Fine Art Fair Frankfurt: Interview with Michale Neff
AfN: This is an Artfacts.Network and Vernissage TV interview with Michael Neff, founder of the Michael Neff Galerie in Frankfurt and the director of the fine art fair in Frankfurt, Germany. Hello Mr. Neff.
AfN: Mr. Neff, do you consider yourself primarily as a dealer, curator or manager?
Neff: All three of them.
AfN: But if you had to arrange these roles in a hierarchy?
Neff: It would be: dealer, manager, then curator.
AfN: Frankfurt is not seen as an art hotspot. Why did you locate your gallery here in Frankfurt?
Neff: I was working for different galleries and different corporate collections in Frankfurt, that's why I stayed with my gallery, with the whole management and the whole business in Frankfurt. It was easier for me.
AfN: Are you originally from Frankfurt?
Neff: No, I'm from Heidelberg. [....] I came here because Martin Kippenberger sent me to Frankfurt and told me to work at Bärbel Grässlin's gallery in Frankfurt if I was interested in getting involved in his work. This is how everything started, in '92.
AfN: You run an international, very successful gallery which shows at the most important fairs like ARCO, Art Basel and Frieze Art Fair. How did it come that you become a fair director by yourself?
Neff: The fair management called me two years ago, unexpectedly, saying: "Hey, what would you do if you led an art fair?" They asked weird, but very general questions, and after three sentences I said: "Ok, if this was about Frankfurt, I would prefer to close the fair down these days." And they replied: "That's interesting. Why?" - "Because of the bad situation, because of the fair's bad level..." and that's how the conversation started.
AfN: Do you have any clue why they called you? Did they call other persons as well?
Neff: No, they called me because they had received a tip from someone else. They were asking this man for help, and he said: "If you really need a radical and hard help, you have to call Michael Neff."
AfN: So they have been aware of the fact that you are radical when they called you, and they were already open-minded.
Neff: Yes, they were open-minded and hopefully a little bit afraid. And last year, they were not really shocked, but really surprised, and this year, they are very very happy. That's what I have promised them.
AfN: You have chosen a new name for the fair: "quality street". This branding reminded me immediatly of these wonderful sweeties from Macintosh in this metal tin. As far as I know there are numerous associations. What was yours?
Neff: It's not the fair's name; it's a title for this show. Last year, it had a different title, and next year, it will again have a different title. I wanted to have a branding, like a product name, and this is a temporary product name for a show of an art fair. Next year, it's another name; it's going to be a song title.
AfN: In business we call an outstanding product a "killer application" or a "unique selling proposition". The "quality street" art fair labels itself as the ornamental fish amongst the art fairs. Are your management skills, the branding and the revolutionary way of presenting art this powerful mix that leads to a maximum in turn over?
Neff: This is a very weird question. Yes and no. On the one hand, it's all about that, and on the other hand, it's nothing that you can generalise. It's very hard work, and it's a hard way to go through. It's not about management. It's a combination of all these different ways and different directions to realise this kind of fair. [...] The goal is: How far can one go with an art fair? Is this a future fair or is it not? - We did not yet attain our financial goal. There is still a lot of work to do. But in terms of striving for a future fair, this is probably one step ahead.
AfN: The Deutsche Bank is the main sponsor of this fair and as well of the Frieze Art Fair. The Deutsche Bank is a competitor of the UBS which sponsors Art Basel and Miami. How do you see your role in this game? Are you and Samuel Keller or Matthew Slotover the assistance for the attention hunting policy of the major banks?
Neff: [laughs] It's just such an easy and comfortable sponsorship. It's very easy, very professional. Nobody is really looking at the money. It's a very clear, very transparent situation. There are no complaints. Everybody would want to have a sponsor like the Deutsche Bank for such a kind of project. I have no idea how this is working with the UBS. I can imagine that it is similar. And we are - for sure - not an assistant of Deutsche Bank.
AfN: You don't fear that this is a kind of game between the Deutsche Bank and UBS about who is attracting more attention?
Neff: No, of course not. This is just by occasion. The Deutsche Bank Collection is about 25 years old, and they are looking for future ways. Sponsoring is one of their ways, as well as changing the collection, the Guggenheim Corporation etc. It's just a part of this. The UBS has this kind of art banking in their company. They are really located in the art fair Basel, and that's something very traditional. This makes sense, too. I don't think that you can even compare these two kinds of sponsorships. They are very different...
AfN: ..with different aims...
Neff: ...and probably with different results.
AfN: Yesterday during the opening I was overwhelmed by this open concept. Visitors, artists and gallery personnel where freely floating between the works of art. It was an open world without the boundaries of walls: a relaxed atmosphere in the middle of wonderful installations. It was like being part of something that will evolve elsewhere. Do you think that your concept of a boundary-free curated art show where you can actually buy works of art will succeed?
Neff: For this year and this way: Yes. Next year, it's going to be a totally different thing.
AfN: So this is history already.
Neff: Yes, this is already done.
AfN: And do you think that this kind of concept will evolve in the fair and biennial scene?
Neff: I made a radical step in a long row of different steps, but I am surely not so fashionable that everything is turning over right now because of my fair. I don't think so. Next year, my fair will look totally different and will probably present tons of booths.
AfN: So again the opposite, a contradiction!
Neff: Yes, of course. We are always starting at point "zero".
AfN: Dear Mr. Neff, thank you very much for the interview
Interview: Marek Claassen
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