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M/The New York Art World: Interview with Lorenzo Rudolf

Lorenzo Rudolf, the founding director of ShContemporary and one of the show's three founding partners, with Pierre Huber and Mauro Malfatti, discusses the history behind the launch of the new international art fair which attracted some 25,000 visitors at its debut in Shanghai, September, 2007. We met for breakfast in Shanghai, after the last day of the fair. I wanted to cut past the obligatory talking points of PR driven interviews; and to instead, develop a portrait of one of the international art world's true innovators by tapping into a fascinating history that began in Basel, Switzerland. This conversation took place at the Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai, China.

Can you tell me something about your background?

I was born in Switzerland, grew up in Switzerland, in Bern. Studied law, to become a lawyer. Afterwards, international PR, in an international banking environment.

You did public relations for an international bank?


How long did you do that?

For two years; that was two and half years. Then in Basel, I was director of the Art Fair.

How did that come about?

They had a situation that the first director, who stayed there for twenty-five years, he retired. And they looked for a new director, and I was interested. I was already in the art scene since a long time, much more on the private side.

So you were a private dealer and Basel?

No, no, I was not a private dealer, I was, so, an artist.


I had a lot of contacts in the Swiss art scene, and then I came in contact with them [Art Basel] and after a lot of discussions, they wanted me as their new Director, and I became the second Director.

When was that?

That was early 1991, when I started. Then for ten years, I was Director of Art Basel. When I started in Basel, Art Basel was an art fair in the classical sense, back then art fairs were like trade shows. That means you sold someone a space, a booth, and if somebody comes, beautiful, if somebody doesn't come, you have to find someone else to pay for the space. It was a trade show. And then, when I started, that was at the peak of the crisis in the art market.

Okay, I knew that from the perspective of New York, but I guess it was worldwide.

Absolutely it was a worldwide crisis in the art market. The art market was really down. And so, I had there the chance because, first of all, I was not coming out of the fair environment so I had the chance to really change things in a totally different way, with a totally different perspective. I wanted to do things different from the way that other fairs were functioning. So, I made an entirely new concept of Art Basel it became a brand; it became a quality label; it became an event. I started to bring in the first sponsors for an art event, there was UBS.

So, up until that time the fair was supported only by exhibition fees?

Yes, a classical trade show, like I told you; you sell space to an exhibitor, and instead of a company who brings in some chairs, or whatever, it was galleries.

That's interesting, because today it seems that all art fairs have sponsors, in fact you don't do an art fair without a sponsor.

Yes, that was the first time, and then there were huge discussions; how is a possible, art and sponsoring? Blah blah blah. Then I invented also new formats, like this "Art Statements" for the young galleries. "Art Unlimited" for those projects that are not presentable in a classical booth.

You know, I remember when that was introduced, because I happened to be doing an internship with one of the participating galleries back then; Galerie Sollertis, a French gallery from Toulouse.

So what I did was to really change the form of an "art fair". And the concept of this new art fair is still now functioning. I invented the VIP treatment, that says that the first, the most important guest, is not the gallery but the collector. So we really changed it step by step. And the last project that I did as Director was the strategy and the launch of Art Basel Miami Beach. Then in late autumn of 1999 I got a phone call from Frankfurt, where they asked me if I would be interested to come to Frankfurt, to become the Director of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

I see.

And after quite a long time of reflection, I accepted

About Basel I was wondering, who actually owns Art Basel?

Art Basel belongs to the Basel Fair, the fair enterprise, [Messe Basel] which has its own fair grounds, that all belongs to the company, Messe Basel.

I ask that question because, when you bring all of this innovation to the table - you know these are really your ideas, in effect, your intellectual property, to basically make a new fair - how does that work out? Do you have some feeling about the fact that other people benefit from your intellectual property, so to say, I mean your ideas, after you leave.

Well, I think whenever you work for a company, wherever you are in this world working, when you do something new, that's not confidential, everybody can see it, and copy it. The question is something else; you always have to be one or two steps ahead of everybody else. And that's happened.

Why did you decide it was time to leave Art Basel?

I didn't decide that it was time to leave Art Basel, I was not even thinking to leave Art Basel, but if you receive such an offer, to head what is probably the biggest cultural event, worldwide, as is the Frankfurt Book Fair, then you reflect about the situation. The Frankfurt Book Fair is really the meeting point for the global publishing industry. You have publishing industries wherever you have languages the written word, books and everything. Nowadays the publishing industry is not only that, it's multi-media, it's really everything. Just so you see, a bit, the dimension; the Frankfurt Book Fair has around 6,700 exhibitors from all over the world. The press conference at the Frankfurt Book Fair draws around 14,000 journalists. It's a dimension, on such a scale, that you really have to consider an offer like that, to be the Director.

But I thought that Leipzig was the center for book publishing in Germany? Perhaps I'm thinking of the former "East Germany".

No, no. Frankfurt is what Basel is, what the Olympics are for sports, Frankfurt is for the publishing industry; that begins with the books, on through to multi-media. That's including Time-Warner, Bertelsmann, everything.

So it's not restricted by the language?

No. It's really global; it's really global.

So, how long did you do that?

I did it for a bit more than three years.

Three years? When was that? I thought that when you left Art Basel, it sort of segued into Art Basel Mimi Beach.

No, as I told you before, I invented Art Basel Miami Beach; I launched the project, the strategy, everything was done, and then I consulted with them [Frankfurt Book Fair], and then I handed it [Art Basel Miami Beach] over to my assistant at that time, who became then my successor, that was Sam Keller.

Sam Keller I remember, that was the PR guy in Basel.

Yes, yes. Then I went back to Frankfurt.


And I stayed in Frankfurt for more than three years.

Why did you leave?

I left Frankfurt for two reasons. First of all, they wanted me to really develop the Frankfurt Book Fair even more into a globalized let's say, into an event that reflects the globalization of the publishing world. The problem was, however, there were two things: One thing is that the owner of the Frankfurt Book Fair is the German Association of Publishers. That means 90 percent of the members of this Association are small, national publishers. They have, in the end, no interest to become even more globally affected. And the other thing is, not only publishers are in the Association, but also booksellers; and there is no bookseller in the world who is interested in globalization. So you had daily conflicts there, between the direction that, for example, the advisory board wanted to go in, and the owners of the fair, their interests.
And at the same time, the publishing industry had gone through huge changes in the last ten years. Before, you had a situation where you had intellectual publishers. Nowadays all of these publishing groups, they have disappeared, or they were bought by huge companies, huge holdings; nowadays the publishing market worldwide is dominated by a couple of huge holdings; and your publishers, there are not really the intellectual publishers any more, it's all just managers.

So at the end of the day, you decided that you had done as much as you could there.

At the end of the day I decided that; no, it was no longer the field that I like, because I don't have any more the intellectual discussion, discourse and exchange. It's much more a management job, only looking at numbers. So I decided to go back to where my real passion is, to the contemporary ‹ to the arts. And then after that, I went to America. I did some projects. Among others, I did this Fine Art and Antique Show in Palm Beach.

I know that fair. You worked also with Natalia Hnatiuk.

Yes, and I engaged Natalia as the Director of the contemporary art fair in Palm Beach. But I think even more important and interesting than the contemporary art fair was this Fine Art and Antiques Show, which became, in just two years' time, I would say one of the most exclusive ones in the States. At this time I lived also in the States, in Miami. And then began all the thinking and reflection, together with Pierre Huber and I, about what is going on in the art market, what is going on in the international scene, and what globalization means, and so on; and out of that came, then, the concept for the show here [ShContemporary].

Whose idea was it do a show in China?

Everybody came to the same conclusion.

I mean who came up with the idea? Was it your idea? Was it Pierre's?

Actually, it was in parallel; I have known Pierre for long, long time, and we met and we discussed, and we realized that our analysis of the situation, of the development of the market was congruent. And we also thought, it's clear: The market in the future will shift more and more to Asia. Already, when I left Basel, I told my successor, Sam I said: "Sam, I prepared for you Miami, and now the next step you have to do will be Asia, will be China." And nothing happened. And so, when I met again with Pierre, and we discussed, and then we decided; yes, we have to think about doing this. And then we looked for a partner because we needed also an operational partner. We are two individuals, we are two brains, but for thatŠ So we took a year, and did a very intense investigation of the global market ‹ where are the trends for the future? In which direction will the market probably develop? And on the basis of this analysis we developed the concept that would become this fair [ShContemporary]. Together, with our partner, Bolognafiere, we decided; now let's realize it.

So then, this time, you're not just the Director; I guess you guys would be the owners of the fair. Right?

Okay, what we decided; that's now a practical question To do something in China, it's not exactly, from a legal point of view, the same as doing something in America. That's the reason we said, okay, the first event we will do on the basis that Bolognafiere, [Mauro Malfatti] our partner, is the organizer, the official organizer, legally. And we, Pierre and I, we work with and are related to them on a contractual l basis. The next step, after having done the first show, is to form a common company where you have three shareholders.

I understand that, in order to do business in China, you need a license from the Chinese authorities. What happens if, once your company gets off the ground, and is successful, someone there in the bureaucracy decides to take your license and give it to some else? I mean, they could say, "Okay, thank you very much; we appreciate your help, and now we'll just take things over from here". How do you protect your investment?

You, as a journalist, you work a lot with a computer.

Yes, okay.

Let's say, a laptop or a PC.


And, like every laptop or a PC, you know, there is the hardware and there is the software. Without the hardware; it is only an empty box with a lot of smoke.

I think I know we're going with that.

They cannot do it without.

They could not do it without your connections, your know how.

Yes. Or even if they wanted to do it, then we say; okay then we just go to another place. Now we have a position of strength; where everyone goes here in Asia, people look to their pocket, and they would follow us. So, it's not that easy. But, of course, this is a theme that for sure we have thought about.

In the run up to the fair, there was a lot of talk, among some dealers, about the issue of censorship. Now that the fair has taken place, how has all of that played out?

Well, I'll tell you frankly, we are dealing here in a country where there are certain delicate things, where there is censorship. It's strange. Because on the one side you have this ideology, a certain communist ideology, and on the other side you have a kind of unbridled capitalism
here that offers even more freedom than in America. That is, so long as you
don't touch certain delicate themes. So, in other words, for this reason, there is a certain censorship. But I tell you, the censorship thing here is really peanuts. There are very, very few works of art where they, where we could not show; and on the other side, don't forget, this is the first time that something like this [ShContemporary] has come along. Censorship people are functionaries, they're not art historians. So, at first, they were a bit afraid of what could happen. Now they see that we are not going to cause a problem for them. I think that in the future it will go very, very smooth. Also this year, it was not a big problem.

Can you tell me something about the price structure for exhibitors? Isn't it something like 10,000 Euros for a booth? Is that a lot for the market here?

The price is based on the square feet, and we break that down into blocks of space. You can have two blocks or three blocks, and so on. The price is within the average for international affairs.

In the Art Basel fair, doesn't the "Art Statements" thing offer reduced prices, to bring in fresh, young galleries? Is there something like that in this fair?

Yes. When I started the "Art Statements" the idea was that we wanted to support the young galleries, especially young galleries with younger artists,

Sure, to make it a more interesting fair.

What we are doing here is, we say, we don't only want to support the young galleries; we want to position unknown artists in a way that they really have the possibility to make a statement in the international market. That, for example, is why we made the "Best of Discovery" section. But the big difference is that this is the first show where the show, itself, takes the responsibility for the content. It was us Pierre, actually that curated the work. He traveled all over Asia, he looked for the artists, he picked them up, he went to Afghanistan, and to Pakistan, to where artists didn't have a known structure; and then he found, for them, a market. And in the end, the costs for such a place in "Best of Discovery" turned out to be even less, much less expensive than for a space in "Art Statements".

Can you give me figure?

Yes, it's a bit more than 2000 Euros for the entire space, with infrastructure and everything. So, the idea is to give real support for the artist, for them to be able to position themselves in the market.

Who is the artist, Zhou Tiehai?

He's one of the most important artists in China; he's one of the stars. And, for us, it's very important, when you go to a place like this, that you don't come and say: "We know everything, we do now a show for your country." What's important for us is, first of all, to know exactly this art scene, to have relationships, to be a part of this art scene, of this art market. And for that we needed somebody who opens all of the doors for us, who makes the bridge for us, everywhere. And Zhou Tiehai was exactly this guy. He, on the one side, is a very respected artist ‹ as I said, worldwide, not only the top here in China. He knows everybody, here; he knows everybody in the art scene; he knows everybody in the art market scene; he knows even everybody in the local scene because he's based in Shanghai. He has an incredible network. And for us it was important to have somebody like him, as a colleague and even a friend, who opens all of the doors for us and who builds all of the bridges. He became part of this team.

Did Pierre know him from some time ago?

Yes, yes.

So, what are you plans now that the show is over?

It's now the first step, and I think it was a very successful first step. This fair will be developed in such a way that first of all, every year, it will happen at the same time it will be a yearly event. Next year, I think you're going to have the big boom here, because, this year all that
we could say [to promote the fair] was, we have a beautiful venue, please come and have confidence. Now, however, we have a product that everyone can speak about. Next year we are going to have a constellation, because we are operating and doing it in parallel with the Biennale; and the Biennale in Shanghai is one of the most important in Asia. We are going to have, next year, the opening of the Biennale and the opening of the fair [ShContemporary] happening within two days. So that will be a beautiful attraction in the market, for everyone.

The fair will take place the same time next year?

Yes already, in its first edition, it is, from the quality, the most important art fair in Asia. It's the only art fair in Asia that really gives you an overview of the contemporary market, the activity here in Asia and it's not only China, it's Asia. So, we want to go even more in this direction; but, on the other side, the goal and the plan is that it [ShContemporary] will become one of the two, three or four most important art fairs in the world.

You know, from what I see, I believe that's how things will play out.

Me too, because we have something at our back that will happen, without that anyone can change it ‹ that's the shifting of a certain economic power to Asia.

Is there an agreement to have this venue next year? The building is incredible; it's a palace, really.

Yes, yes we have long-term contracts and options. Yes.

Okay. Well, I'm really glad that I caught up with you for this chat ‹ fascinating history. Thanks for your time.

It was a pleasure.

Interview provided by
M / The New York Art World
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