"They Messed With the Wrong Person": Rejected Berlin Dealer Feuds With Art Basel Selection Committee

"They Messed With the Wrong Person": Rejected Berlin Dealer Feuds With Art Basel Selection Committee

Three prominent Berlin galleries, including the well-known Eigen+Art, have been rejected from Art Basel by a selection committee dominated by other Berlin galleries. The dust-up has touched off a very public battle in the German capital's art scene, and even led to accusations of collusion among the gatekeepers of the world's largest contemporary art fair.

Eigen+Art, Giti Nourbakhsch, and Mehdi Chouakri were all surprised to learn that there wouldn't be room for them at Basel this year. Now Nourbakhsch and Eigen+Art's Gerd Harry Lybke have publicly expressed their outrage, and are asking whether certain Berlin gallerists on the Art Basel committee unfairly excluded them.

The German media has seized on the controversy, with a big article in Berlin's Tagesspiegel headlined "Berlin Committee Members Shut Out Berlin Artists." As far as Lybke is concerned, the fight is far from over. "I came from East Germany, where I faced things that weren't right," the pugnacious gallerist told ARTINFO France. "I faced the Stasi and I'll face any other bad guys. They messed with the wrong person."

Lybke argues that Art Basel should rethink the make-up of its selection committee. "It's an international fair, and should have an international committee, not just three people from Berlin." This year's committee is made up of Tim Neuger, of Berlin's Neugerriemschneider Gallery, Claes Nordenhake (Berlin and Stockholm), Jochen Meyer of the Meyer Riegger Gallery in Berlin and Karlsruhe, Eva Presenhuber (Zurich), David Juda of Annely Juda Fine Art in London, and Xavier Hufkens of Brussels.

Giti Nourbakhsch wrote an open letter to her colleagues, titling it "David and Goliath." She accuses the Berlin-based committee members of excluding her as payback for leaving the organizational committee of Gallery Weekend, an annual Berlin gallery walk. "When I left Gallery Weekend, I knew that I was jeopardizing my space at Basel" she wrote. "Everyone knows that you can't cross the Basel committee, even in Berlin." The three Berlin members of the committee are also part of Gallery Weekend.

While he hasn't been as outspoken as his colleagues, Mehdi Chouakri told Die Welt am Sonntag that he had always had positive feedback from the committee in previous years: "If you look at the New York, London, or Paris galleries, their acceptance was based on their market relevance, their displays, and their history. For the Berlin galleries, I don't see what criteria they could have been using." In a press release, Eigen+Art stated that "the decision was clearly not based on artistic criteria."

Selection committee member Nordenhake responded in an open email that these "serious allegations" were "unfounded." The committee and Art Basel have declined to comment further, citing policy and confidentiality agreements. When contacted by ARTINFO France, sources close to Art Basel who declined to be identified denied that there was conspiracy afoot, dismissing Lybke's objections as a shrewd publicity stunt and the controversy as a product of old regional jockeying within Germany. They noted that even if Art Basel's selection committee has often been comprised of gallerists who were Berlin-based, these same dealers frequently had branches in other parts of the world as well, along with the necessary international experience.

But many Berlin gallerists defended Harry Lybke (who often goes by the nickname "Judy") and the other waitlisted galleries. Nicole Hackert of Contemporary Fine Arts told Die Welt am Sonntag that their omission was "a really dirty trick," pointing out that Lybke had played a significant role in establishing the celebrated art scene in the Mitte district of the former East Berlin. Another Berlin gallerist, Christian Nagel, told the paper that this brings Art Basel down to the level of "a pigeon fanciers' club."

Lybke's gallery represents the so-called New Leipzig School of artists and has contributed to the success of artists like Neo Rauch, Tim Eitel, Martin Eder, and Carsten Nicolai. He is especially known for introducing American collectors to their work, and it is rumored that Brad Pitt and Conde Nast's S.I. Newhouse are clients.

Lybke told ARTINFO France that none of his artists will be shown at the fair, since the international gallerists who also represent them — including New York's Pace and David Zwirner and London's Hauser & Wirth — have agreed not to bring their work to Basel to show their solidarity. German art commentators are up in arms over the resulting absence from Basel of national favorite Neo Rauch (a large piece of whose Pitt bought at the 2009 fair, setting off considerable hubbub).

Lybke also said that he wants to focus on next year and doesn't want to be involved in any more Art Basel drama. "When you have an event that has worked well for 40 years, that's great," he said. "But maybe you lose a little perspective on details that should be improved. But the infighting, that doesn't interest me." As for Giti Nourbakhsch, the experience has soured her on Berlin. The gallerist wrote in her open letter, "I chose Berlin because, for me, this city represented freedom and openness. Now I've lost the urge to continue my work in this faded city."


[Update] Art Basel's organizers told ARTINFO that the committee members are chosen very carefully, according to reputation and character. They select the fair's galleries by a majority vote, and an independent appeals board can overturn the committee's decision.

"The Art Basel Committee's selection process includes numerous meetings and long discussions," said Maike Cruse, the fair's communications manager, in emailed comments. "When selecting the galleries, the Committee takes into account the program, artworld engagement and booth presentations of the respective gallery. The Committee also has to keep a broader perspective by selecting galleries in terms of country representation."

"The selection process itself is confidential," she added. "As we have more than 700 galleries which are not accepted we cannot discuss individual cases and reveal all the discussions taking place in the meetings. Art Basel can also not be put in the position of publicly offering negative perspectives on a long-term client."