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A New North

DISPATCHES FROM BEYOND THE 58°N PARALLEL

On Art Fairs & Privilege


IAN MCKAY

In the heart of Europe there is still an art fair to watch; though not for what it can tell us about developments in the middle European contemporary art market, but more about how its sponsors view their holdings there. Last year Viennacontemporary tried to reach out to the Nordic nations, but that was a move that may well have backfired.


In the international Art Market section of The Art Newspaper, today, Anny Shaw reports that ‘The Swiss-based MCH Group, which owns the Art Basel franchise, is once again expanding its global portfolio of art fairs with the launch of an event in Singapore next autumn.’ Around eighty galleries from Singapore, Southeast Asia, and beyond are expected to take part in the first ART SG fair which, it is said, will open at Marina Bay Sands in November 2019. As Shaw also reports, ‘there have been question marks over the Singapore art market,’ however, ‘with high rents and censorship cited as issues.’ Whatever the future holds for this new venture – yet another addition to the already bloated itinerary for dealers and collectors alike – make no mistake; international art fairs have far less to do with art and a great deal more to do with much wider geo-political issues, and cultural power grabbing.

For the reason of sheer laziness, really, I still remain on art fair mailing lists that deliver news to me that, at one time, would have caught my interest. Indeed, the recent glut of incoming emails from Art Basel (they've now finally ceased again) were a recent reminder that I do need to set up an auto-delete rule for anything mentioning "Art Basel", and so many other art fairs, or better still just unsubscribe as they arrive. The truth is that, since relocating to the Far North of Scotland, there is nothing further from my interest than the art market minutiae that one receives at these times, along with the fostering of art celebrity statuses and gallerist gossip that they often promote. I feel much more at home with art that is rooted in my immediate locale, or serves as an enquiry into our sense of place and its meaning, and Art Basel (or Art-anything-else) doesn't cut it any more. For me, the art fair gravy train hit the buffers some time ago.

  Art Basel  in Basel 2018, (Photo: © Art Basel)

Art Basel in Basel 2018, (Photo: © Art Basel)

There was a time, though, when I would venture forth with an intrepid sense of excitement, frequenting art fairs in central Europe and further south as though they were the axis around which my wider art interests functioned or operated. Maybe its an age thing, or I’ve just seen through the charade once too often, but had I been given a couple of free passes to Art Basel, I’d have probably flogged them on eBay months ago. That said, I do still follow some news of such ‘events’, largely because I’m curious about how long some have been getting away with it all; how long they can continue; and additionally, what lies beneath the glitter of the travelling circus. I've always been more interested in grit than glitter, and that has somethings do with my becoming disillusioned too, I think. 

Of art fairs of the past, I was already noting, back in 2007, that the continuing proliferation of art fairs had something more to do with a ‘geo-political phenomenon’, rather than cultural trends, and a good case in point here was what was then called ViennaFair, otherwise known as Austria’s premier outing for the contemporary art dealers and artists of Mittel Europa. At that time, the middle European art fair (which has since been rebranded as Viennacontemporary) claimed to put special emphasis on contemporary art from central, eastern, and south-eastern Europe; something that it continues to play up still, in fact, despite some significant resentment over the geo-political backstory to Austria’s hold over the wider market interests of the region generally.

  Messe Wien  The old venue, once home to Vienna Fair, which has now been re-branded and re-sited, but still seeks to hold its own as Europe's central and eastern European Art Fair (Photo: Ian McKay, 2007).

Messe Wien The old venue, once home to Vienna Fair, which has now been re-branded and re-sited, but still seeks to hold its own as Europe's central and eastern European Art Fair (Photo: Ian McKay, 2007).

As I wrote back in 2007, there was some debate about whether such a fair in Vienna (which used to occur in spring but has now been moved to the end of September) really served the interests of artists exhibiting from countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and elsewhere. That said, Viennacontemporary is still with us, though, and this year it will take place on September 27–30, ending on the anniversary of Mozart’s debut of The Magic Flute in that city in 1791.

Once again, however, I am hearing that there are artists from out east who are starting (again) to voice resentment over the geo-political dimension to Viennacontemporary. In a country that already controls much of the telecommunications, banking, and media industries in its neighboring countries, Austria has a dubious history that many eastern European artists relate back to the days of the Habsburg Empire and its dominance in the region. Unlike in 2007, when I first noticed such resentments brewing, there are now other routes to exposure across Europe, and Austria (not for the first time in its history) might just find that its role as gateway between east and west will eventually be superseded – an art fair loner at its very own ball.

  Viennacontemporary 2017 , in the year in which the fair sought to connect with Nordic nations.(Photo: Courtesy of Viennacontemporary. © A. Murashkin).

Viennacontemporary 2017, in the year in which the fair sought to connect with Nordic nations.(Photo: Courtesy of Viennacontemporary. © A. Murashkin).

Maybe that is why, last year, Viennacontemporary included a ‘special presentation’ titled Nordic Highlights, which broadened the fair’s international scope to include galleries from Finland, Denmark, and Sweden, thus highlighting the northern European art scene, and perhaps testing northern waters for any future growth in that direction. It didn't work, though. Having had a stab at the Scandinavian market in 2017, the newly announced exhibitors for Viennacontemporary 2018 seem to be once again the fallback nations of middle Europe and the Balkans (also known as Ersteland in recognition of the Erste Group’s financial dominance in middle Europe); nations that Austria always maintained an interest in, even as its empire shrank back in the decades leading up to the First World War.

 Erste Group's reach in 2018 (left) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it looked in 1910 (right). 

Erste Group's reach in 2018 (left) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it looked in 1910 (right). 

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Perhaps the highlighting of northern nations just did not pay off last year, for only one of the Nordic nation galleries will be returning in 2018 (the Cecilia Hillström Gallery, Stockholm) and dealers such as Mikael Andersen and Bo Bjerggaard (both in Denmark) and Taik Persons (Finland), have tuned their back on the fair this year. While we wait to see how ART SG develops in the already uncertain geo-political climate of the Far-East, it is worth bearing in mind that right in the heart of Europe there is still an art fair to watch; though not for what it can tell us about developments in the middle European contemporary art market, but more about how its sponsors view their holdings there. One thing is for sure: art, culture, and geo-political manoeuvres have always gone hand in hand, but when blue chip sponsors are involved, do not think for a minute that their interest lies with the art on the walls.

It maybe won't surprise you if I say that Viennacontemporary's main partner is the Erste Group (founded in 1819 as the first Austrian savings bank, it went public in 1997, with a strategy to 'expand its retail business into Central and Eastern Europe'). Since then, Erste Group has grown through numerous acquisitions to become one of the largest financial services providers in the Eastern part of the EU and beyond, both in terms of clients and total assets. Other Viennacontemporary partners include the RDI Group, which claims to develop a dialogue between business and culture, employing ‘cross-generation and cross-disciplinary entities’, and another big player is BDO, an international network of public accounting, tax and advisory firms that have representation in 154 territories, with 64,300 people working out of over 1,400 offices worldwide.

  Extreme poverty co-existing with extreme wealth in North Belgrade, Serbia : Ethnic Albanians and Roma women in front of one of Erste Group Immorent's real estate acquisitions – Erste Group Immorent specialises in real estate financing and project development in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and a subsidiary of  Erste Group Bank AG . (Photo: Ian McKay)

Extreme poverty co-existing with extreme wealth in North Belgrade, Serbia: Ethnic Albanians and Roma women in front of one of Erste Group Immorent's real estate acquisitions – Erste Group Immorent specialises in real estate financing and project development in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and a subsidiary of Erste Group Bank AG. (Photo: Ian McKay)

In the Balkans I have seen the extent of the Erste Group's reach, but it does not look pretty. The sight of ethnic Albanians and Roma women trading rags and broken toys for a snifter of vodka or a pack of cheap cigarettes in front of one of many real estate acquisitions by EG Immorent (Erste Group's real estate acquisitions arm) was enough to bring home to me the fact that extreme wealth and extreme poverty can and do co-exist in ways that I personally find sickening. Call me simplistic, if you like, but any attempt to cleanse the profile of a financial institution via an association with high culture and contemporary art isn't just in bad taste, it seems morally bankrupt. Financial institutions may bring wealth to a nation on its knees, but with that privilege comes a responsibility to see that that wealth is shared fairly, which it rarely is – and maybe that's something to consider, if ever you venture forth to the fair.