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Interview with Art Basel’s new co-directors Marc Spiegler and Annette Schönholzer on keeping it business as usual

The pair plan to expand the Miami edition, but not much else will change

This year’s Art Basel is the first to be co-directed by Marc Spiegler, a former journalist, and Annette Schönholzer, who was Art Basel’s show and production manager. The duo replaces Sam Keller, now head of the Fondation Beyeler, who directed the fair from 2000 and launched Art Basel Miami Beach.

However, until five weeks ago, Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, a former editor of Parkett, was to be the fair’s artistic director with Mr Spiegler and Ms Schönholzer reporting to her. No-one was willing to comment on her sudden resignation, but René Kamm, chief executive of Messe Schweiz (owners of Art Basel), has emphatically denied rumours that a new person would be appointed to replace Ms Rabinowitz. Four weeks ago, it was also announced that Peter Vetsch, the fair’s head of communications, is to leave in December this year. He will join another former Art Basel employee, Eva-Marie Häusler, as co-director of the Art Forum Berlin fair in 2009.

The Art Newspaper: Now there are two instead of three directors of Art Basel. What is the new split of responsibilities?

Annette Schönholzer: The roles haven’t really changed tremendously: it is just that the tasks are spread across two people rather than three. I tend to think of myself as behind-the-scenes, although under the circumstances I will be more visible than before. Marc has a strong network of collectors and galleries, and will continue to nurture those relationships. Basically, the small things we decide individually and bigger things together.

TAN: Cay Sophie was going to lead as the fair’s artistic director. Who will be doing that now?

Marc Spiegler: One of the things Cay Sophie was doing was working with the [selection] committees, which I will now be doing, and she was also going to work on various curatorial programmes. Basically, we just took Cay Sophie’s role and split it between us in a logical way.

TAN: I’m sure there is a lot of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but where might we see changes to Art Basel?

AS: We’ve brought the Art Basel Conversations right into the middle of the art, which is a statement. In former years it was hidden somewhere in a room, across the road or inside the building. Now we are saying that conversations about art and the art world should take place where the work is.

TAN: It sounds very much like keeping on, keeping on.

MS: Yes and no. Both Annette and I have a very strong sense of the tradition of Art Basel, in terms of the balance of modern and contemporary fields, and in terms of having something that is not just an art fair but also a cultural event.

AS: I think it is more about fine-tuning than trying to pretend that we have a completely new recipe. And we can really react to each fair’s successes or failures by adapting the other one very quickly.

TAN: We gather that there are plans to increase the size of the fair in Miami in 2009?

AS and MS: Yes and no [in unison].

AS: We have a very tight space in the convention centre, and we’ve built out every single square foot we could lay our hands on.

At the moment we use three halls, with the show in two and with the third for storage. So we are going to expand by taking up a fourth hall. There have been complaints that the space is too tight. It has taken us about four years to lay our hands on this space, because the convention centre’s halls are booked so far ahead of time.

MS: But it is far too early to say what the implications of [the expansion] are, because we are talking December 2009. The one rumour that we can put to rest is that we are going to double the number of galleries by going to four halls, but that is not at all the thinking.

TAN: So you are talking only about offering galleries extra stand space?

MS: It is far too early to say.

TAN: We know you have been travelling a lot in China. Will Art Basel be expanding further?

MS: That is a question we are asked a lot, not just in relation to Asia but to other places.

TAN: Los Angeles is often mentioned.

MS: That LA rumour pops up every few years. For us, the big issue is not so much geography but the supply of great art. If you are starting a completely new fair, you have the luxury of doing something that is only OK, which you can then increase in quality. By contrast, anything Art Basel does, whether in Miami or Basel, is held to a certain level by the art world. To do a show in a third city, regardless of where it is, we would have to believe that there is enough great art out there to create three premier shows.

We much prefer to do what we’ve been doing for the past ten years: building networks in places where we feel there is an interesting art scene arising. That can mean taking our selection committee to China, or appointing a VIP-relations officer for India. Or it can be as simple as a member of our team going to Moscow or Abu Dhabi and trying to visit as many galleries as possible.

AS: Art Basel doesn’t have a history of short-lived activities or experiments. We are in our projects for the long term. It took four to five years to launch [Art Basel Miami Beach], which is the time needed to raise the local support and have the right network to even get started.

TAN: There are fears everywhere of a recession in Europe and the US. How do you feel about a downturn that may be coming?

MS: It is very hard to generalise because the art market has many sub-markets, defined by the era of the work, the medium, the country of origin, the gallery and even by the artist. Art Basel has focused on working with the galleries who work with the best artists, who in turn work with the most serious collectors and the most serious museums.

AS: And part of what our staff does is to help them build that foundation, to host whomever they want to come to the fair; it is a joint collaboration.

MS: Most recent signs from the art market, both anecdotally and in terms of what we are seeing at auction, is that high quality work still finds a very strong market. So Art Basel’s focus remains on creating an event to which galleries feel it is worth bringing the best work possible.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper Art Basel Daily as 'Two’s company: Art Basel’s new co-directors say it’s business as usual'

Appeared in Art Basel in Basel, June 2008