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Art Cologne: Interview with Oliver P. Kurth (Director Kölnmesse GmbH)

Oliver P. Kurth and Marek Claassen

AfN: This is an Artfacts.Net interview with Mr Kurth, the director of Kölnmesse GmbH.

How many fairs do you organise in one year?

Kurth: We have about 70 fairs in the year.

AfN: So, five per month.

Kurth: There are seasonal peaks. In summer, it is rather calm, compared to autumn and spring, when it is getting stronger again.

AfN: What role do the two art fairs play?

Kurth: They play a very important role insofar as they bring a certain shine to our portfolio; i.e. in fiscal terms, they play a rather secondary role but in terms of image and outreach, they play an important role. This is why we are very much interested in the success of these events and in them being well positioned.

AfN: In the United States, there are companies such as Merchandise Mart that have bought Armory and Volta, or Reed Exhibitions that are expanding - they have Fiac and Viennafair. What strategic significance does this have for the art fair market? What do these companies aim to achieve? Do you think that it is possible to make money in this business?

Kurth: It is very very difficult to make money. We do not - to be honest. But this is not a secret anyway. We regard the Art Cologne also as a politico-cultural responsibility that we have and recognise - for Cologne, for the region and for Germany.

The Art Frankfurt was cancelled, and so was the dc contemporary. At this moment, there are lively discussions taking place in Berlin about how to consolidate the whole trade fair industry over there. The fiscal situation demonstrates that this is not an individual fate, but that there are a lot of art events in Germany having difficulties to survive and to exist.

AfN: But why are there, under the described conditions, these shopping sprees of other trade fair companies?

Kurth: This is nothing new; we are going shopping for fairs as well. We have already bought a series of important events. We do this when we think that the situation of a given sector has a certain potential.

In Cologne and in the art world, the situation is very different. We remember the prosperous time in the 90ies when we had 300 galleries [in Cologne] - a situation comparable with Basel, also in terms of quality - but this has changed in the last 20 years. In terms of quality, we are going through an erosion process, and I do not think that Reed or others would like to buy Art Cologne these days. First, the conditions need to be created, and we are working on these conditions. You are already aware of the changes that we introduced, and that shall contribute to our comeback and to the return of a prosperous situation.

AfN: You said that Art Cologne is also part of the city's identity, thus more than "just a fair". Art Cologne-ads, its banners and posters, are omnipresent in the city. I got the impression that it is not just about the economic strength of the fair, but also about presenting the city.

Kurth: Of course. I regard this as our part of the responsibility. We might as well take the easy way out and say "we do not achieve our fiscal goals with such an event; so we just drop it!". But this is not possible because, as a public enterprise, as a part of communal and federal state property, we bear a certain responsibility. But we need more. We cannot do it alone. Cologne, the region and us, the fair corporation, we need to work together so that things can improve and enable us to position the event in a continuing positive way.

AfN: And is the mélange of classic modern and contemporary art at Art Cologne something that is worth preserving? Or could you imagine repositioning yourself in respect of content?

Kurth: Well, I do not want to intrude on Daniel Hug's responsibilities. He just arrived, but he will really kick off on May 1st. I think: Yes, the mixture is crucial. An event focused only on contemporary art has already been organised elsewhere, and it did not work. Classic modern and contemporary art make the right mixture. This is something worth working on, and I believe that the most important galleries here on site agree in opinion.

AfN: And you are giving Mr Hug plenty of rope?

Kurth: Yes. […]
And I am telling you: It has not been different before. It might have been presented differently but Gérard Goodrow - Daniel's predecessor - he, too, had all the possibilities. The art director has a budget, of course. But within the budget, he can do whatever he wants. Whether he invests the money in PR, whether he throws it down the drain, whether he makes visitor marketing or engages VIPs - he can do whatever he thinks is necessary. We trust in [Daniel Hug], and I am sure that he will use [this opportunity] and help us successfully enhance Art Cologne.

AfN: In Art Magazin, I have read that you decided to involve the BVDG more in the Art Cologne.

Kurth: It is not that the BVDG has the final say. This is definitely not the case. The art director needs to be free of ties, and he is making the final decision. Daniel Hug will have the final say.

But it is true that the BVDG has been a bit underrepresented in the last years. And we should always keep in mind that half of the exhibitors here are BVDG members. This should not be forgotten. They still are. It can change one day. If certain tendencies of internationalisation start to catch on - and Daniel Hug is the one who is fighting for us abroad - the quota will perhaps change; but I think that this is a long-time partner, and Gerrit Friese is a very good interlocutor with a lot of strategic and conceptual knowledge. We would like to involve that.

AfN: Usually, associations tend to be a bit old-fashioned...

Kurth: They are considered as old-fashioned. That is the problem. Just the word "Bundesverband" (federal association) makes one quiver and wonder about how that is supposed to work. But my decision depends on persons, and at this moment, the Board of BVDG is very open-minded, with a very positive and supporting attitude towards us. We all have a common goal. Why shouldn't we use this opportunity?

AfN: In the past, it was already exciting to go to Paris, and nowadays, you can so easily fly to Miami or Shanghai. Does Art Cologne want to meet the big international fairs head-on?

Kurth: Fiac had an excellent development, and Madrid, too, made a good job. - We have to face the fact that Cologne is not alone in this world. In the last ten, fifteen years, a lot of things have changed in the globalised art market; Frieze in London for example is an event that started somewhere in the dotcom-era but it has an absolute top-position now; and there are young international collectors there as well. I think a location where an art fair is taking place cannot afford to strictly focus on the exhibition halls - it has to ensure that the atmospheric surrounding harmonises with it. It has to be hip, to develop a cult. One museum is not enough. It needs more; it needs a scene. And this scene got a bit lost [in Cologne].

AfN: …migrated to Berlin.

Kurth: I certainly look with respect towards Berlin but I think that [this hype] is not enduring. There are no [established] structures for collectors; in the last years, since the German reunification, Berlin has created a sort of hype in almost every sector, but this hype usually died away very quickly, after two, three years. I do not have an enduring impression yet that Berlin will absolutely take the pole position in Germany. I don't think so. I think after the cancellation of Frankfurt and Düsseldorf, we have the best opportunities to re-conquer old territories. And I hope that we will become the undisputed number One in Germany again - this is already a lot of work for Daniel - and then we can still re-examine the locations carefully.

AfN: Art Cologne once had the reputation of being a collectors' fair; and a lot of "industrialists' families" live here. Is there such a thing as a generation of "collectors' sons and daughters"? And are they here or rather in Miami, for example?

Kurth: That is a problem. The subject you just addressed is very very important - this generational gap. I guess, nowadays people are less attached to traditions than in the old days. There is this Berlin study "11 billion vs. 7 billion", so in substance "the collector's environment here vs. Berlin" - it shows that the strongest potential is still in the Rhineland. It is our challenge to hand it over to the next generation in the first place. We have to work on that; this can perhaps be ensured within the framework of our programme that we want to develop for Art Cologne.

So there is still a lot to do, but again: we cannot do this alone, we have to work together with the region, meaning Cologne, Düsseldorf, Bonn... I mean, Düsseldorf cannot do this alone, either. The project was a complete flop, which is a pity for Düsseldorf. But I have to admit that this has been - not substantially, but at least bit - helpful for our event.

And one thing is encouraging: the spirit at this year's event is much better than last time. We have a better clientele, better galleries than in the two last years. It is the best basis for a new start, and by the energy of this event, Daniel Hug is given the chance to score.


AfN: He also tries to attract younger generations of collectors and to stir them into action...

Kurth: It is significant that "Open Space" - which is quite large, about 300 m² - was a crowd puller at this event; [it was very popular,] especially with the young public. "Open Space" attracts rather a young generation; but money was spent, substantially, one floor up, on classic modern art. We have works such as a Kirchner for 5,5 million Euro, certainly a good pound; turnovers are made there as well. [...]

Art needs a field of tension, and I see this field of tension between classic modern and avant-garde art. This has always aroused interest. We have very funny, heterogeneous folks in Cologne and surroundings, not only among collectors, but also among the simple public, and this, too, is part of the whole, giving fresh impetus. This is why I hold that we are not that badly positioned. We have to improve the quality, we have to become more international, we have to improve the dialogue with the art world - this is the reason why we created the international committee that Daniel brought together. I am very sure that we will be buoyed again in 2009.

AfN: So the medium-term strategic goal is to whip Art Cologne back into shape?

Kurth: Exactly. We allow us again the luxury not to admit 200, 250, 300 galleries just in order to sell bare square metres; we want to give [Art Cologne] the chance and the time to grow in terms of quality. And then [in the future], we do not exclude the possibility to admit more galleries. Like I said, Basel: 300 exhibitors, but another league. We had a similar situation here some time ago. I hope it is not going to take another 20 years before we get to this point again, but we are working on it.

AfN: It is good to see you that optimistic. And you do not think that, through the internationalisation of the fairs, we have to fear a sort of Starbucks/McDonald's-development, with always the same galleries?

Kurth: You mean like an agglomeration of chain stores… No, I hope not. It is certainly an interesting aspect, but art nowadays has become so varied - if you think of [art from] Korea, Japan, India, and stonger growing Turkey... We are also thinking about including a partner country concept in order to place a certain emphasis. There are so many new, young things coming. We just have to keep up with it, be up to date. This is our big challenge, I guess - detecting markets early in time and maybe being one step ahead.

AfN: Thank you very much for the interview.

Interview: Marek Claassen
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