Annette Schnholzer and Marc Spiegler

Annette Schnholzer and Marc Spiegler
Art Basel is big news every summer of course, given its size and influence, but this time around it’s facing a bit more scrutiny than usual. Just before last year’s edition, Sam Keller, who had run the operation since 2000, ceded leadership to a new team of three, each with their own areas of responsibility: Annette Schönholzer (organization and finances), Marc Spiegler (strategy and development) and Cay Sophie Rabinowitz (artistic director). And if that change of management didn’t set tongues wagging, this April, just weeks before the June 4 opening of Art Basel 2008, Rabinowitz unexpectedly announced her departure from the team, citing “personal reasons.” Then, two weeks later, it was announced that both Eva-Maria Häusler, Art Basel’s show manager, and Peter Vetsch, its communications manager, had been recruited to co-direct Art Forum Berlin (Häusler, it turns out, had left last fall; Vetsch will stay on through the 2008 fair).

The challenges faced by the newly configured team are clear: Basel is generally regarded as the most important art fair on the international calendar, and it’s certainly the biggest. There are eleven different sections in addition to the main fair, which this year promises more than 2,000 artists from almost 300 galleries.

When they spoke to ARTINFO last week, Schönholzer and Spiegler described the mood in their office as “very tense, but in a good way. Everybody is very excited about what’s going on.” We asked them what we can expect for this year’s edition.

Annette, Marc, this is the first post-Keller Art Basel. What will be the most obvious changes?

AS: I think that one of the most apparent changes is that we have put the “Art Basel Conversations” — which were previously held off-site — smack in the middle of “Art Unlimited.”

MS: We wanted to juxtapose the ideas about the art with the art itself and not try to segregate the two things. But in general, we haven’t innovated just for the sake of innovation. Our big goal was to maintain the level of quality that Art Basel is known for.

There must be many aspects of Sam Keller’s Art Basel that you've been careful not to change.

AS: One of the things Sam Keller did so well was to mix modern and contemporary art, and this is something that we have no intention of changing. It’s also important that we continue to create an all-encompassing art experience for visitors, and not just a market place. This is why we’ve expanded into different venues around the city.

MS: I think that the mindset that Sam Keller — and the other directors before him — brought to Art Basel remains the same, and that is to look for ways to provide a platform for whatever’s most interesting in the art world at this particular moment, not just commercially, but culturally as well. We tend to believe that commerce follows culture. So if you have a place for what’s most interesting — for example the really ambitious works of “Art Unlimited” — then eventually the market will catch up.

So you’d reject the criticism that Art Basel is nothing more than a marketplace?

MS: I think that’s completely inaccurate. We devote a lot of time and energy to things that are not market-related at all, like “Art on Stage,” which is a theatrical event that’s free for anyone in Basel to come to. We put a lot of time and energy into the “Art Basel Conversations,” the “Art Lobby,” the professional day, and a great many things that are not simply about the sale of art.

Art Basel has not spawned the huge range of ancillary fairs that Art Basel Miami Beach and New York’s Armory Show have. Do you see that as an advantage or a disadvantage?

MS: An advantage. It keeps the attention on the art and on the galleries. People who visit Art Basel say it’s a much more focused experience. Not only are there very few other things you’d even consider visiting, you can also walk from place to place. It’s a very pleasant and comfortable art scene experience.

And Art Basel has so many sections of its own, it’s as though you’re staging some of the ancillary fairs yourselves.

MS:Yes. Because of the range of things we have in Art Basel, it means that we can play multiple roles. “Art Statements” is geared toward really young galleries working with really young artists, and “Art Premiere,” though not specifically geared toward that, certainly has a very high percentage of them. If “Art Statements” and “Art Premiere” were taken together as a freestanding show, they would probably be the best show of young contemporary galleries in the world.

AS: The ancillary fairs do cover some of the turf that we can’t cover. I’d like to mention the Liste fair, which allows galleries that can’t make it into Art Basel to be present in Basel. This is very important to the development of young galleries for future Art Basel fairs.

MS: Yes. There’s been a very clear path from Liste into Art Basel.

When the two of you were announced as the fair’s new directors alongside Cay Sophie Rabinowitz last summer, we were told that the perfect team had been put in place. Why did she leave?

MS: As was widely discussed when Cay Sophie left, she left for personal reasons. Obviously it’s not our role to discuss those personal reasons.

But she left only weeks before the fair was due to open.

MS: What people who don’t work on a fair don’t realize is that a month before a fair begins, no departure can stop it from happening — it’s a train rolling down the tracks at very high speed. A month ago, the success of Art Basel was already in the hands of our teams and our exhibitors, and we have complete confidence in both.

When Cay Sophie was still on board you all had very specific job titles, but now you two are simply called “co-directors.” What is the division of labor?

AS: The three job titles were put in place to distinguish the areas we were focusing on. As co-directors we still have distinct areas in which we are active, but we also share a lot of areas. Marc is obviously the person who is more out there in the field, maintaining our contacts with collectors and museums and cultural institutions, and also sourcing new contacts.

MS: Annette is also out there quite a bit, but one of her roles is to ensure that things are running smoothly on the home front, because one of the great successes of Art Basel has been its continuing ability to deliver a really solid range of services and support for the galleries that are here. That requires that our teams are pulling smoothly in the same direction.

Having said that, however, any decision that has a major impact on Art Basel involves both of our areas, so while little decisions are taken alone, major decisions are taken together.

Eva-Maria Häusler and Peter Vetsch have now been headhunted by Art Forum Berlin. How do you feel about that?

AS: Eva Maria left last September, so for the past eight months, her place has been filled by Andreas Bicker. He’s been part of the Art Basel team for many years, so that was a very smooth transition for us. And though we will obviously miss Peter and his experience, we wish him well at his new role at Art Forum Berlin.

It could also be taken as a mark of respect for Art Basel that your people were recruited to a rival fair.

MS: Yes. I think that’s accurate. Everyone wants to reproduce the Art Basel experience, both for visitors and for galleries.