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ARCO, Madrid: Big crowds, but few buyers

A Frida Kahlo—not for sale—pulled in 180,000 viewers

This year’s ARCO started inauspiciously: a Basque-separatist car bomb parked directly on the path from the subway to the Madrid fair grounds exploded on the morning of the fair’s opening, injuring 43 people. Though the vernissage that evening was hardly deserted, tightened security caused intense traffic jams and reduced attendance during the fair tour by King Don Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia.

Accompanying the monarchs was Vicente Fox, president of Mexico, this year’s guest country at Arco. Along with a special section reserved for 17 galleries from Mexico, the country’s spotlight status also helped bring to ARCO Frida Kahlo’s historic 1939 painting Las dos Fridas (1939), not for sale, but as a loan from the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. The large piece drew swarming crowds in a fair whose attendance—180,000 in 2005—easily makes it the most-mobbed contemporary art fair on earth.

Then again, only a miniscule percentage are buyers. “I met a lot of curators who came for the panel discussions, people you might not see at Frieze or the Armory, but three days passed before anyone asked the price of our Haluk Akakçe pieces”, says Rebeca Blanchard of Barcelona’s Nogueras Blanchard gallery, which participated in one of the fair’s more innovative components—the Black Box, a two-story metal warren of small rooms for showing video. Although certainly a noble effort to include the notoriously hard-to-sell artform in a fair, the construction was hardly commerce-friendly. That said, London’s MW Projects had major interest in copies of Julian Rosefeldt’s Asylum, a nine-projector video installation, priced at e150,000 in an edition of five.

Dealer Joel Beck of New York’s Roebling Hall took the slow business in stride, explaining, “The standard wisdom is that Arco is a great place to make connections, rather than sales”. That is especially true when trying to sell foreign artists, says Zurich dealer Victor Gisler of Galerie Mai 36: “We had great success with [Swiss painter] Pia Fries because she shows here with Distrito Cu4tro. But even for my artists with great international reputations, like Thomas Ruff, John Baldessari and Jörg Sasse, it’s not easy to sell here unless the local collectors have seen exhibits in Spain”.

As for international buyers, the consensus among a random sample of dealers was that, with the exception of the expected Mexican collectors, only Germany was well-represented (possibly because so many of that country’s wealthy winter in Spain). Yet those international collectors who did make the trip described happy hunting grounds. “Because many of the Spanish don’t buy international work, there’s not so much competition”, explains major Belgian collector Mimi Dusselier. “In the past I bought Mike Kelley and Maurizio Cattelan here, even though they were impossible to get in New York a few weeks later at the Armory.”

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 156 March 2005