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Amanda Coulson, VOLTA NY 2017. Image: Courtesy David Willems Photography


VOLTA NY 2017. Fotografia: Sérgio Parreira


VOLTA NY 2017. Fotografia: Sérgio Parreira


VOLTA NY 2017. Fotografia: Sérgio Parreira


VOLTA NY 2017. Fotografia: Sérgio Parreira


VOLTA NY 2017. Fotografia: Sérgio Parreira


VOLTA NY 2017. Fotografia: Sérgio Parreira


VOLTA NY 2017. Fotografia: Sérgio Parreira


VOLTA NY 2017. Fotografia: Sérgio Parreira

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INTERVIEW WITH AMANDA COULSON, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF VOLTA ART FAIR



SÉRGIO PARREIRA

2017-04-25




Amanda Coulson is an art critic and curator and is currently the artistic director of the VOLTA fair in Basel, Switzerland, of which she was one of the co-founders in 2005. She has written for a variety of art magazines including Frieze, Frieze d/e and Modern Paintings, Contemporary, Lápiz, Art Review and ARTnews.

 


By Sérgio Parreira

 


>>>

 

 

 

SP: Would you like to enumerate and highlight what makes VOLTA special and different from any other Art Fairs?

AC: I think, to begin with, gallerists formed it. So, even now, 13 years later, we always think of the galleries as our audience, as much as the collectors and visitors, and a huge number of our exhibitors tell us this is rare. It really influences our interaction and our creative decisions. We create deep relationships with our exhibitors and listen to them, their advice from their point of view about what works, and this is crucial. Conversely, we never had a panel of other galleries judging our applicants. Should Porsche get to decide who exhibits at the car show? No. It is a clear conflict of interest and can be disrupted by other motives or relationships; of course, curators have their own biases, but we felt using curators and other arts professionals to advise us in the process — rather than the typical gallerist panel — was bringing a different point of view.

While it is completely impossible to really “curate” a fair, we still think through placements in a creative way. That is, not in terms of “Who is the most important, so they must go at the front” but in terms of which artworks the galleries are bringing and how this will react with the gallery next door, the gallery opposite. This is, of course, much easier in New York with the solo artist format, which makes VOLTA special. I am sure you noticed that on our both signage we put the artist´s name first — and in a larger typeface/font — than that of the gallery or city, as we really desire to underscore the importance of the artist´s participation, as much as the galleries. Sometimes I hear people scanning an advertisement for a fair in a magazine and saying, “Oh that´s going to be a good/bad fair,” and I always think: “How on earth can you judge before you´ve seen the work?” Even good galleries can make bad presentations, and relatively “unknown” galleries can bring stunning installations. So, as important as the galleries are, we cannot forget that it is not just about them.

VOLTA is also special because we stay diminutive on purpose: we are a small team and most of us have been working on it from the first show or have been with the fair for over eight years; it began as a “Mom and Pop” business, and we always intended, with whatever successes we have, for it to stay that way. My husband, Ulrich Voges, one of the co-founders, still works with the fair and our daughter, now 14, will probably be doing a summer internship next year. While it sounds corny, this closeness of the team and of the founders to the business brings a certain element of family, of passion and commitment, that you really feel in the atmosphere. I think that makes VOLTA very different.


SP: 10 Years of VOLTA proves that the model is working. I wouldn´t like to call it a “business” model, but ultimately it is. What´s contributing for that success?

AC: You´re right. When we founded the fair in Basel (13 years ago! The NY fair has made it to 10), we actually thought it would be a 3-year project and then we would all go back to our other businesses. I was an art critic, my husband a dealer, so we didn´t actually ever intend to make it “a business.” I think what makes it a success is precisely that: we are not in it first and foremost for the business, we are in it for what we believe: that a certain type of gallery — which we refer to as “mother galleries” — deserve to have an important, major platform to reach an audience; that great artists and great galleries can exist outside of New York, Berlin, or London; that the major fairs, while fantastic opportunities to see blue-chip art, can be repetitive and not a great place to make new discoveries. These are some of the driving forces behind VOLTA and we are firmly committed to those ideas. So many artists who first exhibited at VOLTA are now at Frieze, Art Basel, The Armory Show… they are often picked up by a larger, more well-known, deep-pocketed gallery — this is normal and how our ecosystem works — but I am really proud that we gave their original galleries, the galleries who discovered them and supported them through their early years, a chance to showcase them and claim their position. This is what leads to VOLTA´s success, because the intrepid art lovers and collectors — who do not need the market confirmation to support their taste or eye — know that we´re a great place to make meaningful discoveries.


SP: Can you explain me the criteria to gather a show like VOLTA NY 2017? How are the galleries chosen, and is there a number of countries (Cities) that must be represented? How are the artists that they show selected, or in case they should go through a scrutiny process, how are they approved?

AC: I´ve touched on some of the criteria above, in a way. Being a “mother gallery” is one of them. I´ve had galleries who applied, for example with a “brand name” artist, but they just picked them up to their roster after the artist´s success. Then the gallery doesn´t understand why they don´t get in with this ‘famous” artist and maybe they even have a whole stable of such artists, but not one did they actually support at the beginning of their career. So, we really look at the relationship of the gallery to the artist they apply with and that they represent, that´s important to us. I once saw a “Statements” at Art Basel with an artist, and I knew that the presenting gallery had not even ever had a single solo show with that artist; their original “mother gallery” had done three solo shows, but had applied 5-6 times to Art Basel and never got in. I understand it´s part of the “system”; this other gallery that got in was hipper and in with the right crowd… but that´s not what interests me.

Regarding countries and cities: definitely we want a broad range at the fair, but it isn´t one of the prime reasons a gallery would get in. First, you weed out the galleries that just don´t fit the profile or the program (galleries applying with secondary market work, for example); then you look at each proposal for its content only (that is, any previous relationship can´t bias you: if the application is bad and you have a long relationship with the gallery, you might call and say “Hey, you need to do better” but you cannot judge on past presentations, only what is in front of you). A strong curatorial position is important. Galleries who just send a list of every artist in their program are not going to get in. What is the booth going to look like? What are you trying to communicate to the audience about your work as a gallerist? After all of this you will still have too many galleries for the amount of spaces and that´s when things like medium and country of origin might come into play. For example: you might have 80 amazing applications with painters but you don´t want a fair with only painting, so you might then remove some of those and select the (still good) applications with photography sculpture, video. We definitely make an effort to reach out to what the art market still deems “emerging” locales — Africa, Southeast Asia — but simply being from an “exotic” region isn´t enough; the application still has to be compelling.


SP: Do you already have numbers from the galleries regarding sales?

AC: Yes and no. Of course, we get an overview at the end of the fair and get a general picture, but in this market — which is relatively slow right now — collectors take longer to make decisions. They know they have time and they know they can negotiate, so it could be that we won´t know how the fair really did for another 6 months. I´ve often had galleries leave the fair without a single sale and then contact me 8 months later to say it turned out to be really successful for them. The younger dealers forget that this is how it was before the boom: they all want to sell out over those 4 days, but that is unrealistic. That´s not to say we didn´t have galleries that did sell out… some did! But this is the exception that proves the rule. A fair is not only about selling, it´s about PR, it´s about networking, it´s about meeting new audiences with whom you form relationships, it´s about connecting with institutions. Some galleries didn´t sell but acquired 4 or 5 museums shows for their artist; this equals an incredible amount of exposure and will inevitably translate into sales at a later date… so really, it´s very hard to quantify. Overall, this year was a good fair with splendid work but you could definitely feel that the United States is going through a mini-depression (psychological as much as monetary). The new regime is not so friendly to artists and the art world — they just cut the National Endowment for the Arts — so the artists are feeling targeted and collectors are not feeling as confident to make large investments when no one really knows which way the economy will go. Still, times like these make for some of the best art!


SP: Which, in your opinion, is the profile of the buyer / collector that goes to VOLTA?

AC: The collector that goes to VOLTA is adventurous and trusts their own eye. My husband always says, “You should buy art with your gut, not your ears,” and this is the type of buyer who typically comes to VOLTA. I think that different art fairs can be equated to different types of venue for purchasing clothing: you can go either to the high-end brand store — Chanel, Prada — where you know everything is quality and “sanctioned” by the gurus, but it´s expensive; or to a high street brand, where you know it´s fashionable, a little bit risky (the clothes might fall apart or out of fashion) but you´ll save some money; or to a flea market, where you are going to have to work quite hard to find an absolute gem, but it can be worth it. I´d like to think VOLTA is the funky boutique, where everything is hand-picked by the owner (or handmade), some of the designs are a little outrageous or not your style, but everything is well-made and presented with attention to detail, love and care.


SP: I personally believe that any place where art is being shown, should somehow, think about the viewer and their audience, like when we go to a Museum or a gallery space. That usually doesn´t happen in Art Fairs, and that was something that really surprised me at VOLTA NY this year. I felt that I was being considered too, and that my experience was important for the organizers of the show. Ultimately, it´s not about me, as a spectator, but about the artist and his works (which I also agree and that´s why I think VOLTA concept is a winner). But the work of art doesn´t exist without an audience. Is this something that is important for you? To make VOLTA an enjoyable environment? I would say Art friendly?

AC: Absolutely! This is really a driving concept behind the foundation of VOLTA and our approach. The original Basel fair was even smaller — only 23 galleries — we had a boat that took the visitors from another fair to us and I saw this as a “palate cleanser,” like the sorbet course in the middle of a long six-course gourmand meal. At many of these city-wide art weeks — whether Basel, Miami, New York, Paris — there are so many artworks, so visitors need to refresh their minds and eyes (and stomachs!), and we are very conscious of this. We also think it´s important for the fair to somehow connect to the city and give the visitors an authentic experience; conference centers can feel the same world-over, like 5 star hotels, and you forget where you are; we wanted our visitors to know where they were, to appreciate it and for the fair to reflect it in some way because it removes the drudgery of traipsing through endless corridors. In Basel, we always have atmospheric locations; VOLTA Halle and Ultra Brag (both reachable by a lovely boat ride down the Rhine), the industrial Dreipsitz — now the hub of Basel´s art scene — and the iconic Markthalle, in the city center; in NYC we were first opposite the Empire State building, then in SoHo and now in Hell’s Kitchen.

Also, in our first year we asked collectors: “Aside from the art, what are the three most important things for you?”, the response was very clear: “Somewhere to sit, clean bathrooms, and decent food.” We took this to heart, and even in the early years the port-a-potties had flowers, hand cream and great products; we have always had local restaurants with wonderful chefs preparing healthy, tasty, and not overpriced food: you have — literally — a captive audience and you need to make them feel welcomed and in a pleasing environment where they wish to stay, not stuck in a characterless hall with expensive and bad sandwiches. Daylight is also important, otherwise it´s like a long airplane ride — watching the same people walking up and down the aisles, breathing recycled air, not knowing what time of day it is... this can be very disorienting and tiring.

You are right that the visitor is the key element: of course, it starts with the art but if your feet hurt, you are cranky and feel ripped off from eating overpriced, bad sushi, then you are just not going to be in the mood to appreciate all the work the artists and galleries have done, so it´s vitally important to make the visitor feel welcome, at ease and have all the amenities necessary. It is also of key importance to consider the architecture: endless rabbit-warren tunnels of art do not create an ideal viewing situation; you need to consider vistas, open spaces, how booths are placed with regards to one another and — even though it sounds obvious — have good signage, not only for the amenities but for the booths themselves. I´ve addressed how we focus on the artist in NYC but also our system makes sure you always know where you are located. Like I said, it sounds simple, but you´d be surprised how easy it is to get lost, have a bad map, or signage which can be confusing and this can also be a real irritant to the visitor or dealer.


SP: In my opinion, the contemporary art fair concept as we see in most of the events happening today, are extremely sterile, sometimes aggressive, and uninteresting. Do you think that an Art Fair should be purposely designed to encourage sales and trade, or that primarily should be an art show?

AC: Well, to be honest — as I indicated above — you can´t really “curate” a fair in the true sense because there are too many moving parts. However, I do think the art should come first because if you are having an enjoyable, pleasant experience — if the environment engages you — then I think sales will come naturally. It´s why people are attending in the first place. Collectors are coming prepared to buy, so you don´t need to do a “hard sell” on them… you need to give them as ideal viewing condition as best as possible within the format so they can make their decisions. This is one of the reasons why we went for solos in New York; at first, the knee-jerk reaction from many dealers was: “Oh my gosh, I can´t spread my portfolio, I won´t have enough selection, I´ll never sell”, but, conversely, the format works really well. Increasingly, fairs are including and broadening their solo sections. With this format, collectors can really engage with a single artist´s practice; they stay longer, and they learn more. If a collector loves one artist in a program, they are going to develop a relationship with the gallery, they are going to look at that gallery´s other artists as well. We´ve often had visitors tell us they planned to come to VOLTA — which is a relatively small fair — for an hour, whip through, and head somewhere else, but they ended up staying 3 or 4 hours because they enjoyed the environment so much. Clearly this is ultimately better for sales. We also have repeat visitors telling us they come back to “get away from the mayhem” at other fairs and, again, this is ultimately good for sales… So, making the art and the environment the focus has the desired knock-on effect!


SP: Do you believe that are some basic lines to respect while showing works of art, or that anything is valid, if the ultimate goal is achieved - selling?

AC: I think the work should be respected as much as possible, given the context. Sometimes I see booths that are a line-up of a gallery´s “greatest hits” but the works have no relationship to one another, so I feel this is not a successful showing, even at a fair. Perhaps at the main fair it is different — collectors go to specific dealers looking for specific artists so they feel they “must” have one of each — but at VOLTA some galleries are unknown, many of the artists are still on their upward trajectory, so I tell the galleries they have to show their new clientele what it is that they actually do in their galleries, so they can better communicate their identity. At their physical gallery, they don´t do random group shows with 8 artists with no connection to one another — which looks like they are just “in it for the sales” — they either do solo shows or they do selected, curated group shows, where the works make sense together and have a context, so I feel this is what a gallery should do at a fair, because this reflects their actual work ethic. To put on a solo show — at a gallery or at a fair — is a big investment both financially and psychologically; it´s a show of faith and a huge commitment, and galleries should be respected for showing that support but often they get a bad rap, which comes from the perception that fair participation is only about sales... another reason a properly curated booth is important!


SP: I would like to ask you something now that might be tricky to answer, and feel free to be politically correct: Do you think that we have knowledgeable art collectors, or that they are quite emotional, and that most of the times they don´t know what they are buying, which ultimately draws an erratic perception of what is or not a “good” work of art? (Just to add a comment, I have the clear notion that it´s terribly subjective what is good or not in art, and that this judgement depends on who´s buying, the viewer, and his/her aesthetic beliefs and experience.)

AC: First, as you said, “good” is so subjective. There are so many genres of art and there is “good” art in each genre but the genre itself might not appeal to you or another individual. Certainly, there are trends: conceptual art is particularly notable right now but there are still masterful painters, accomplished sculptors, but of course trends definitely influence some sales. Collectors come in all shapes and sizes (metaphorically). There are very educated, rigorous collectors who do a lot of research; there are collectors who have a passion for a particular genre (African-American art; body art; conceptual art; new media and video art) who are clear on their taste and collect in a very focused manner; there are collectors who just love to acquire things; there are collectors who want the best brand names in their collection… so, you can´t really generalize. Certainly, there are groups and when one buys something, the others do, and this can spark a sort of “buzz.” My own position is that if you collect you should want to have a relationship to that work of art not merely possess it; you are going to live with it, like with a spouse, and that is a commitment; you should trust your instinct because you will have to see it every day, and care for it during your lifetime. At the end of the day, collectors do set trends but also institutions as well; probably in former times the institution had even more power but now — being so reliant on patrons and collectors for funding — this is shifting and the power is shared, but being sanctioned by an institutional show will of course have an impact on an artist´s career. Plus, we can´t forget the critics: content and newness is always being strived for, so the media also plays its role, creating “top ten” lists or writing stories on the new hot art destination.

SP: This got us deeply in the concept of what should art be as an experience, and I would like to put you on the “hot seat” now… What makes a good work of art?

AC: Again, “good” can be subjective and different people want different things from art. Some people want beauty or tranquility, some people want a philosophical question answered, some want to be rigorously challenged and some just want something nice over the sofa! These are all very personal choices but I believe, as an art historian (not a dealer or collector), one should be able to look at work and see beyond one´s taste and be able to identify, within a certain genre, what is “good” and what is not. Let´s say, for example, I am not an impassioned fan of Pop or street art, but nonetheless I can still tell which is the good graffiti on the side of the subway train, and which is not good. Or generic landscape painting — again, it´s not what interests me but still one can definitely identify the great work. This has not only to do with execution but with “inventio” over “imitatio,” which is why Banksy became such a phenomenon, because he was doing something unique, bringing a new vision to what was possible from the format, or Peter Doig for landscapes. Now as to what is great art, that is again a different question. What will actually be remembered in 200 years? Which works will not be de-accessioned by the museums that bought them… This, also brings us to motivation: museums are buying for nations, cities, and longevity, so, perhaps they will buy with a very different set of criteria than some collectors, who really enjoy their passion but are just doing it for themselves.


SP: How is VOLTA contributing to that concept and experience?

AC: It´s a big question. A journalist asked me recently how I thought I´d effected the art market and, to be honest, I never really looked at it that way because I was just following my passion, doing my job and being in my head, in my own world, and managing the everyday aspects and not really thinking about the ripple effect, and how wide that stone´s wake might have reached. But, of course, I can´t be naïve, so I am sure that VOLTA did or has effected the market in some way. Certainly, I´ve had galleries tell me gratefully that without our platform they would not have survived, because they were not reaching the right audience for the work they were showing in their location, and that feels great, but then of course you wonder if the gallery that didn´t get in then had to close at some point... There is also, by being selected to exhibit, a certain sense of “sanctioning” an artist or gallery, that again must have an effect. To bring fashion back again: in the shops, all the clothes are there on display; no-one is actually forcing you to buy it, so you can´t say they “control” you or your taste, but by not having other selections, by reading too many fashion magazines, perhaps you are guided, and I suspect that´s what galleries and fairs do, and VOLTA is no exception. I´d like to think we are creating an environment which is not about an “impulse buy” but is really asking the visitor to engage, to think, consider and to develop and invest in meaningful relationships, whether it is to the dealers, the artists (and sometimes both, as the artists are often present at VOLTA fairs!), or the artworks themselves.


SP: What can the public expect from VOLTA13 in Basel this year?

AC: We are referring to it around the team as our “Lucky 13”. The fair is smaller than New York — meaning 70 exhibitors versus 90-95 plus at VOLTA NY. Our Basel venue itself is remarkable: when Markthalle was built, it was for a long time the second largest freestanding cupola (domed building) in Europe, after Il Duomo in Florence. The cupola lends a very airy and comfortable environment for guests to enjoy the works on view.

As in previous Basel editions, our gallery retention level is great, with many returnees coming from mature positions throughout Europe, including Martin Asbaek and V1 from Copenhagen (each with their expectedly nuanced curatorial direction), Akinci from Amsterdam (whose project includes the phenomenal filmmaking duo Persijn Broersen and Margit Lukács), ADN from Barcelona (whose roster is heavily involved in the documenta/Biennale circuit), and Conrads from Düsseldorf (whose two-artist project complements Sven Drühl with mounir fatmi). That said, however, I find it very important to always keep a respectful and thorough world-view on who’s fresh and doing great and meaningful things, so we always have a nice degree of “new blood” at the fair. Some of these newcomers include T&L from Paris (featuring two of their most exciting emerging talents, François Malingrëy and Tindar), Amsterdam gallery Roger Katwijk (featuring Niek Hendrix in a solo presentation), Bianconi from Milan (spotlighting the dynamic Chicago-based video/performance artist Cheryl Pope), and Charlot — yes, another Paris gallery, we´ve got some great ones! — featuring two great new media artists, Antoine Schmitt and Flavien Théry.

Plus, I am proud of our efforts in identifying great Asian galleries, as this year´s representation includes Kyoto (COHJU Contemporary Art, showing Kosei Komatsu and Michael Whittle), Taipei (Nunu Fine Art, spotlighting Morgan O´Hara), Kuala Lumpur (Richard Koh Fine Art, featuring Hasanul Isyraf Idris, Anne Samat, and Yeoh Choo Kuan), and Hong Kong (Galerie Ora-Ora, showing mid-career contemporary ink artist Peng Wei in a solo position), as well as the great Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich, who is exhibiting in the Main Section of this year´s Venice Biennale, concurrent with a solo position at VOLTA13 by his longtime New York gallery (and veteran VOLTA exhibitor) Tyler Rollins Fine Art.