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VOLTAshow: Interview with Amanda Coulson

Amanda Coulson

This is an Artfacts.Net- and interview with Amanda Coulson, the executive director and co-founder of the VOLTA show in Basel.

Afn: Hello Amanda.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? - You work as a curator. How did you come to this position, and what else are you doing?

Coulson: I wear a lot of hats: I am a curator, an art critic, and a fair director. How I came to this position: I studied art in school, I worked in galleries - actually, interestingly, started out in old master painting, but became interested in contemporary art, and then I worked in galleries, and finally I started writing and now have probably been an art critic for seven or eight years. It really was that part of my development that brought me to want to found a new fair. I think it's very important that I continue those things; I still work as an art critic, and I think my work as an art critic informs my decisions as a fair director. My most recent show as a curator was called "Funky Nassau", and I brought nine Caribbean artists working in the Bahamas, to the Nassauischer Kunstverein, and I did an exchange; I brought some German artists to Nassau, just to get some international exposure for a country that is very much marginalised. The Caribbean's very much marginalised in the contemporary art world, and people think that anything that comes from Puerto Rico for example is like little terrible oil paintings with market scenes but it's not the case at all. They have a very hard time finding a platform.

Afn: It's close to Miami, isn't it?

Coulson: It's very close to Miami but people only think of the Caribbean as a holiday destination, and they don't think anything else happens there except casinos and cruise ships. There is a generation of very interesting artists coming now, and it's very hard for them to get a foothold in the international market.

Afn: And you push on them?

Coulson: I am trying very hard. My father's from the Bahamas and I am a Bahamas citizen so I am trying. I also did a curatorial project at the CIRCA art fair with Puerto Rican artists. It's something that interest me to try, and it's also essentially something that I try also to do in part at the fair, just to really allow people that are overlooked simply by the fact that they are geographically located in not the most trendy position. Of course, in the art market in general, it's New York, it's London, it's Berlin, and I have a lot of galleries here from Portugal or wherever because what's to say that only the good art is being made in those three centres? Obviously, it tracks the artists because of the scene and because of the critical mass of art creators there, it's interesting cities to be in but, of course, there is good art being created everywhere. So I'd like to give people opportunities to be seen on international platforms.

Afn: And in addition to all that, you are a mother.

Coulson: [laughing] I'm a mother. Right now, my daughter is waiting for me to bring her a sandwich...

Afn: How do you cope with this: family, travelling, jet set, organising fairs...?

Coulson: It's really not jet set, it's economy class... I manage by, I work at home, I live with my mother in-law in the same building, so I take the children to here; they travel a lot with me, and they love it.

Afn: Alright. Very good. - You are a co-founder of the VOLTA show, a show with a relatively radical concept of assigning the same space for each gallery. What are the advantages of this concept?

Coulson: First of all, I found, from my perspective as an art critic, that the big fairs are amazing but it's a bit like going to the Louvre: You go, everything's fantastic but you know most of it, and you check things off your list "Oh yes, there is the Goya, and the Velázquez... oh yes, that's where the Damien Hirst, here it is...", and so it's very hard for galleries showing emerging art to be able to afford to be on a certain platform, and it's just economics; if you have a booth at a big fair, you have to show your big artists, you have to show artists that sell over a certain amount, otherwise you simply won't break even. So I wanted to make a fair that was affordable but still of a certain quality level, that are not cheap-looking, and the point of having the booth with the same size is also something I tried very hard to do at the VOLTA show, and a lot of people do comment on it. It's to create an environment that's relaxed, and of course, there's always going to be competition between the dealers but it's a friendly competition: Here you really see people very often taking their collectors into other people's booths to say "Listen, I saw something over there you are going to love..."; and then there is the architecture we designed in a certain way, people can see across, it's very open. We don't have this kind of tense-making maze-situation. The idea of the booths being the same size is to not have people feeling somehow "My gallery is not as important as his gallery", "Look at him, he's got the 75 m², and I have got the 15 m²" - we try to keep it as fair as possible, to give everybody the same conditions because then, some of these alternative locations, some of the rooms are fantastic, and some of them really are not.

Afn: That's also the reason why you used the hall situation that is quite unique, straight, not like LISTE for example where you go in different rooms, and this is to keep it to the art...

Coulson: It's to keep it to the art, to keep it very easy to navigate. At our fair, you can see where you are at all time. You don't get lost. You can see where you have been; it's small, it's easy to navigate, it's easy to look at, the light's very good, and like I said, everyone is given an equal position. LISTE is a fantastic fair as well, it's been here for eleven years, giving young galleries their first foothold which is a very important thing, but there are some spaces that are perhaps not as great as the other spaces. It's really a question of luck in the draw.

Afn: As a fair organiser, you are playing in the field of market dynamics in a market where social networks, also known as rings, play an important role whereas in a curatorial environment with which you are familiar as well, content and context are the decision criteria. Fairs nowadays tend to arrange so-called curatorial shows around the market-driven core. Do you think that you manage this balancing act by assigning real curators as jury?

Coulson: What was interesting by assigning real curators? I mean it's impossible to actually call it an exhibition and to pretend it's not a market. I mean, it is a market, people are here to sell, there is no point to pretend it isn't. I think the point is to try to make an environment that is easy to digest somehow or perhaps that's not the right way to put it... We do art for quite specific booth concepts, not like "this painting will go there...", but to really show the exact three or four artists you will bring, keep it small; we tend to ask that they do not bring one of everyone from the gallery because that just becomes exhausting, and again, there is only so much you can look at. We do try to curate in that extent, also into the extent that sometimes we accept two galleries that share similar artists, so I'll be very explicit that they have to work it out between themselves who is going to bring that one because I also think that particularly in such a small fair - in a big fair it's maybe not so bad - I don't want people going from one booth to the next and seeing works by the same artist. The VOLTA show is to make discoveries, it's to really see people you have never seen before, and so we try to really push on that. The interesting thing with the curators is that it brings a very different point of view in the decision making. If you only have galleries on your committee, of course, they have a certain perspective on the market, on what's important, and who's important. And as you particularly said, sometimes perhaps the content isn't what's considered so much. I had the very radical idea this year - we decided that it's maybe a bit too radical - to make the first round of selection, not giving the gallery's name and city, just providing the images, and I just thought as an experiment that might be interesting...

Afn: But you did not do it?

Coulson: We didn't do it yet, but I really did brief everybody to really think of it, to really look at the work, and not simply consider the power of the dealer, how hot they were if they're considered... You can do that at the end. The first thing is to look at the quality of the art, and then you end up with your shortlist, and then it's quality across the board, it's not the 48 that got in that got booths are better than the ones that didn't, then other things come into play; that's when getting a good mix of different countries comes into play afterwards. So the first thing is the quality, and then of course, the dealers, who do they know, who are they going to bring, who don't they know, how many news shall we have, how many well-known shall we have... - all that comes into play afterwards. I think it's very important that's the second part of the process.

Afn: Then you have to have images that are unknown, even to the jury...

Coulson: Not completely unknown obviously, but I'd like curators and collectors and the general public to come here and make a discovery, and not to just make the checklist of who they know, and who they've seen.

Afn: I have read an interview, and there were these buzz words "collaboration versus expanding": You said that you'd collaborate with the Zoo art fair in London rather than opening another satellite there. How does this collaboration work exactly? - I mean when I imagine being a fair director, I would like to cash in by myself.

Coulson: Yes, that's true but I mean, being the director of a satellite fair is somehow... it's ridiculous, but there are too many satellite art fairs and I think it's detrimental to the work and to the collectors, to the dealers to really have too much going on. When VOLTA show opened, we were the third art fair, and I do believe that we really filled a vacuum that was waiting. That's why we had the concept. I don't believe we just came to catch the overflow, but I think if there really are too many, then it becomes deconstructive, and that's why we keep it very small here. We don't intend to extend very much, perhaps ten more in the front, but I can't extend in this location, and I don't want to move from this location because it's a contrast, and that's why we have the boat shuttles, that people get out and fresh their mind so that they can look at something again. It's like having a five course meal: you need a little sorbet in between to allow the palate to be able to taste again. If there's just too many, it becomes crazy. Obviously, for your brand, you want your brand to be known... You know, they have got FRIEZE, they have got Zoo, it was a fantastic fair already, and last year, it was already their sixth fair, and so what's the point? That would not be helping the point of what's going on. It would just be detrimental. So we just thought for fun, we came up with the idea, I talked to Zoo about it, for VOLTA to be in London was an interesting experience, just to see what it was like over there, and they were extending their art fair because they had to date only specialised in British projects and galleries, and they have not ever had an international programme, and so they asked us to collaborate because since we had an international programme, we could advise them. So basically, we co-curated their international section. And we kept our brands. Then they came here and co-curated our Nordic focus section, and it was just a project for a year, and maybe we will do something again in the future. I just think it made more sense, and I think it showed perhaps our commitment to what we are doing, that we are not just simply in it. Yes, we all want to make a profit; yes, we all need to pay our daughter's school fee, but that's not the first point. That's not why Zoo created their fair, that's not why I created my fair.

Afn: Talking about concepts, the VOLTA show is with its three years a young venue. The LISTE, another fair during the Art Basel, is said to be the first satellite fair and a kind of boiler for the galleries to have maybe a later Art Basel participation. The LISTE fair has or had restrictions on the number of participations and on the age of the attending galleries to make the emerging character of the fair very clear. Do you have similar restrictions in your gallery policy?

Coulson: We have restrictions, but not age-limited. What LISTE did in the last eleven years, is amazing, it's a brilliant concept, and at the time, there was not so much going on, eleven years ago. There were not so many galleries. So it was all Basel needed, and it was fantastic, but then you know, in retrospect, with the years going by, the age limit - to me - became slightly absurd because then a lot of galleries were leaving; they were not allowed to get back to LISTE. It's not a case of they could not get into the big fair. They were not ready for that yet, that wasn't where they should be. There was a gap, and that was what I meant when I was saying that there really was a vacuum. I did not have an age restriction. It's completely appropriate for LISTE to have an age limit which, by the way, they've changed since VOLTA show came. They now allow the LISTE graduates because I think there was some feeling that they might come here. And also, since VOLTA show, there is also now the art premiere section in Art Basel. So I think that really proves that there was a vacuum needing to be filled. Both fairs were suddenly like "Oh yes, there is a whole group of excellent galleries being left out of our circle!". So VOLTA definitely filled that. For me, personally, perhaps it's because I'm over forty, I think the concept of "young = good" is slightly misconstrued or mis-thought. It's no talent being young. That's just an accident of birth, and there are some fantastic young galleries, but there are also a lot of fantastic older galleries who have been in the business for ten years but they choose to work with cutting-edge art; they choose to work with emerging artists, and they are the people that build up the careers that then get poached by the bigger galleries that end up at Art Basel. I have been to "Art Unlimited", a beautiful, beautiful exhibition; there are so many artists in there that I know who their original gallery was, and their original galleries have never been to LISTE, have never been to the big fair, but perhaps they are here at VOLTA show. They lose their artists to the bigger galleries, and by the time, they become well-known enough, it's the other gallery showing them at Art Basel. It's not the founding gallery, and that's when I talk about restrictions here; it's not so much restriction but what's very important at VOLTA show, is that the galleries that take part are the career builders, people that really get in there in the beginning and really work with the artist and really support them and get them there first to your shows. They are the people that really do the hardest work.

Afn: But do you have galleries that participated from the first day to date, so three times?

Coulson: We do have some galleries here that participated here since Year One, yes.

Afn: And will they stay or...?

Coulson: It's re-evaluated every year. There were some galleries this year that did not get that were in Year One, there were some galleries that did Year Two that did not get in; there were probably some of Year Two that will come back again... so I think because we are small, it's necessary for us to rotate. Otherwise, I just have to keep growing, keep getting bigger and bigger, and then I'm the main fair which is not the point. The point is to be a contrast, to be small....

Afn: ...You don't want to be Armory...

Coulson: No, that's not the point here. So people will leave, they will come back in again, it will be fluid. There will be no restriction like "you can only do it three times". Your application is what gets you in. You are going to be evaluated every year, based on what you submit to the board.

Afn: When we speak of Art Basel and young fairs as a step stone to an Art Basel participation, for me it seems that the art galleries function more and more like an artist-meter. I mean, nowadays you look at a gallery's profile, like you did or used to do at an artist's CV, and it's getting more and more important where you show as a gallery. How do you react on this as a fair manager? Are you a career builder?

Coulson: If my fair is that respected, then I suppose I am. I hope my fair is that respected. Of course, there are fairs that some people say "You do them, and that's a career destroyer". I don't know if that's really true. Of course, the market is a certain way, and we would all be very naive to say it isn't, but I would like to believe that galleries choose some of them on merit of the programme they show, and clearly, I am in some sort of position of being able to give somebody a very important platform, and that is a responsibility, absolutely. I don't know if I am a career builder, but it's a responsibility. When I help make the choice, when the curators help make a choice, of course, we are aware that it makes a break for some galleries, that it's incredibly important, especially for the galleries in out-of-the-way places to be able to come here, to be able to meet collectors of a certain level, to have their artist seen by certain curators.

Afn: And do you think that the other fairs are also committed to this job? Or is this some kind of new perception?

Coulson: I think a lot of fairs are. I think the market gets a hard time. I think dealers get a hard time, the fairs get a hard time, and you know, as an art critic, I have a lot of art critic friends, and it's all "The market is just about getting money, and all the dealers want to do is make money", and believe me this is not an easy job. Being a dealer is not an easy job, and I think 95% of the people in this business are in for the passion.

Afn: I now come to my closing question: How did you like this year's events in Basel? Did you attend any other shows? And will you reflect on the latest developments when it's over?

Coulson: Unfortunately, I am going to go later and see a lot of the shows. I have been to the main fair, and I will be going to LISTE later, so I can't comment on that, I'm afraid. But LISTE has always got an amazing quality, always. And I have already heard that this year's excellent as well. And the main fair, it is what it is. It's the top top of the pyramid; everybody knows that, and there's no point to pretend otherwise.

Afn: Will you visit the documenta?

Coulson: I will be going to documenta, but I'm going to have a little holiday after all this, with my family, and then when I have recouped my energy, I will be going to the Biennale and the documenta.

Afn: Dear Amanda, thank you for the interview.

Coulson: You are very welcome.

Interview: Marek Claassen

This Interview can also be viewed as an video on (Part 1/Part 2)

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