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Viennafair 2008: Interview with Matthias Limbeck from Reed Exhibitions

Interview with Matthias Limbeck, manager of Reed Exhibitions, organizer of Viennafair.

AfN: Good morning.

Matthias Limbeck: Hello. Welcome to Vienna, welcome to Viennafair.

AfN: I would like to know how many fairs are organized by Reed Exhibitions and the role they play in your agenda.

Matthias Limbeck: Reed Exhibitions is the biggest fair organizer with around 500 events every year in over 30 countries. In total, we have 27 operative offices -from North America to Japan, the UK to Germany and Australia. Here in Austria we are responsible for the market in CEE (Central and Eastern European countries). Our agenda covers 50 fairs, around 40 are annual fairs.
This is the fourth time that we are the organizers of Viennafair. This is the fourth edition, and obviously it has a special meaning because there is no other fair as important for the media as Viennafair -apart from Autoshow- where we have an audience that cannot be found in the rest of the year. As organizers at the fair Wien Neu, we warmly welcome this event, and we regard it as a very good marketing tool which shows that the exhibition site is an excellent meeting point.

AfN: On your website,, you mention the Fiac fair as a market-leader, but not Viennafair. Which role does Viennafair play for Reed Exhibitions?

Matthias Limbeck: So to speak, as a global company?

AfN: Yes… you are active at a global level, do you organize cultural events in every country to attract a specific audience?

Matthias Limbeck: As far as I know that is not included in my partners' development programme. Each operative office should determine the potential of every single case which will depend on the country. Clearly, we have a good relationship with our Reed partners in France which are organizing Fiac. I think last year it was the Fiac's 47th edition. We can learn much from them. They have returned to their previous prosperity, but they had to work hard for that.
The topic "Fair of Art" is a very thorny one. There is no other topic which carries those feelings. If the topic works and the fair take(s) place(s), the atmosphere would be great. So far, I personally think this is the best fair -if it goes on. The four or five days are worth it. If the critics are positive, if galleries sell, then pieces fit together.

AfN: In my opinion, it is interesting that Viennafair has been set up as the art entry to the CEE. Why do you think it is so important to position Viennafair as an entry point?

Matthias Limbeck: Every product needs a reference point for every competitor, for every organizer. Regarding the geographical location, we said clearly -and it was also the aim of the co-founder and the first assistant- "we want to focus on (the) modern art from and for Central and Eastern Europe". Throughout the diversity of galleries from Central and Eastern Europe and good galleries from Western Europe, we are showing (to) the wide range of collectors that we have something interesting. And I must say it has grown, no doubt.

Collectors know the action does not take place in Düsseldorf and Frankfurt. We can bring, both quantitative and qualitatively, what it is needed for (a) hard work… We waited longer for the search of new galleries, mainly in Eastern Europe, between the Baltic and Bosphorus. There, many galleries start from scratch, and you have to work harder. It is a beautiful work, although a hard one.

AfN: If you compare data from Eastern Europe's participating galleries, including Russia, then you find Art Moscow, Budapest Art Fair and Art Prague ahead of Viennafair

Matthias Limbeck: I would like to have a look at it now. How many exhibitions are in Budapest?

AfN: I am referring to what the amount in itself accounts for. Obviously, they are smaller fairs.

Matthias Limbeck: I think Prague and Budapest cannot be compared with us at all. Neither does Moscow. It is clear we are ahead of them, considering size and quality.

AfN: I took the trouble to count the participating galleries coming from different regions and I have seen that the number of Eastern galleries have decreased from 20 to 10% since 2006. Why is that?

Matthias Limbeck: It is 21 galleries out of 126, and according to my reckonings, it makes over 15%. We are far from 10%. But if we are talking about 20 or 15%, it should not be taken into account.

It works as follows: we support these galleries in the beginning. We have a sponsor, ERSTE BANK, which is in charge of the expenses and help them to come on stage. It is something unique, but it does not last for ever. We do not mind if we are seen as a springboard, as long as the galleries make progress and are seen in Paris as associations and alliances or they have the chance to take part in Basel… I completely agree with that, that is, they should make progress, they should walk on their own feet.

We always try to have new participants, but as I said, there are not many new ones. Development is not as dynamic as we had expected four years ago.

AfN: And what about Russia, then?

Matthias Limbeck: That is a special case. Although Moscow is a huge metropolis, there might be around 10 Russian or Muscovite galleries which meet the requirements. There is a lot going on there, because the location of Art Moscow will not be available in the future.

Some partners from Expo-Center Moscow asked us for help, not officially, to give a boost to Expo-Center within a new Modern Art Show. But this is not easy, because the infrastructure cannot be compared to the Central and Western Europe's. In this sense, I believe we have increasing chances -here I think you are absolutely right- 20 or 21 galleries are not very gratifying.

My aim was a third -in informal terms- of Eastern Europe, a third of Austria- we should not forget we are an Austrian corporate body-, and a third of Western Europe. That would be our aim. We will not focus too much on the number of galleries; for the time being, we will stay in 120. A few years ago, our partners in Berlin already went through the same experience, and they realized you should not hurry. You cannot trip twice on the same stone.

AfN: I would like to know your opinion, as the fair's organizer, on the activities implemented by Merchandise Mart which boosted Art Chicago and which can only be seen in Viennafair from time to time. Is that a problem?

Matthias Limbeck: That is not a problem at all. Some of our exhibitors find themselves momentarily between two different scenes, but it is only a minority. It is even interesting… We are on the collector's side. There are 260 collectors registered, all of them attended the fair, and a third of them are from North America. So, collectors have not been persuaded in any way to not coming. For them, this connection -Vienna as a cultural city, Vienna as an entry, our programme- is a clear incentive to come to Vienna. And once I have the critics from the galleries, collectors will have bought properly. I am curious about the results of the polls and the critics.

AfN: I find the atmosphere "familiar" and "relaxing", and the result is a valuable art of (a) wide range, and very stimulating art. In my opinion, that is the advantage of small fairs. I would like to know if collectors would appreciate this, and if so, maybe they will prefer Vienna to Chicago.

Matthias Limbeck: I must say we are not megalomaniac. We are not in the Champions League, but we are in a clear and new position that we will keep, if in that way we become international -we will be on the exhibitor's side, as for distinguishing galleries, or on the collector's side, to continue making progress. Our aim is not "we want to be within the three first best fairs". That is not our aim. What we want is to be as much satisfied as possible. That is our main goal.

AfN: The German newspaper FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung") criticized the "creation of the ghetto" by the galleries from Central and Eastern Europe. What was the reason for this categorisation?

Matthias Limbeck: Since last September we have a new board of directors. It was a unanimous proposal by the board that has not been implemented yet. So far, we have worked within a wide range of galleries: small, big, well known galleries from Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe. It has been well welcome. Besides, the board has the right to regard things from a different point of view. I have heard as many positive opinions as critics as possible. I personally prefer to focus on diversity and not to create a ghetto, as we have done in previous years.

AfN: My last interview was in Cologne, at Art Cologne, with the company Kölnmesse GmbH. They said the stay out of the artistic department. When the department makes a decision, so to speak, they have nothing to do. But in Reed Exhibitions that is different, am I right?

Matthias Limbeck: As I said before, our aim is that the interested parties be satisfied. I am sure that will be a topic under discussion, but we are absolutely democratic. When there is a unanimous opinion by the board, we do not interfere. It will be supported. Although it is our right to say "we should think about this point and that one, we have to talk about this and that". I think it is fair to comply with the democratic principles.

AfN: When I was preparing for this interview, I found one of your interviews online. It was about ARCO and Viennafair, and how ARCO had 200 000 visitors and Viennafiar around 17 000. I wanted to check through Google-News if Viennafair was on the front page along with the most important news from Austrian websites. And it was. Viennafair is considered as important for Austria by Google, which keeps it on the front page, as ARCO is for Spain.

And, is there anyway for the country to boost their support of the fair? After all, the King of Spain opened ARCO

Matthias Limbeck: Good question, I very much appreciate it. It is something annoying, I do not understand it. Vienna is known as the Capital of Music. Within the plastic art world we are three steps behind.

We, the fair's organizers, have already achieved something: we have access, we have made progress. But mainly, I would like to be supported by the city. After all, this is a very good opportunity. I am not talking about subsidies. In Vienna, there are over 150.000 people. 200.000 people, of around 30 and 40 years of age, are interested in the art world. They have certain affinities with modern art, and they will probably be future collectors. We have not focused much on them, and this attitude is annoying. If now, so to speak, I withdraw the Vernissage's collaborators, if I withdraw certain collectors, if I withdraw the artists and pseudo-artists that come here attracted by the fair as a magnet, then activity would go down to 3 or 4%. That is nothing.

And here comes the important fact: there is no awareness. It is by raising awareness that we can arouse the curiosity of the population to attend Viennafair. Nobody does it at all. Awareness should be in the foreground, and that is why the city should be involved. We should live in the squares of the city, not only three days before the fair and the following days. We have to start earlier. In this sense, we have many allies -"Roma was not build in a day", we cannot lose hope- and I can see a certain potential here. If Madrid has 3 million Euros and ARCO can make use of them directly or indirectly… I do not mean that I want 3 millions, 10% would be enough. We could do something with that.

AfN: Years ago, I talked about this issue with Jennifer Flay and also with Bethenod from Fiac, and she clearly thinks that Paris should be included. This had been achieved, in some way, by the return of the fair to the Grand Palais. Have you thought about moving to a different location? I have nothing against the pavilions. They are beautiful...

Matthias Limbeck: That is the problem. This location has a gross area of 12 000 sq. metres. There is no other available location in Vienna. That is why in 2004, they came to us and said "the (old) Kunst Wien at MAK is too small, too local. We want to attract international galleries. We need room, etc, etc…" That was technically impossible.

But here it is. We have a new area. Besides, it has underground connection, which was the weak point. We are interested in continuing to hold Viennafair at Messe Wien.

AfN: The fair ends tomorrow. Can you say, to sum up, that it will go forward?

Matthias Limbeck: Yes, we will go forward. The critics are favorable. So far, the sell is good. And above all, the international council's opinion is very very positive. We still have a long list of things to do. Although not everything is perfect. There are still many challenges, but we will go forward. We are committed.

There is a company, Departure, in which Vienna is interested, and it takes very seriously the sponsorship. This company has a new director, an old member of the Austrian Cultural Institute in New York, with whom we are working intimately. There are good ideas, and the commitment can make a budget. That was exactly our proposal. Joint actions should be carried out before and throughout the fair, so that the city welcomes and shares Viennafair. I am hopeful that we will overcome other obstacles as well.

We are not yet in a comfortable situation. We are still at a very early stage. But progress is clear, feedbacks are positive, and we are very motivated.

AfN: Thank you very much for your interview.

Interview: Marek Claassen

Translation: Sara Sánchez Alonso

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