Talks with the rival ABC fair collapsed after disagreements about organizational and curatorial power, surprising Berlin's art-world observers who had expected a potential superfair after several weeks of negotiations. Art Forum Berlin, which had been scheduled for September 30 to October 2, will refund fees to galleries who had signed up. Art Berlin Contemporary will take place from September 7 to 11 — an earlier time frame that aims to avoid direct competition from London's Frieze and Paris's FIAC.
In a statement, Messe Berlin, the organizer of Art Forum Berlin, states that it is taking "a break from the art fair business" and that the merger will not happen "due to a disagreement over respective responsibilities." Messe Berlin was unable to secure the role that it wanted according to the terms of the merger. "A joint venture only makes sense if both parties recognize what their respective input is and if they are willing to commit to it," chief operating officer Christian Göke said in the statement. "With an art fair Messe Berlin's added value is through its organization of the event. If this is not desired then there is no basis for conducting joint business other than solely through sponsorship."
Beyond that, accounts of the failure remain muddy, with both sides careful to stand their ground without assigning blame. Messe Berlin "could not just support the newly created event financially. It seemed fair that ABC would have been in charge of the content and the concept, and Messe Berlin of the organization," Eva-Maria Häusler, director of Art Forum Berlin, told ARTINFO France, adding that "this had legal reasons as well. But we offered to integrate part of the organizational team of ABC into our team."
"There was a lot of misunderstanding," said Alexander Schröder of Galerie Neu, one of three dealers at the head of ABC. "We were really pretty close to creating one event, under one name. It was really promising. We had agreed that we would meet on the same level, then they decided that they wanted to head the organization, which was not in our interest. Since this was not going to be a normal fair with booths, I think they missed part of the plot, of our ideas."
Art Forum has had a rocky relationship with Berlin’s leading galleries. Founded in 1996 with the support of a handful of dealers in a still fledgling scene, the fair was to be an alternative to Art Cologne, which was heavy on modern art. But Art Forum failed to develop a following among Berlin's top gallerists, who saw a staid, traditional model that didn't fit the city’s free-thinking, impulsive art scene. "We hate and we're bored with the ideas of booths and tables and people sitting in their cages," Schröder told ARTINFO France. When asked about this criticism, Häusler responded that "an art fair is a market place and it should not try to hide it, that is why we maintained the traditional structure of a fair."
ABC was birthed in 2008 by the group of top Berlin dealers who also organize May's increasingly popular Gallery Weekend. Although works were sold openly, the event billed itself as a curated, open-plan exhibition, with admission by invitation only. The line-up was heavy on powerful local galleries, with Gladstone Gallery (New York and Brussels) and Jousse Enteprise (Paris) among a small handful of international exhibitors. Many galleries jumped ship from Art Forum Berlin to Art Berlin Contemporary, especially since the late-September or early-October dates of Art Forum were perilously close to Frieze. From 130 participating galleries in 2009, Art Forum Berlin dropped to just 94 in 2010.
The shape of an ideal fair in the German capital's creative art mecca is still up for debate. "I think collectors expect to find a number of important names on an exhibitors list, but, especially when it comes to Berlin, to be able to make discoveries as well," suggested Häusler. ABC's task will be to keep these collectors from wandering off into the city's maze of creation. "In the past, collectors would be in town without visiting the fair, because it was too far outside Berlin, or they just weren't interested," said Schröder, who sees Frieze as a model. "All venues and institutions come together to bring the collectors and make the whole event attractive," he said of London's powerhouse fair. "We can learn from them."