BRUSSELS — Changes are afoot at Art Brussels following the passing of previous director Karen Renders, an almost 20-year veteran of the fair who put it on the international map.
For this year’s edition, April 18 to 21, a two-director team splits the duties. Anne Lafère is handling the business side and in an innovative step, curator Katerina Gregos has taken the reins of the fair’s artistic direction.
A wholesale architectural reshape should help the fair’s flow. New graphic design by Sara de Bondt will refresh its outward image. And in a juggling act between curatorial imperative and market forces, Greek-born Gregos aims to take the fair beyond a traditional, supermarket approach. She talked to ARTINFO France’s Nicolai Hartvig about balancing art and business, the importance of a curatorial approach and the future of the fair.
You have joined Art Brussels, but you retain your independent credentials and remain an curator, first and foremost.
It would be impossible for me to do this job for Art Brussels without continuing my work as an independent curator, organizing at the same time different kinds of non-commercial projects. Working independently and closely together with the artists, is the engine which keeps me going, giving me the thoughts, ideas, inspirations and dreams, which also might help to develop my vision on how to inspire an art fair. It is my ambition to help the fair in improving the quality of the experience and making a visit to it more rewarding. To bring collectors and galleries closer together; to create an inspiring atmosphere which no doubt will also improve the fair as a commercial enterprise.
My independent curatorial activity thus gives me the confidence to do Art Brussels. As I do not come from the commercial world, I do not represent any specific commercial interests and I can focus on the artistic quality of the fair. It was Karen Renders’ wish that I take on this role, as she acknowledged the necessity of a more coherent artistic outlook on the fair. As I come from the world of institutions, biennials, nonprofit organizations and foundations, I will focus on what I know best: artistic content and artistic direction. My role is to provide an artistic vision for the fair as well as to oversee all the artistic programming apart from the gallery representation.
Is it your ambition to find a new formula for balancing the artistic and the market-driven ?
It would be a wonderful thing to do, to think about different structures in the future. But I would prefer not to use the word "formula". A formula is a petrified device. There should not be formulas in the art world; they are contradictory to the very notion of artistic freedom. The grid-like structure of art fairs, the heterogeneous way the galleries often install their booths, the copy-paste side programs, it all adds up to the tiring experience that a visit to an art fair has become.
It’s far too early in my experience of Art Brussels to say if it will be possible. I only started in November and part of my program will start being apparent in April — but of course, in less than six months, one cannot engage in drastic, radical change. I need to be able to put one art fair behind me, to digest the experience and to also see how the participating galleries have responded to my request to reflect more on the content and nature of their presentations, to avoid the mix-and-match supermarket style booths that are common in art fairs, to think more curatorially and in terms of scenography; something I think all collectors and professionals would appreciate. We are all suffering from "art fair fatigue," questions of space and presentation are crucial in terms of the way one navigates a fair.
On the other hand, it’s not obvious what to do with a fair to renew it. Fairs are forces to be reckoned with but they are also governed by certain fixed parameters and that no one has managed to change (i.e. the linear succession of stands). Galleries are sometimes resistant to change because they need a specific format to work within, and because as paying customers of a fair, they need to make money. Many galleries are making business only because of art fairs, particularly those that come from smaller countries. It is understandable that they are reluctant to introduce things that might be disruptive or more experimental. One of my primary concerns in the future is how to challenge the spatial format of the fair.
I think the fair can be both artistic and mercantile, if it’s done intelligently and with imagination. I don’t see the one as excluding the other. An art fair is a pretty honest equation. It’s a place where an exchange of artworks takes place. The mise-en-scène of how this scenography takes place and of course the artworks in this mise-en-scène are what make all the difference.
What will be the relationship between yourself and the galleries showing at Art Brussels ?
There is obviously an important dialogue with the galleries who form part of the selection committees. However, I have a vote on these committees, which Karen did not have, and am therefore able to voice concerns about artistic content. I’m also selecting the solo shows. My role is hopefully to help encourage or inspire a certain orientation for the galleries.
A fair is always a very mixed bag, there are different ways of negotiating it as a gallery. There are those who make memorable curatorial and original presentations, and those who unfortunately just take an indexical, mix-and-match, supermarket-like approach. I hope to try and convince the galleries of the importance of avoiding the latter. Better presentations, means a better art fair, means better collectors, better sales.
At last year’s fair, conceptual shows by younger galleries were in a separate hall from the established galleries, who largely brought mix-and-match hangings. Is there a way to bridge this ?
As artistic director, my role can only go so far. I will try to convince the galleries of what is in their best interest, as well as the best interest of the overall quality of the fair. But I cannot force them, of course. In Art Brussels there is a tradition – like in Basel – of presenting the younger and emerging galleries in Hall 3 and the more established ones in Hall 1. I do not think they need to be mixed as this is a clear division that enables collectors to quickly identify their priorities.
What I am more concerned with is the quality of presentation, the number and combination of artists shown within the limited space of the booth and the general presentation. All the participating galleries have now received a letter from me, in which I’ve explained certain criteria. I am inviting them, politely encouraging them, hopefully inspiring them to think about their presentations differently. I basically asked them not to bring too many artists, if possible, because I think the effect of seeing too many artists in one booth — and with the effect of multiplication across the whole fair — is just not conducive to spectatorship. I know that not everyone will respond, but for me, it’s also an experiment to see how galleries will react to this, whether they will take up the challenge.
I have invited them to think about the scenography of their booths. My plea has been to somehow avoid the mixed bag presentation, which I think does no one a service, quite honestly; neither the collectors and curators, nor the public. I have to maybe alert them to the obvious, that any sophisticated collector will be drawn to a better presented and curated stand.
Art Brussels could potentially be open to new ideas. The stakes are not quite as high as at Art Basel or Frieze.
That is also a plus, and in that sense, the fair occupies a niche of its own. You don’t get this kind of mad rush as you do in London. I am always a bit shocked by this — a couple of years ago, for example, I was at Frieze and I was talking to a gallerist whom I know very well. It was one of the few occasions where I was actually contemplating buying something. I remember this collector just pushed me out of the way and said “I’ll take that!” And it was simply a modest photograph, for £2000 or so. At Art Brussels, the pace is more humane, people take more time to look — and I hope it stays that way.
Art Brussels has for many years coincided with Art Cologne.
This is very unfortunate. We’re making sure that this is not something that will happen again. Next year it will be different.
Beyond the booths, you are also putting together the fair’s program of side projects, discussions and performances.
I’ve canceled outside projects such as “Video in the city” and “Sculpture in the city”, which were not so well attended, to really focus on how to improve the content and the look inside the fair itself.
I’ve shortlisted three architects/designers for a general re-design of the "look and feel" of Art Brussels — which I think is one of the most challenging things to do because spatially, art fairs are standardized, generic presentations. How can we make the fair more pleasurable and hospitable, not such a taxing and fatiguing experience for exhibitors and visitors alike, because of the sheer succession and the linear presentation of booths? My brief for the architects has to do with a space that is less corporate, more generous, warm, welcoming, laid back and sexy.
Video, which is a very important but difficult medium for a fair, will be split into two categories. Longer feature films and documentaries will be shown as premieres in collaboration with a Brussels institution. Shorter videos will be screened in a specially designed cinema, again concentrating everything into the fair.
I’m introducing a section dedicated to curator and artist-run spaces. Brussels has a lot of galleries, many international artists, and not that many institutions. But there are lots of small, creative, dedicated and dynamic spaces that are part and parcel of the Brussels’ art scene and an integral part of its artistic ‘muscle’. I’ve invited six of these spaces, giving them each a free stand and carte blanche. For me, it was also quite symbolic to introduce something not-for-profit into a commercial space. We’ve reduced the number of galleries to do projects like these and to think about how a structure like Art Brussels can support smaller initiatives.
The VIP program is, of course, being developed — but it is also important to bring the curators back into the fair. A lot of curators are tired of fairs. They are perhaps very good opportunities for networking, perhaps less good for really looking at, and thinking about, art. I am therefore also developing a Curators’ Programme, in collaboration with BAM The Flemish Institute for Visual, Audio-Visual and Media Art, which will bring curators to the fair but also arrange visits to Brussels cultural institutions. We will also arrange custom-made studio visits. I’m a curator, so for me, everything goes back to the artist.
Previously, discourse at Art Brussels was marginalized, it took place in these drab corporate rooms on the first floor. This year, the architects will be designing what I have called THE STAGE, the discursive heart of the fair in a kind of Greek amphitheater with talks, debates, performances and encounters with artists. I want to introduce a live element to the fair.
There will be artistic projects, but only a few this year. In the long term, I do want to commission more projects, but also to think critically about how one operates within a fair, as opposed to asking someone to come and make a work as embellishment.
Would you invite guest curators for certain sections ?
I think it’s very interesting to think about how the fair can be curated on specific individual levels. That’s something I will explore on the long term.
Beyond Art Brussels, what are your other projects ?
I’m co-curating the visual arts exhibition for the Steirischer Herbst Festival in Graz with my colleague Luigi Fassi, who is now curator of visual arts at this oldest and very respected festival for interdisciplinary art in Europe. The exhibition will be about the financial crisis, the lack of transparency of money, the financialization of the economy and the way that the nature of money and capitalism has changed. So I continue on this trajectory of projects that are quite political, which is my field of interest. I’ve also been invited to be on the curatorial team for the next Gothenburg Biennial and will be working on a project that will explore questions of play, politicality, radical imagination and subversive humour.