Art fairs

Art Forum struggles again, the German capital proves itself still too isolated with too few collectors

Despite support from public institutions and a glittering collectors programme Art Forum needs a loyal and affluent clientele

The Berlin fair has tried to rival Cologne since its inception, not very successfully so far. This year’s event may prove to be another setback. With 160 galleries from twenty-two countries and only 16,000 visitors, Art Forum may have a hard time before it can compare itself to Art Cologne, which boasts 260 galleries, a wider coverage of modern and contemporary artists, 70,000 visitors from the wealthy region of the Rhine, where most of German collectors are based (the other rich region is south Germany, the states of Bavaria and Baden-Württenberg).

Berlin seems to demonstrate the limits of a Protestant culture, more sensitive to music and the written word. “And, in this world where we all speak of globalisation, Berlin is still an island,” noted the best known collectors based in former East-Berlin, Erika and Rolf Hoffmann. “There is not even one direct flight to New York; transport infrastructure is still a problem.”

Ulrich Gebauer, owner of Galerie Gebauer, present at the last Art Forum, agrees: “It was for me personally a good fair; I have sold nearly everything. But I would have works by these artists anyway on the international market. This year, after four years of absence, I’m going back to Cologne, I have to concentrate on the Rheinland, on the big collectors. Berlin is fine for young artists and for collectors in the small to mid-range, who buy up to DM60,000 (£20,000; $32,000), but this is pretty much it. The Berlin market remains weak, very weak. My estimate is that 70% of the buyers at the fair are not from Berlin.” This may explain why Sotheby’s, who opened an office in Berlin in 1990, decided to leave the city earlier this year.

However, public institutions did their bit to support the fair this year (30 September-4 October). The Berlin Senate, with help of the German Lottery Foundation, bought works for the Hamburger Bahnhof, the contemporary art museum that opened at the same time as the first Art Forum three years ago. One of these purchases was a large photo by Andreas Gursky, “The Stockholm library”, from Zurich-based Galerie Mai 36 for DM70,000 (£23,000; $38,000). A State commission by the cultural minister Michael Neumann (who, in an unprecedented move, took the honorary presidency of the fair) spent an estimated DM250,000 (£82,000 ; $134,000) on works by artists including Carsten Hoeller, Carsten Nicolai, Herrman Pitz, Karin Sander, Sausanne Weirich and Fritz Balthaus.

One hundred collectors, many featured in the “Top 200” list published by the magazine ArtNews, were invited for a three-day programme during the first two days of the fair. This was paid for by Bankgesellschaft Berlin, the main sponsor of the fair, and the collectors are estimated to have spent some $2 million on works by Ernesto Neto, Raymond Pettibon, Donald Judd, Mike Kelley, Kiki Smith, Angus Fairhurst, Sylvie Fleury, Elizabeth Peyton and Monica Bonvicini, Pipilotti Rist, among others. But many exhibitors felt the absence of collectors among the visitors, once the invited foreign guests left. “The first two days were good,” says Marco Noire from Turin, Italy who came to Berlin with works by Shirin Neshat and Andres Serrano. “But that was it. We could have gone home right after, since we didn’t sell any more. It has been very disappointing; Berlin seems to be a problem more than a commercial opportunity.”

After unsuccessfully exploring a link to Eastern Europe in the past years, the Berlin fair now seems to look north (seventeen galleries from Scandinavia) and west (twenty-one galleries from the US). Nineteen were young galleries, the youngest being that of Leo Koenig, (the twenty-two-year-old son of the famous curator Kaspar Koenig) with his gallery from Brooklyn, New York. As for the works of art, there was a clear trend back to paintings, a strong supply of photography and a reduced number of sculptures, video and installations. Approximately 80% of the works on sale were less than three years old. A very young fair indeed.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘The German capital still too isolated with too few collectors'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 97 November 1999