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Interview with Katelijne De Backer, director of the Armory Show in New York

Katelijne De Backer

AfN: This is the 7th time you organise the Armory Show. In numerology, the seven is a special number. In the Bible, there is a saying about the seven good and seven bad years. If you look back and forth, what do you think: are the good years still to come?

De Backer: In the past seven years, I have seen the fair grow in attendance, sale figures, importance, and I think we will just continue that trend.

AfN: So this old Bible saying doesn't mean anything to you? It is just an approach tendency?

De Backer: I think so. Yes.

AfN: In a recent article, the New York Times regretted the absence of Colin de Land, one of the founder of the Armory Show. They said that a certain consciousness - they labelled it "underground" - went with him. Reading that, I immediately thought of the music business that you are familiar with. You worked for MTV Europe and did some quite famous alternative shows. By the way, are they still on?

De Backer: "Alternative nation" is still on. "120 minutes" - I don't think that it's still on.

AfN: How this market, the music business, developed and concentrated during the last decades, do you see similar trends like the loss of underground in favour of a highly professional management for the contemporary art market?

De Backer: Well, first of all, I think at the end of the article in the New York Times, it is also said that Colin de Land would approve. Colin was the one who hired me, and with the Gramercy, there was some kind of bohemian, alternative style, but he was the force of making that in a more professional, organised way, and that's why he hired me. So that's what I did. And I think that spirit is still here.

AfN: So the old Rock'n'Roll-spirit is still there...

De Backer: ...but maybe in a more organised way.

AfN: When we go back to the music business, there is a high concentration in this market. Do you see that in the art market as well? I mean I looked at some figures and noticed that 50 % of the galleries attending this fair have been at the Frieze or in Basel or Miami or at all three of these fairs.

De Backer: Last year after the fair, we sat together with our selection comittee, and they said: "You know with all these art fairs, we always see the same galleries. So let's stir things up, and let's accept more new galleries." In previous years, we had about 20 % new galleries; this year, we have 25 %. So when they had two galleries that they considered equally strong, they preferably picked the new one, and I think that's also in the spirit of Colin de Land. He would have done the same.

AfN: Alright, that's interesting! But to come back to the question: You don't think that it's a loss for the art world - I mean concentration, management skills, etc.?

De Backer: When something grows - and that's the same for the music industry - you just try to become a little bit more professional, but at the same time, to keep the spirit of the original idea. That's what we are trying to do when we are having an artist doing all the art for the fair each year. This year, it is Pipilotti Rist. We could just go with a standard logo, and just have a designer work on the Armory Show. No, each year, we reinvent our logo, and we work together with the artist.

AfN: So the underground spirit is still there, and professionalism is just for organisational purposes.

De Backer: Yes, because people also wanted to be easier although Gramercy had its charm. All these people in one elevator, and the elevator breaks down, that's fun. But if you do that again and again to people, they will say "No, we want it smooth", and it needs to be organised.

AfN: We now come to another quotation in an interview with the magazine ARTE AL DIA. You have been asked about your personal taste in art, and you have refused to answer because of your profession. On the one hand, you do not stop to mention the buzz-word "quality". Can you tell us the difference between "personal taste" and "quality in art"?

De Backer: That's a difficult question. When I don't want to talk about my personal preferences, it's because I don't think that it would be very appropriate in my position. If I said "this is my favourite painting", then another gallery would ask "why didn't you pick a painting from our selection?". Galleries are still my clients, so I can't do that.

AfN: On the one hand, you have a personal view on things, and you don't want to disturb the professional atmosphere at the fair, but on the other hand, you say that the Armory Show is a fair where you see high-quality art, the highest quality...

De Backer: Yes, well, first of all, I am not an art critic. So I am not going to give an opinion; I just completely go by personal taste. I leave the quality issue to our selection comittee. They do the selection of the galleries, and they look at what is quality. We all know that art is something very subjective, but I think that our selection comittee is qualified enough to make that judgement.

AfN: Ok, the judgement comes from qualified persons who have a long history of experience, and they have seen a lot of things. So it's the viewing experience and the market experience of the professionals - that's what you mean when you talk about quality.

De Backer: Yes, that's correct.

AfN: So the meaning of quality is also the excellence of an object, and therefore this object has a certain value to some persons. If you - for instance - imagined a fire fighter or some other state employee who wants to spend all his savings from his lifelong work in the Armory Show, for contemporary art, and if you got to know this, would you stop him?

De Backer: If he had the choice to buy an SUV or a work of art, I would encourage him to buy the work of art.

AfN: Ok, but if he otherwise needs the money, would it be a good investment?

De Backer: That's up to him. I'm not going to make a decision for him on how he has to spend his money. If he had decided to spend that amount of money, I would say yes. If you want to spend it on something, then rather come here than buy a SUV or a yacht or a holiday trip to the Bahamas... Now I'm going to have the tourist board of the Bahamas against me...

AfN: [laughs] No, I'm sure that they like art, too... The name of the fair "the Armory Show" refers to the international exhibition of modern art that opened in New York City's 69th regiment Armory on February 17 in 1913, almost 100 years ago. About the show, President Theodore Roosevelt said "That's not art!", and I think he meant the nudist descending the staircase by Duchamp, and nowadays, Mayor Michael Bloomberg opens this show and points out the numbers serving this city, produced by the Armory Show. What would you say, why is there such a great acceptance of contemporary art?

De Backer: I don't know why, but I think it's a great thing. Yesterday, we had queues like three, four blocks outside. We can really be happy that so many people are interested in contemporary art or in art in general. It's very positive that creativity is applauded by the public.

AfN: Yes, but it was so different before, like in the 60s or so. We don't have scandals anymore.

De Backer: People are still trying, I think. But I don't think that there is a work here that people will consider as a scandal.

AfN: Because creativity is appreciated, like you said.

De Backer: Yes, that's what it is. And it's a good thing.

AfN: This acceptance leads us to another point: the market and the competition. In the primary art market, the gallery market, the art fairs established in the last 30 years a new and very powerful platform to distribute art. Due to the globalisation, we now face a new type of vendor: the art fair. We could extract three major strategies of gaining sustainable succes for art fairs: Strategy A) is the city marketing which means playing out the card of the location - to name Basel, London, Berlin; with their piggyback fairs and those sort of things; and B) the range of articles on sale which means offering related collectibles around the contemporary art - to name TEFAF in Maastricht where you can buy armory, modern art, old art, diamonds, so any kind of collectibles -; or C) both - to name FIAC in Paris and Art Basel in Miami where they show contemporary art, design and modern art. So when you look at these three strategies, which one do you prefer?

De Backer: What we have is New York City. It's a combination of the three, I think. New York City is still the Capital of art: We have the best art institutions, many collectors who live here, 500 or even more galleries are here, artists live here... What we try to do with the fair is just to bring them all together and work together with them. So when a collector decides to come to the Armory Show, it's not just coming to the fair, looking at the art, it's also seeing all the other components that make the fair what it is. So the city does play a big role, but the other components as well.

AfN: But when I look at the other fairs, you coordinate the opening with the RDA, the Art Show...

De Backer: I think it's good as long as the other fairs exist for a certain reason, that they have their own niche. I love DIVA because it's digital and video art, so it's not just "let's do another fair and accept all the galleries that were not accepted in the Armory Show". But for example, the LA-Art Fair is a good idea, because again they offer something extra for the people who come to town or who live here.

AfN: I heard that all in all, there are 300 openings here, and we have around 350 or 400 galleries in all the fairs. It can compete with Miami where there are around 700 galleries.

De Backer: But the thing is that we don't have to bring anything to New York City. It's all already here, the galleries, the collectors who live here are here... So we just have to pick up the phone, call them and make sure that we are in sync, that they do something during this week; and that's all we have to do. We don't have to "fabricate" something, it's here. And I think we only scratch the surface, there is even more that we can work with...

AfN: So besides all these tough questions, we see hundreds of people queuing. That's a great achievement. With your work you catapulted the Armory Show right next the other world-famous fairs, even by reducing the number of galleries. "Less is more" is a great motto in architecture, design, art and music. So what are your plans for 2008?

De Backer: 2008 is going to be our 10th anniversary as the Armory Show and our 15th anniversary if you add the Gramercy with it. That's the big thing. I don't know yet what we are going to do but it will be something special.

AfN: I can't wait. So we'll see again next year! Katelijne De Backer, thank you for the interview.

Interview: Marek Claassen

This Interview can also be viewed as a viedo on

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