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Talking Galleries MACBA / Barcelona

From September 19 through 21, MACBA (Museu d’Art Contemporanei de Barcelona) hosted TALKING GALLERIES, a three-day program that brought together an international community of art professionals to discuss the role of a key player within the contemporary art circuit: the gallerist.

Promoted by local gallerist Llucià Homs and organized by LA FABRICA — a private Spanish enterprise that collaborates with various partners to develop cultural programs and initiatives — TALKING GALLERIES provided a context for gallerists to speak to an audience also mostly made up of gallery representatives (111 out of a total of 172 participants, mostly from Barcelona and Madrid). Experts outside the commercial sphere provided moderation and guidance.

The event was structured around a sequence of panels that reflected the multifaceted profile of the “ideal” gallerist who constantly alternates between the roles of dealer/businessman and curator/philanthropist. Georgina Adams of The Financial Times and The Art Newspaper, Noah Horowitz of the Sotheby’s Institute of Art and director of the VIP art fair and Robert Tornabell, professor at ESADE Business School, Barcelona, led and moderated the talks that examined recent and developing market trends.

Addressing this past summer’s renewed economic turmoil, which presents similarities with the one back in 2008, a panel titled “Dealing with the Economic Crisis” presented guardedly optimistic viewpoints from both Adams and Tornabell, who offered an encouraging perspective particularly in relation to the 1990s.

Kicking off a panel called “The Future of Art Fairs,” Noah Horowitz gave his analysis of the current “art fair age,” citing the Internet as its most likely potential direction. He noted the example given by the VIP art fair, whose second edition, still under his direction, will take place in February 2012. One of his most interesting points about the fair specifically was the way that video art, understandingly enough, benefits from this type of “e-presentation.” Despite the fact that, as he pointed out, a third of the gallerists who attend fairs make most of their deals in that context, Horowitz argued that the high cost of international art fairs is unsustainable.

As for the gallerists on the panel, frustration and anger were the dominant emotions: Victor Gisler of Galerie Mai 36, Zurich, described what he sees as an insane situation in which an artwork’s exhibition at an art fair ends up adding value to the work. Pierre Huber of Galerie Art & Public, Geneva, addressed conflict-of-interest issues with a “once upon a time” story of two gallerists who both wanted to show Lucio Fontana’s works at a fair — a competitive situation that apparently had to have one of the two out of the fair (surely the weaker in terms of connections and establishment). This same speaker spoke disparagingly about incompetent fair organizers who also happen to organize food and jewelry trade fairs, and asked, in light of the international proliferation of fairs, why gallerists need to traverse the globe only to find the exact same art, collectors and overall environment — a point that Georgina Adams strongly supported.

The subsequent two panels — “The Gallerist as a Private Collector” and “Internationalizing the Gallery” — were admittedly far less inspirational and debate-driven. The former ended up as a self-celebratory slideshow of established gallerists’ collections that have or are about to end up beautifully and expensively housed in private foundations (one was reminded of the obligatory viewing of a newlywed’s wedding album); while the panelists in the latter recounted their experiences from which some obvious advice could be gleaned: learn English, the language of contemporary art; attend international art fairs, but only if you intend to keep going back; make good use of the Internet and search for existing gaps rather than adopt a copy-and-paste attitude. Surprisingly, apart from a shy intervention by panelist Luise Faurschou — who stated that her mission throughout her career was to offer artists a blank page for showcasing their work — none of the gallerists’ spoke of collecting in terms of supporting artists and their research. “I fell in love with the work and I had to have it,” was too often boringly repeated.

Truly fascinating was a presentation by Eduardo Brandão of Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo during the final panel called “Emerging Markets: Focus on Brazil.” Professor Brandão recounted how he came to found Vermelho in 2002 at the suggestion of one of his art students — and out of frustration at the slim chance of success even his most capable students faced upon graduation. Slowly and successfully he developed an undervalued target demographic of potential collectors aged 25 to 30, who speak the same language as Vermelho’s roster of artists, even if they are not versed in art history. Brandão also brought up a point of frustration with fellow panelist Ricardo Resende, Director of Centro Cultural São Paulo: the fact that museums and other public institutions take all the credit for showing young, emerging artists, while in fact their engagement actually starts and ends with the initial support of gallerists. Brandão pointed out that a commonly snobbish attitude by gallerists exists toward younger, seemingly unlikely collectors, which would have lost the professional football player that ended up to be one of Brandão’s main clients. However, it does still remain to be seen whether the pricing of new art is indeed approachable by young but not necessarily wealthy art lovers. Cultural elitism seems fairly nonexistent nowadays, but barriers built on wealth remain.

The director of Centro Cultural São Paulo was also questioned by Carlos Durán about his wish to build museums in all major Brazilian cities. Is Brazil certain that the Western model is the one to follow in order to promote sustainable development? This fundamental question was not even slightly examined, despite the clear struggle that Western museums and other institutions face.

For anyone who believes that long-term, truly successful entrepreneurship in the cultural realm, must be grounded in a community’s well-being; for anyone who does not aspire to become part of the elite that benefits from an underpaid and sometimes exploited cultural sector; and for anyone who suspects that past and ongoing financial struggles are signs of inherent failings, the hope is that an alternative and more sustainable system could be the focus of analysis and debate at the second edition of TALKING GALLERIES next year.

by Alessandra Olivari