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FIAC - Interview with Jennifer Flay and Martin Bethenod

Martin Bethenod, Jennifer Flay and Marek Claassen

This is an Artfacts interview with Jennifer Flay and Martin Bethenod, the directors of FIAC, Paris. Hello Jennifer Flay, Hello Martin Bethenod.

J.Flay: Hello.
M. Bethenod: Hello.

AfN: Last year we have had an interview with you Jennifer Flay and we've been talking about the FIAC in context of the international fairs, the Grand Palais and the Design part. So let's start this time with the market and the economic environment.
Since a few years you can increasingly spot the buzz words "bubble" and "burst". Since U.S. subprime-mortgage losses spill over into the U.K. economy the tense is rising. Do both of you have a quote on that?

J.Flay: It is interesting to observe that the art market has not been deeply affected by what happened this summer. [...] Business is very very good, very strong; sales have been excellent in every price range - from the young artists whose work is selling for less than 5,000 Euro, between 5,000 and 20,000 let's say, right up to the very very big artworks that have been exchanged on the fair: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yves Klein, Tinguely... This "tassement" was something that was very healthy and "salutaire", something that in fact the profession has to encourage to avoid this crash which has been appearing of the last - I guess - 3 or 4 years, a ghastly spectre of something that will happen. It may not happen, if the profession is able to self-regulate in terms of price control. We note, Martin and I, that private collectors at every level are still very very much invested in the market. They are all very active, they all buy. And one of the very significant signs of what happened in 1990 was the withdraw of the private clientele for serious private collectors from the market. There is no sign of that whatsoever. On the contrary.

M. Bethenod: On the contrary, we can see here in Paris a lot of new collectors, very informed, very committed; and what seems also very important to us is that our identity for the fair is very wide, very balanced, between modern, contemporary and emerging trends and design. I think it's a guarantee for more security. We are less affected by very huge fashion effects, and for us, it is a strength of the Parisian market and of the fair, the FIAC.

AfN: Some hedge-fund managers who buy art have lost money on these mortgage
investments. Prices cooled for contemporary art at auctions held by Sotheby's and Christie's, and London finance companies may cut jobs next year and trim bonuses by 16 percent. Charles Dupplin of Hiscox, the largest insurer of fine art in Europe said in the Economist yesterday, that FIAC, will provide an indication of the market's health. Will this event meet Mr. Dupplins expectations?

J.Flay: I believe it already has. After our in-depth conversation with almost all the gallerists present on the fair, we are convinced that the market is holding very strong. The Parisian fair traditionally does not have so much of an audience of young financial whizz kids. That is not the type of clientele that comes here. They, of course, are very welcome, and we would love to see them also attending the fair...

M. Bethenod: ...and a lot of them do...

J.Flay: Yes, a lot of them do in fact but it is not that the clientele base is much much wider than that, much wider...

AfN: Yes, some gallerists told me that people at Frieze came up with the question of what it is worth in 3 years. Nobody asks this question here in Paris.

J.Flay: People ask about the work in Paris, they ask for the gallerist to talk about the work, about the artist... they ask really deep questions about the content of the work, and we must say also that gallerists that choose to show at FIAC, appreciate what has been described as the "relaxed mood" in which major business transactions take place here.

M. Bethenod: I think what Jennifer said, is very important: The focus is on the works. It is not only about names and prices. It is about works.

J. Flay: ...which is why we can have here, for example in the Cour Carrée, almost a laboratory situation going on. There are a number of the world's leading galleries here and who are doing prospective work right across the world. Their artists are not famous yet, they are not names yet. They are selling work by emerging artists who are - if you look around - very very strong and therefore, there is really little place for somebody that is going to be buying names. We are also at a very high level of the market here: in the Grand Palais with once again, Joan Mitchell, Yves Klein, Jeff Koons on a fantastic - I am sure you saw them - ensemble of German expressionism at Henze & Ketterer. We are at a very very high level of the market here.

AfN: Now, as we talk money. Do you disclose the dealer sales on FIAC in 2006 and the estimate of 2007?

J.Flay: We never do overall business figures at FIAC. First of all, because we consider that the relationship between a gallerist and a client is a private professional relationship that requires discretion. And both parties, the gallerist and the client, actually request this discretion. Therefore, we never give overall business figures because we have no way of verifying their exactitude.

M. Bethenod: And in fact, we even do not try to know. We do not ask them.

J.Flay: We do not ask them, however, what we do do: we ask, and also for press purposes, very precise information about galleries, about what their feeling was about level of persons at FIAC, their experience of trading here, and the type of collectors. We ask them if there are any major transactions that they would like to speak about in the press. And we have very detailed information about...

AfN: Do you publish these information?

J.Flay: We do a summary at the end of the fair.

AfN: It is said, that here in France the institutional buyers are still very strong. These institutional collectors could act as a stabilisation point to a shaking market. Do you think that the French neo-liberal economic policies could be a threat for the public collectors and therefore also for the strong position of the FIAC?

M. Bethenod: As a matter of fact, one of the specificities of the French market is the ponderousness of institutional buyers who buy a lot, and who buy artists often already very early - for example, the Fonds national d'art contemporain or the Fonds régionaux d'art contemporain or collections where extremely important works can be seen that have been bought at the beginning of the artists' career...

AfN: And they also buy from foreign galleries?

J.Flay: Absolutely.

M.Bethenod: It is important that the French institutions buy both French and international artists from French but also international galleries. Their objective being to create a universal, or at least generalist, collection. So this is a very strong element of the market. I think that today, nobody of the French political class is questioning the legitimacy of the actions by the State and its establishments in terms of acquisition. The Centre Pompidou has an important acquisition budget. Right now, nobody is talking about reducing it. The FNAC, the Fonds national d'art contemporain, has an equally important budget. Nobody is talking about reducing it, and there are even signs that go in the opposite direction: the government and the Ministry of Culture wish to implicate these public acquisitions more in the market, and for example, the Fonds National d'Art Contemporain comes to buy and to implement its acquisition commission here at FIAC. It's the third year.
And we think it will continue.

J.Flay: One of the other very, I think, significant aspects of trading at FIAC this year is the observation that many of our galleries, foreign galleries but the French galleries as well, have reported to us: the number of very very active French collectors, and that's extremely important. I mean we know that French collectors have been out there for a few years. When you go to any art fair in the world, and you walk through the alleys, you hear that French is spoken at Frieze, in Miami, in Basel, in Berlin, in Madrid, everywhere. And this has come to the attention over the last few years. It is a phenomenon that goes far far beyond the very very famous and extremely wealthy French collectors whose names everybody knows. It is a phenomenon that is actually deeply rooted, and which is developing more and more.

AfN: Speaking of strong positions. The Grand Palais with its position in the centre of the city is a great advantage. The question is why do you have split the fair into two venues instead of using the balconies of the Grand Palais as an additional exhibition space?

M. Bethenod: The answer is very simple. It is not possible for security reasons to use these spaces. So in the Grand Palais, we only have room for 100 galleries. To be a significant and especially a broad-based fair, it has to gather - let's say - 160 galleries. So we had to find a second venue, and we wanted this venue to be as central, as prestigious and as beautiful as the Grand Palais; and if it was possible, we even wanted the second venue to be more central, more beautiful and more prestigious than the Grand Palais, and Louvre accepted that we could do this in Cour Carrée, and for us, it was a very interesting contrast between the most prospective galleries, the most contemporary art and the most prestigious, historical and patrimonial site, the Louvre museum.

AfN: Someone said to me recently that you were very smart because you had a fair with modern art and contemporary art, and you had your own off-fair.

J.Flay: This is not an off-fair. It is definitely an on-fair, and I tell you that the galleries that show in the Grand Palais come here to buy artwork; they come here to look at young artists. It is very much one fair, and as you have noticed, very conveniently linked by the Tuileries garden where we have installed 21 outdoor projects. Going back to the Grand Palais and the fact that the venue is rather small: we lost a third of our exhibition space which actually in many ways was helpful because we needed to improve the quality of the fair.

AfN: It really has improved dramatically.

J.Flay: We are aware of that. But you may have noticed that last year, the design section was in the Cour Carrée; this year, with a great deal of preparation and negotiation, we have obtained the use of the previously unusable spaces.

M.Bethenod: So we had the opportunity to put 10 design galleries in the space, in this idea of being in front of, vis-à-vis, face à face with modern contemporary art.

J.Flay: ...which obviously gave us the possibility of opening up exhibition space here in the Cour Carrée. We were able to accept 10 galleries, and therefore, Martin and I are confident that little by little, we will gain exhibition space.

AfN: Sculpture is still an issue. Again, this year you show great sculptures in the Tuileries garden. And there's also this wonderful Tinguely here in the Grand Palais from Galerie Hans Mayer. Why don't you show more and bigger sculptures in the Grand Palais?

M. Bethenod: Ask the galleries! Last year, Thaddaeus Ropac chose to put 10 wonderful Tony Cragg; it was really beautiful. This year, it is Hans Mayer with the Tinguely. But a lot of other - I am thinking of the magnificent Michel François' glass piece and of the big tree by Vincent Olinet - you know, it is a choice of the galleries.

AfN: There are plenty of opportunities for the FIAC. When you would position yourself globally. Where would that be? And what is the strategic target?

M. Bethenod: It might be clear by visiting this edition of FIAC that we aim to be in the very best of the international generalist balanced fairs; not too big - we do not want to go to 200, 250 galleries. Now we are 180 galleries, maybe it will be at around 200 that we stop. The space is perfect in all actual venues. Our work is to make each of them more convenient, more beautiful and partly more spacious, especially in the Grand Palais. But I think what you can see in the FIAC gives you an idea of where we want to go. We want to go here every year and become better and better and better.

AfN: Basel is sponsored by UBS Bank, the world's largest manager of private wealth assets, and Frieze is sponsored by Deutsche Bank, Germany's biggest bank and one of the largest corporate art collectors. Are you seeking such a prestigious partner too?

M. Bethenod: We think it is very important for a fair, not only from a financial point of view, to have powerful sponsors and to start a long-term relationship with them. So for us, it is of course one of the important things of the next editions to start and consolidate a partnership of this kind.

AfN: We have a new top event in China, the shcontemporary in Shanghai. Is it an enrichment or a threat in your eyes?

J.Flay: I think it is an enrichment. It is clear that in the next ten or even five years, one of these art fairs - whether it will be that in Shanghai, whether it will be that in Beijing, whether it is another fair in Korea, whether it is another fair perhaps even in Australia - it is clear that there will be a major fair in the Pacific region. And so therefore, it is clearly an enrichment. Now I think that probably - and without any talk of crash because I believe in the profession's capacity to auto-regulate the market, and really, I think, today, everybody involved must pay very close attention to that. I think the explosion of art fairs - I think there is an art fair about every week; in the world, there is a 160 art fairs... so therefore, I think that this is probably a phenomenon that is going to wear out a little bit. Galleries are concentrating now much more on really selecting fairs they want to attend; they are looking at not eight but three, and this is something we hear a lot. Of course, we want to be one of those three, going back to your previous question. So yes, one of those fairs will be in the Pacific region. Clearly.

AfN: Speaking about China. You know that at Phillips, Wang Guangyi's "Mao AO" from 1988 fetched 2.04 million pounds and setting an auction record for the artist. If a collector wanted, could he or she buy a Wang Guangyi here at FIAC?

J.Flay: At Shanghart.

AfN: Thank you for the interview.

Interview: Marek Claassen

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