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ART BRUSSELS: Interview with Karen Renders

This is Ted de Jonge for Artfacts.Net in an interview with Karen Renders,
director of Art Brussels.

In 1968 some 15 Belgian art galleries founded a small fair called "Art Actuel". After being renamed several times, eventually the name "Art Brussels" came out in 1998.

AfN: Congratulations dear Karen!

Art Brussels celebrates its 25th anniversary, so it is - among other art fairs like Art Cologne, Art Basel, Arco etc. - one of the elder and well established ones. Since 1998 you are the director of Art Brussels, can you give a short résumé from your beginning days up to now?

Renders: When we started, it was all very new for us. We discovered an art fair that was not big, that was of very good quality, and that had a very good reputation, but that did not have a sufficient size to survive in the current world of contemporary art fairs. We had to reposition the fair so that it could exist in this new world, in this globalisation and in all these new art fairs that were going to come up. The first thing we did - you mentioned it already - was that we changed the name into "Art Brussels". Then we made it an annual fair; it was a biannual event before. And we made much more professional efforts on the level of promotion towards exhibitors and visitors alike.

AfN: On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Art Brussels, the fair will not only be renewed optically; it will be enriched with some additional elements. Can you give us some details?

Renders: Oh yes, for sure! For the first time, we invited upcoming and established Belgian artists to bring an intervention in the fair which is something that we had not done until now because the clients of the fair are the galleries, and this initiative was really an idea of this 25th edition. Something that had been a project between Jan de Cock and myself for years, finally was realised in this edition. Jan who did not make an intervention in Belgium for years, dedicated one of his "Denkmals" to Art Brussels. So we are extremely honoured that one of Jan's "Denkmals" will be called "Denkmal 1 artbrussels, Belgiëplein 1, Brussels, 2007" which will go into contemporary art history. That's one very important thing for this edition.

Then another one of the artists that I really appreciate a lot on a personal level is Hans Op de Beeck. He made a video that you can see now on the fair which shows three kinds of celebration that we all have in life. It's the celebration of a wedding, a family celebration and a funeral. It's about three kinds of gatherings, and on this 25th edition that is really a festive edition, it was a beautiful symbol of this year's Art Brussels.

The third intervention was by Kris Martin, another Belgian artist that is very admirable. He created the design for the carrier bags. I don't know if you have seen them but they have a "B" on one side, and it's got "empty" written on the other side, meaning: If you come and visit the contemporary art fair, empty your minds so that you can absorb everything you discover. It does have other additional meanings for Kris, but I leave the rest to the imagination of everybody around.

So another one was Eric Duyckaert which will represent Belgium at the Venice Biennial. He's been invited by the French community to show a performance. He's a performing artist, and he will be representing us in the Belgian Pavilion. So it was the ideal opportunity to present what Venice is going to be like and maybe to link with Venice.

And, last but not least, Ann-Veronica Janssens who converted her recent "mirror ball" design into trims for VIP cars. Those are the artists' projects.

AfN: In the very beginning, every 15th participating gallery invited an acquainted gallery from abroad, they started networking, and so the fair doubled... I think, in those days, a nice starters idea.

In your press statement it says: the excellent image of Art Brussels is the result of strict criteria in the choice of the participating Galleries. Could you please specify these criteria? Are they different compared to other art fairs?

Renders: I don't think that there is much difference compared to other art fairs. I believe every art fair makes an effort to make the best out of it. And if your volume is not too large, then you can afford to make a selection in accordance with the profile of your fair and with the strategy of the fair. So since we have a contemporary strategy, we follow that idea when we choose the galleries. The first thing is that the gallery has to be a proper gallery, not a form of gallery, not a group of artists, no alternatives. It's a proper promotion gallery that is one of the first criteria. Another criterium is what the gallery does; if it's a good gallery, if the gallery has a nose to discover good artists, artists that will continue to work and of whom we will be speaking in the future. And if you're active in the sector, you know which galleries are the galleries that are making things move. And then thirdly, I would say that we really look for galleries that share our attitude. They are enthusiastic, they are active, and they make their artists well known by the public, so they are forthcoming and not sitting backstage.

AfN: This year, Art Brussels took out the design department; what's the reason?

Renders: Well, it's very clear. Our core business is contemporary art, and what's been happening in the market of design is that we did follow the initiative of the FIAC, followed by Basel, so a great number of contemporary art fairs started to invite design because it's a product in which our visitors are interested, and therefore it was a very nice idea.

But not only the contemporary art fairs started to invite design, also the antique fairs started to do that, with another objective. Their objective was to make the antique fairs more contemporary which means that all of a sudden, the design galleries who did not have fairs to go to previously and did not feel at home anywhere, were invited all over the world, to too many art fairs and too many antique fairs, and so they had a very busy agenda.

We realised that it was tough to get them in; whereas we had a waiting list of very good contemporary art galleries who wanted to participate, so the choice was made pretty easily.

AfN: As far as I can see over the three last years, in contrast to other art fairs who have decided to shrink, Art Brussels seems to grow a little every year, from 129 to 158 to 173 now. What do you think: will Art Brussels grow even further?

Renders: No, we don't really have the ambition to grow. And in real figures we did not really grow for the last three years. We have been in these two halls, halls #11 and #12 for the last four years. And actually, what's happening is because we have been strategically choosing more real contemporary art galleries. A number of classic modern art galleries are not coming anymore but those galleries were the galleries which were taking the large volumes. And if you have to fill the two halls and make them attractive, you can't afford to have big halls in the fair, so automatically, to fill the same space, we have more participants, but the volume of the fair has not grown, and it's not our ambition to grow.

AfN: In our intern worldwide artfair ranking, Basel is nr. 1, basel Miami nr. 2, Art Cologne is nr. 3, Art Brussels nr. 12 out of actually 127, which is not bad at all! So competition might become keener. Art Cologne changed its date to spring, parallel to Art Brussels, and 3 new neighbours, three newcomers: dc Duesseldorf Contemporary, Tease and Liste Cologne. Is it four against one?

I heard some collectors are not really happy with this situation. How does Art Brussels cope with this new situation?

Renders: Until now, we have not felt any impact. We did not feel it in the number of applications; we had the most applications we ever had. We had 373 galleries asking us to participate in the fair, also a great number from Germany by the way. So on that level, we did not feel any impact.

Personally, I don't think it's a very good idea to do all the fairs at the same time because you put too much pressure on the complete line, going from artist to gallery to collector. One can never cope with this kind of activity in one weekend. It's not a very thoughtful idea towards the galleries and towards the collectors. It's putting too much pressure on them. So from that point of view, I must admit, I am really not happy with it.

Some people think that the synergy of fairs will create some frenzy. Yes, some collectors can't stop themselves to go and see all of the fairs, but you can count those collectors - I believe - not on one hand, but on two hands. I suppose it's going to have a tiring effect on the whole sector to do this but it's Cologne's choice.

AfN: The concentration of art collectors in Belgium is remarkable for Belgium is a small country , and yet it has a fair number of galleries. But why aren't there any sub- or co-fairs, last year there was only the "Galleries Show" in Antwerp... which wasn't a succes.

Renders: I believe we all have to be realistic about the size of our markets. As you said, Belgium is a small country with a very high concentration of contemporary art collectors, but in numbers it remains small. You cannot expect - in a country like Belgium - to do the largest fair. From that point of view, we've had over the last number of years a few initiatives of off-fairs, and it's always very nice to have them because it brings some life in the city, and it gives some alternatives. It's great but the majority of the public comes to the major fair. So it's very tough for those galleries in the off-fairs to survive. And only if you have a major fair like Basel that attracts the entire world, I believe the off-fairs again are tiring for the artists, the galleries and the collectors. And again I don't think it's a good idea for Brussels.

AfN: A growing number of art fairs today have satellites: Miami for Art Basel, upcoming Abu Dhabi for ArtParis, just to mention some.
Are there any plans in this direction for Art Brussels? Maybe somewhere in Africa for example?

Renders: What a nice question! I love Africa. So it would be a great idea. There are not any initiatives or strategic plans at this stage in Artexis to do this. We are a fair organising company; we organise public events in Belgium, we organise trade events all over Europe. Today we don't have the ambition to organise another art fair abroad, but who knows tomorrow? We might change our mind.

AfN: Well the last question: Art Brussels gives very much space to different media: apart from galleries, there is also a respectable amount of Belgian museums, public institutions and a broad spectrum of print-and internet media participating.
What's the thought behind this policy?

Renders: I think it's quite clear. We work with the media so it's quite normal that we have deals with them. We work together. They give us visibility, we return that visibility in the fair. That's how far the media's concerned. With the institutions, it's another story. We are a country that is very strong on the level of art collectors, and for us, it was a priority to add a skill to the fair that is not present when you are only at the galleries. So you want to attract curators, you want to add some dimension with the museums that are present in your fair, and also with debates. But we do ask our museums to put one artist forward. So they're not just there, like the media, distributing leaflets. We really asked them to bring something that is on the same level of what they bring in the museums.

AfN: Thank you very much Karen, we wish Art Brussels at least another 25 years!

Theodore Luke De Jonge Cohen

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