necessary, an important aspect of the art world to survive. Art has always needed money, to be produced, shown, acquired and presented. Artists need to make a living, and so do art professionals. So I am also critical of people who are only negative in their perceptions of art fairs and the commercial gallery system. You can’t say that the commercial art world is ‘bad’ and the non-commercial by definition good. This would be a gross over-simplification. In everything, there are always two sides of the story.

ST: Is it possible to stay “clean” from the commercial system nowadays? Is there any conflict to carry out an intellectual project while mingled up in an overtly commercial system?

KG: First of all, I don’t believe that commercial necessarily means ‘dirty’, as the question implies. It’s very hard to completely stay away from the commercial system. Any museum director, for example, or curator, is inevitably going to come up at some point (if not frequently) with an artist who’s represented by a gallery. We all need money. Museum directors or curators, when they buy an artwork, where do they buy it from? They mostly buy it from a gallery. When they need money, where do they often look to? A sponsor or private collector, or even the gallery itself! Who said that public money is eventually better than private money? Why is it more ‘ethical’ to receive public money, for example? Where does the money come from? These are very important questions. It’s very hard to paint a black and white picture of this world because we are all in one way or another implicated in it. No one can stay away from it for 100%. For me, what counts is how one conducts oneself in this system, what kind of ethics one applies in ‘doing business’.

ST: You have a very sharp image as a curator of political art, always with a critique on capitalism for example. The artists that you worked with also have the same stand point… The conflict that I was asking is not just about the system or the funding but more about the belief of what good art is. Let’s say, when you choose to work around a theme or a subject-matter, to represent an artist or to show a certain art work, all these speak of your attitude, your stand point, your understanding of what art should be.

KG: Absolutely! This is a very good question but first of all we have to distinguish my role as the Artistic Director of Art Brussels and what I do outside of Art Brussels as a curator. I am working within structure and framework that are different to that of my work as an independent curator. I don’t consider it as a conflict because my work for Art Brussels is also exclusively related to artistic content and curating. On top of that, I did not suddenly change as a curator! I still believe in and defend the same things I did before I started working for Art Brussels – my orientation, my preferences are in fact the same and are also reflected in my two upcoming exhibitions for the Gothenburg Biennial and the Steirischer Herbst. While exhibitions and a fair are two different things, doing one does not prevent you from doing the other, however. In fact, a curator is a much better candidate to do the artistic direction of a fair than some commercially oriented sales manager. As far as Capitalism is concerned, for example, one can critique it (as it is an imperfect system which is growing all the more flawed) but we must not ignore the fact that within the current system we – all of us – also need to survive, we also need to make a living: the artists, the curators, the galleries, etc. I am not a believer in dividing political and socially engaged art into ‘the good camp’ and the commercial art world in to the ‘bad camp’. This is a gross simplification which is often riddled with prejudices. I often work with artists who do have a commercial representation. But that doesn’t make their work less relevant as a commentary, or less meaningful as art. In the very same vein, I don’t think that my exhibitions would be less relevant politically or socially because I am now working with Art Brussels! And if we want to generate an honest and genuine critique of capitalism, we all need to examine our roles within the wider consumer-capitalist society, which is unsustainable in the long-term, and often based on inegalitarian and anti-environmental practices. All of us are implicated in this system. It’s a bit ridiculous to criticize the commercial art world and then clock up thousands of air-miles of carbon footprint by attending one exhibition and Biennial after another, contribute to waste by changing your mobile phone or computer every year, eat food and consume products whose origins you never question or scrutinize, and so on….

I am not a believer in dividing political and socially engaged art into ‘the good camp’ and the commercial art world in to the ‘bad camp’. This is a gross simplification which is often riddled with prejudices.

– Katerina Gregos

ST: I want to link up two observations to this discussion and ask for your commentaries. The first case is last year’s dOCUMENTA(13), which is supposedly the most important manifestation and it was curated under the big banner of Political Art. Meanwhile, in the exhibition, there is a strong presence of galleries such as Marian Goodman Gallery which represents the highest number of gallery artists from one single gallery in dOCUMENTA (13). Another case is, in my interview with Francesco Vezzoli, he argued strongly that we have to admit the existence of an industry called Art Industry, and that it is problematic for artists who deny the existence of such an industry while making political art that criticize the system, and nevertheless, selling them at high prices in the fanciest galleries. Do you have any comments on these scenarios that we are confronted with more and more often?

KG: I always have problem with the term “The Art World” because it implies that there is only one art world when in fact there is the art world of the 1% and the art world of 99%. Of course, that is a very powerful 1% and it represents the economic muscle. But for me, the art world is moving in different gears. There are different art worlds. There are artists who work with galleries, there are artists who are totally outside of the circuit; there are artists who are socially engaged and selling their works through galleries, and there are also artists who don’t work with galleries. A part of art indeed can be seen to be a part of the ‘culture industry’, of the mega-museums, blockbuster exhibitions, etc. Thankfully, there are many other ‘art worlds’ outside these.

I don’t particularly like the label “Political Art” because it smacks of rhetoric and didactic propaganda. I prefer to say that artists who are making works that are politically or socially engaged. Being within the system does not prevent you from critiquing it. If we look at the system today, it’s difficult to be completely outside of it anyway. If we look at dOCUMENTA(13), as you pointed out, indeed many artists were represented by Marian Goodman Gallery, but that doesn’t make it a better or worse exhibition, in my opinion. I think it’s virtually impossible to step outside of the system on that level unless you occupy a totally alternative non-commercial milieu, but even then, if you dig down to the bottom, there lies somewhere an economic consideration. So, when we talk about Capitalism, the question is: how is this capitalism exercised? How is it articulated in the art world and in what ways? At the end, no matter what you do, Art needs money, artists need money! It’s a very simplistic argument to say that capitalism is bad for art. But of course, there are different ways that the money is made and used. That is the fine line! If you want to fight the system, the best way to do it is to be on the inside.

There is no art world without some economic infrastructures, be it public or private. What makes it problematic is how certain interests are favored over others because of economic considerations or questions of monetary value.

– Katerina Gregos

ST: Some art critic compares art fairs to the primal scene between galleries and collectors, and implying that artists should not step in the primal scene, otherwise, they would be traumatized. In your opinion, where is the position of the artists in the wide spread trend of art fairs?

KG: Certainly the role of galleries and collectors is empowered, but artists should also exercise their power. I think in a more pronounced way, artists somehow have relinquished their power. But as they produce the work, they are in a position to decide how, when, why… maybe many artists nowadays are not doing this enough. And this doesn’t apply only to the art fair context but to many other different contexts where artists have perhaps relinquished their role and their decision-making power. Of course, there are reasons. As an artist, you need visibility, you need a public, you need to sell your work to survive and this puts you in a very difficult and fragile position to be able to draw certain lines. But at the end of the day, without the artists, there would be nothing: no gallery, no curator, no exhibition, no museum, no collection…

ST: Are the overwhelming art market and the art fairs transferring the power from the artists to the collectors?

KG: Collectors have always had influence, most of the major museums in the world at some point started as private collections. Collectors act as patrons; they are often the forces behind art in order for art to happen. It has been like that for centuries. I don’t see what’s so different today, except perhaps that the art world has expanded and there are more collectors, especially from new geographies. What I personally find more problematic is, for example, the privatizing of the institutions, that museums are becoming less independent and relying more on trustees and private collectors. In Europe, the problem is not (yet) as pronounced as in the USA, where once cutting edge, independent thinking institutions are just following market trends and the tastes of their board members. I am not against the private funding but I am against the instrumentalization of the public institutions by the private sector. It’s not a problem for the private to support and fund the public institutions, but they have to allow the freedom and independence to the directors and curators – the professionals – to do their job. The best policy, in principle, is still the British so-called “Arms-Length Policy” where the government funds culture but keeps a distance from the operation of the institutions. The state and the private sector should not interfere and should let the professionals do what they know best. This is, for me, still the healthiest model. It is also prone to flaws and abuses, as we know, but it is still the best model we have to date in Europe.

ST: Thank you very much!

About Katerina Gregos

Greek-born, Brussels-based curator Katerina Gregos is a graduate of the Courtauld Institute of Art and King’s College (University of London) where she read Art History and European Literary and Historical Studies, as well as the City University London where she obtained a second MA in Museum Management.

Gregos has an extensive international curatorial experience and a host of critically acclaimed exhibitions including, more recently, Newtopia: The State of Human Rights (Mechelen & Brussels),Speech Matters, the Danish Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, Manifesta 9 (Genk) and the 4. Fotofestival Mannheim Ludwigshafen Heidelberg, Germany (the latter two of which she was co-curator). Apart from her experience as an independent curator, Gregos also served as founding director and curator of the Deste Foundation, Centre for Contemporary Art, Athens (until 2002) and artistic director of Argos – Centre for Art & Media in Brussels (until 2007). 

Apart from her engagement at Art Brussels, Gregos will continue to pursue her other curatorial projects. Among those forthcoming, will be the next edition of the Gothenburg Biennial in Sweden, where she will curate one of the exhibitions, and an exhibition for Steirischer Herbst, Graz, Austria, co-curated with Luigi Fassi (both 2013). 

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