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The ever more successful international ARCO

Solid sales in the first days

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For Leo Castelli, “ARCO simply is not just an art fair”. This is true, as ARCO (from 13 to 18 last month) has generous state patronage, and the advantage of being structured as a foundation. Despite the current world-wide recession, ARCO is still in a position to invite a large number of foreign galleries, curators and critics to Madrid. The activities surrounding ARCO extend well beyond those of other fairs, and include academic seminars on art theory and ARCO Video, a kind of alternative space for video related media. Though obviously commercial, ARCO seeks to affirm the position and relevance of contemporary art in Spain by establishing a presence for the most important trends in today’s art. The ARCO Foundation also has a corporate collection, curated by Edy de Wilde, with an annual acquisition budget of Pta 22 million (£121,000; $219,000). ArcoData is a database of modern and contemporary art which has been used to produce the two-volume Encyclopaedia of Twentieth-Century Spanish Art, edited by Francisco Calve Serraller, art critic for El Pais, Spain’s leading newspaper. Soon this project is to be extended to produce a database of contemporary Latin American art.

In short, ARCO exists as a state sponsored commercial and cultural initiative, designed to bring contemporary art to Spain and put it on the agenda of the international art world. The fair is housed in a new location at the Juan Carlos I Exhibition Centre located between Madrid and the airport. The location leaves something to be desired in its distance from the city centre; however, the new site offers a greatly expanded floor space, which has generally improved the quality of the display, and has added a greater capacity for the large number of visitors.

One of the special features of ARCO is its popularity with young people. For international galleries this makes the fair a special event. Leo Castelli participated for the second time. He feels that bringing the gallery artists to Madrid is as important as sales, and in any case is involved in Spain with exhibitions.

Last year many American and international galleries stayed away because of the Gulf War, so this year has been something of a watershed as the fair enters a period of maturity. Floor space is not cheap (Pta 16,500 per square metre) so the presence of ten important American galleries, including Grace Borgenicht, Leo Castelli, Curt Marcus, Marlborough, Thomas Segal and John Weber, indicated a measure of optimism. Most have seen recession before and were more interested in exhibiting than dwelling on a gloomy prognosis. ARCO was doing well right from the outset, with slow but steady sales, and solid indications that a more serious attitude towards art has emerged. But despite the presence of important European galleries, such as Isy Brachot, Hans Mayer, Lisson and Bruno Bischofberger, the general feel of ARCO this year was less international, with a strong southern European presence from Spain, Portugal, France and Italy. The tendency was to the young and contemporary, with the blue-chip older artists—more prevalent in past years—less evident. While this to some extent lowered the overall quality, it was welcome as an indicator of the state of contemporary art. Painting and sculpture were prevalent, but clearly room for experiment still existed for the best of the Spanish galleries. The new gallery Angels de la Mota represented some of the most cutting edge of Barcelona art, with a group installation entitled “Les Quatre Cent Clous”. Fernando Alcolea presented collaborative photographs by Marc Viaplana and Mabel Palacín, which are printed on large plastic sheets and floated in space. And Carles Taché displayed a new sculpture-book, by the always challenging sculptor Jaume Plensa. Impressive and large-scale works benefit from the art fair context and more subtle and smaller scale works suffer inevitably, as in the case of the collages of Angel Bofarull or the delicate abstractions of Ramon Herreros at Alejandro Sales.

The quality of the contemporary art exhibited at ARCO is achieved through both a Spanish and an International selection committee. In general this is a good thing, but in practice there are problems. The committee is so large as to make clear-cut decisions near impossible, with twenty-one galleries represented, ten of which are Spanish, three from the United States and two from Italy. Argentina, Belgium, Great Britain, Japan, Germany and Switzerland each have one representative. The weight is obviously in favour of Spanish galleries, who, along with Latin American galleries, make up the majority of exhibitors, with over eighty Spanish-based galleries participating.

The organisation of the fair seems divided between the twin aims of promoting Spanish art and international art; therefore, the criteria for selection is highly politicised. This is the downside of the political sponsorship of the arts in Spain, which seeks to invite galleries as token representatives of nations rather than on the basis of the quality of the art. For John Weber, currently on the organising committee, this is indicative of a uniquely Spanish problem, which might be summed up as the belief that there is a tangible and irreducible Spanish Art. “But”, he asks, “what is Spanish Art? There is no such thing. Art is international. It is not about making a statement about a nationality.” There are, nevertheless, signs of change apparent in the critical responses of magazines such as Lapiz and Balcon, which recognise that the problem is not one of enthusiasm and support but of building a truly critical and thoughtful audience. For Weber it is a question of ideas rather than of marketing.

More optimistic signs of Madrid entering the mainstream of European cultural life are indicated by the galleries such as Marlborough and Grace Borgenicht which represent Spanish artists abroad. Perhaps even more significantly, a number of galleries have decided, as a direct result of ARCO, to open spaces in Madrid. This is in anticipation of the liberalisation of the European economy next year, but also because of a feeling that contemporary art is valued here. Marlborough has already been operating in Madrid for three years, and shortly will open a gallery, with an inaugural exhibition of the work of Francis Bacon. John Weber has opened a spectacular space in collaboration with the Spanish gallery la Maquina Española and the Alexander Gallery, a space which Case Vogue has recently described “as perhaps the most beautiful gallery in the world”. Putting criticism aside, John Weber commented, “I am surprisingly optimistic about ARCO because we have made some good concrete sales, and it is only the first day”. And for David Juda, of Annely Juda, London, the strength of ARCO resides in the popular support it receives, a support which simply does not exist in London and which, he thinks, accounts for the recent demise of the Art London fair.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Strategies for art fairs East and West'

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