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Interview with Samuel Keller: Quality, not quantity at Art Basel 2000

The new director of the Swiss fair reveals his plans for its future

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Art Basel director Sam Keller Photo by Neil Rasmus/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Art Basel director Sam Keller Photo by Neil Rasmus/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Samuel Keller joined the Basel art fair in 1992 as its publicity manager. Since the beginning of this year he has been the fair’s new director. Aged thirty-four, he studied philosophy, art history and economics at the University of Basel. On the eve of the 31st edition of Art Basel he talked to The Art Newspaper.

The Art Newspaper: You took up your post as director of the Basel contemporary art fair on 1 January. What are your priorities for the show this year?

Samuel Keller: My absolute number one priority is that Art Basel should remain the principal international art fair. In order to achieve this we have to make the most of the platform that we already have, in terms of communication as well as exhibition and sales. We have to make it possible for the dealers, collectors, artists, curators and critics to meet and to socialise. The second most important priority is to improve the services we offer. Our services for collectors (VIP accommodation, complimentary cars, receptions etc) are already beginning to be copied elsewhere. We also have to create new services for dealers and artists. We are going to put the catalogue on the internet this year, organise more guided tours of the fair and meetings with artists.

How do you explain the undoubted success of this fair compared with its competitors?

I would say in English, “We try harder”. The real answer is a mixture of things, but we have always been innovators. If you are successful, you do not stop trying and put your feet up—the reverse. We try and improve services year by year, to examine what artists are doing in the art market and to take it into account for the fair. We are not afraid of change, of new ideas or of risk. We collaborate extremely closely with the market. We have very good relations with dealers all over the world. We visit them; we ask them what they need; we value their experience and we look seriously at what they propose. We are not arrogant and we try and adapt to their wishes. We also have links with a lot of collectors. Our strength is also our independence. The Basel Messe has confidence in us and so do the dealers. People follow our activities closely and are willing to invest. Basically, we have a good product; it includes both Modern and contemporary art. We have been able to turn the fact that we are in a small town to our advantage. There are not all that many galleries or collectors locally to provide adequate nourishment for the fair—as there are in Cologne, for example. Art Basel can only survive if it looks outwards and is international; it has been the same for the past 30 years.

The new “Art Unlimited” section has no stands and is presented as an exhibition. Are you not confusing the categories here?

We wanted to create a different kind of environment, an exhibition-sale.

Art Basel offers collectors, artists and dealers two systems: a fair, which we know is very successful, and is based on stands.

Alongside there is a second system, which combines the best features of both fair and exhibition. The two sides do not present the same kind of artistic form. We want to show a maximum amount of contemporary art and we cannot do this in the “fair” mode: the stands are not big enough, the space is too expensive, the work sometimes makes a noise, they make difficult bedfellows.

The video forum and the sculpture section have provided us with the experience that we are relying on today.

We realised very quickly that with sculpture the system of stands does not work. There must be a specific infrastructure and people with different areas of knowledge. In this section we have been working with conservators and art historians, but the committee has continued to make the selection, with the aid of these others; they prepare the dossiers and give advice. We are not dogmatic. We simply want to give collectors the best deal possible.

Now we are lucky enough to have a new hall, and fortunate also that the Messe and the UBS are willing to invest in a project that includes a lot of contemporary art. They believed in this project because it is going to publicise the Basel fair over and above other events. Expenses here are not covered by the galleries, who only pay FFr20,000 ($2,900) each; this means that they can invest in the production of objects which, because of financial constraints, have never appeared at a fair before. Our ambition is to show the best, and opportunities to see the best are limited because the objects are often too large or too complicated to be shown in galleries; even some of the museums do not take much notice of them.

With “Art Unlimited”, will Basel not begin to compete with the art biennales, such as Venice or Lyon, at which sales also take place?

Basel and Venice are not rivals. In fact we are friends. We help each other, we work together, we co-ordinate our dates. We believe that it is important to have good biennales; it is true that there is some competition nowadays to get the best work. This kind of competition is very positive for the artists. They can choose between two excellent platforms and collectors can sometimes see several works by each artist. Although there are about 20 biennials now, worldwide, we always get more applications for space than we can provide in Basel, which proves that there is strong demand for this kind of platform.

Art Basel is limited to 271 exhibitors. Is that not too few when you have 800 applications?

In order to create “Art Unlimited” we integrate two sectors: video forum and the sculpture sector. We have not enlarged the space very significantly. It is true that we reject three times as many galleries as we accept, but that is because we do not want to grow any larger. We are already the largest art fair in the world. In business terms, to include more galleries would involve increasing our income, but we are ready to reject an increase in revenue in favour of quality. We create this fair for collectors. If the event is too big, visitors will complain of not having seen everything and the galleries will run the risk of not seeing their clients. We think that we have already chosen the best galleries, and there are very few good artists who are not represented here. We want to raise the quality, but not the space nor the number of participants.

If the event is too big, visitors will complain of not having seen everything and the galleries will run the risk of not seeing their clients

The Basel fair is often regarded as the only international fair. Yet it still includes stands for local galleries which are not always of the same standard. Is there not a contradiction in this?

The Basel fair presents the least number of dealers from its own town than any other, but our eight stands are essential to maintain our links with the city and with the other participants who benefit from them. These galleries bring in visitors without affecting the overall quality of the fair. We are absolutely strict on this principle. The town lives by the fair and also from these galleries.

The section for young artists, “Statements”, contained no work by a French artist last year. This year no French gallery is represented, whereas there are five US galleries, seven Germans and three Austrian. Does this mean that the French are not up to scratch?

There are some excellent young French artists. In the early years the French were very well represented in “Statements”—with Pierre Huyghe, Pierrick Sorin, Jean-Luc Mylaine, Gilles Barbier and many others. The French galleries today are less demanding than their German, British, American or Japanese counterparts. I think that they are not fully aware of the sector’s potential.

But even when the artists are interesting the committee has noted that some of the portfolios are not very well prepared. Some of the French galleries make enormous efforts to present good stands at Basel, but there are others which are unprofessional, and too inexperienced to present a programme at international level. The committee also chooses projects which need this space, and excludes a straightforward hang—photographs, for example—which can be shown on any stand.

Some people felt that the List [Liste], the fair for young artists, would only be temporary, particularly since Art Basel took over some of the exhibitors. This year is its fifth anniversary. What is the relationship between the two fairs?

Our relationship is excellent. If the List [Liste] did not exist, it would have to be invented because it is complementary to Art Basel. It gives young galleries the opportunity to participate and their selection is invariably good. This fair occupies a different level, however; it has different atmosphere and takes place in the evening. Peter Blauer, the director, and I are on very good terms and we also do things here in Basel together.

A lot of foreigners regard Basel as a peaceful little town where nothing much happens and which just wakes up for Art Basel. Last year, “Art Zappening” was organised for the first time. Is the fair the source for this kind of event?

Yes, the fair is the mainspring, but it is assisted by the town and the cultural institutions. A few years ago very few receptions were organised; we had to fight hard to hold any good exhibitions and to keep the museums open. There is a new generation now in the town and in the museums, and they understand that the fair is a golden opportunity for Basel.

This year all the exhibitions spaces are holding receptions and 20 cultural institutions are going to take part in “Art Zappening”. The museums will stay open until two in the morning. Guests of the fair will be able to see what Basel has to offer.

In addition, this creates valuable links between the various institutions; the network thus created makes it possible to organise bilateral events throughout the year. I am very proud that the fair can be of assistance in the development of such projects.

Concurrent exhibitions in Basel

  • A retrospective of Belgian artist Panamarenko, previously shown at the Hayward Gallery in London, is at the Jean Tinguely Museum, Grenzacherstrasse Solitude Park, 4002, Basel, until 15 October
  • The architect Luis Barragan (1902-88) is the subject of a retrospective at the Vitra Design Museum, Charles Eames Strasse 1, D-79576, Weil am Rhein, until 29 October. Previously unpublished documents from the Barragan Foundation offer a new perspective on the life and work of the Mexican architect known for his use of colour
  • Photographs of Barragan’s buildings by René Burri are on display at the Basel Museum of Architecture, Pluggasslein 3, 4001, Basel, until 29 October
  • The Kunstmuseum is presenting an exhibition of sculptures by American artist Cy Twombly. Famous for his paintings inscribed with gestural writing, Twombly’s sculptures, which have a poetic intensity inspired by Surrealism, are less well known. Kunstmuseum, St Alban-Graben 16, 4010 Basel, until 15 October

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "Quality, not quantity"

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