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Art Basel: Interview with Marc Spiegler and Annette Schönholzer

Marek Claassen, Annette Schönholzer and Marc Spiegler

This is an and interview with Marc Spiegler and Annette Schönholzer, the co-directors of Art Basel.

AfN : Hello Ms. Schönholzer, hello Mr. Spiegler.

MS, AS: Hello.

AfN : You are in charge of the biggest primary art market events in the world? Do you feel satisfied about having reached the top or is it rather a burden?

MS: I think it is a source of great excitement to be part of the greatest art show in the art world.

AfN : And how was it for you, Ms. Schönholzer? Isn't it a bit like jumping in at the deep end?

AS: First of all, it is not really our achievement. It has been a long-standing development of the show that it has reached the top, and it has been there for quite a while.
Personally, I have been with the show for the past six years so I am very very familiar with it.

AfN : So for you, it was rather a process of growing into it.
But Mr. Spiegler, you are an outsider. You were a writer, a journalist before...

MS: Yes, that is right. I was a writer before. But I was always very interested in the evolution of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach, very closely monitoring it. For an outsider, I was pretty cognisant of what was going on inside.

AfN : But you have changed the role. You are a manager now.

MS: I did change roles but as a writer I was always someone who was very much on the side of the galleries, who really believed in the notion of an art world that was galleries-centric and not specualtion-centric.
So perhaps I changed my title but I did not change my heart.

AfN : You are now half way through with your first edition of Art Basel. I read something about 1 billion in sales. Is this a realistic figure?

AS: I am afraid that is really something we would not know. We tend to measure the succes by the happy looks on the faces of our galleries.

MS: We do not have the need or the capability to track sales figures.
And I think it is always difficult to say where you would start measuring the sales of a show. Is it a week before when people know that something is coming and want to buy it before it arrives? Is it six months afterwards when the initial contact of someone walking on your stand and meeting a gallerist for the first time, turns into a sale? - As Annette said, it is not something that we measure, and it is not how we measure our success.

AfN : But if the information is correct, and if 1 billion is a realistic figure, you could argue that you are now on a face-to-face level with the big auction houses in terms of turnover. Can you imagine the primary market taking over the dominance in the art world?

MS: First of all, we do not have any turnover. Our galleries have turnover. I think people usually make the mythological mistake of considering that there are three different types of sales: gallery sales, auction house sales and art fair sales. In fact, the sales that happen in shows such as ours and the sales that happen in the galleries are very closely connected. In fact, they belong to the same group, so we really do not distinguish. Obviously, you can measure the number of pieces that were sold in an evening sale quite easily. But the number of pieces that were sold as a result of our show is incalculable.

If you want to talk on a broader level, the fact is that the auction houses have become more and more involved in the artists who form the primary market. They have started to work with artists who are younger and younger. So if anything, it is them coming into our territory, not us going into their territory.

AfN : This leads us to the next question. In discussions with gallery owners, I always got the impression that the secondary market is considered as a threat because the galleries lose the pricing control. Are the people who are active in the secondary market also gallery clients at Art Basel?

MS: I think the term "secondary market" as you are using it is very limited. Secondary market only means the sale of a work that is not coming directly from the artist. In fact, a great many of our galleries, the galleries that are in Art Basel, are active in the markets of their artists, so in the secondary market as well.

When a collector owns a piece from an artist and decides that he wants to no longer own it, he will often quite responsibly go back to the gallery and say "I am not interested in this piece" or "now I am interested in other artists of your programme"; he will give that piece back to the gallery from which it came, or sell it back, and then that gallery will try to do the same thing it does at the primary level which is to place it within a great collection or great museum.
So almost any gallery of any sort of length, of durability is involved both in the primary and the secondary market of its artists.

AfN : Yes, I might have mistakenly limited the term "secondary market" to "auction sales". I am certainly aware of the fact that galleries are dealers as well, that they have to buy and sell, but I wanted to focus on the fact that the art world is a buyer market, and that there is a smaller number of figures involved in collecting and buying.

The people coming here and those attending the evening sales - is this a somehow interconnected group or are there two different, separate groups of people?

MS: I think there are a lot of collectors that buy both in galleries and at evening sales. But the collectors who have been around for a long time, who know how the art world works, realise that there is a fundamental difference between buying at a gallery - whether that gallery is in a show such as ours or at the gallery itself - and buying at auctions. The difference is that when you buy at auctions, the only people you benefit are the auction house and the consignor; when you buy in a gallery, you benefit the artist, the gallery and the other artists of the gallery because most galleries will use the sales, the revenue from the most successful artists to continue to fund the projects of their artists who are still emerging. So even though people may buy in both, it is not the same thing.

AfN : Art Basel could perhaps be understood as a kind of terminus for an artistic career. When an artist's work is exhibited at Art Basel, he/she knows that he/she has reached the top. When we speak about a classic gallery career of an artist, we also think of pricing control. The prices go up, the gallery establishes the artist in the art world, and at a certain point, the artist cannot grow anymore and jumps into the secondary market where there is a fluctuation in pricing; the control has gone.
Can Art Basel be regarded as a terminus for primary art market careers?

MS: I totally disagree. Just the fact that an artist's work is part of the secondary market does not mean that they are not part of the primary market. As long as they continue to produce work, it is on the primary market which means it is coming through the galleries.
I think you have a much too delineated distinction between primary market and secondary market, and a much too unrigorous approach to how you are thinking about it.

AfN : Going back to the fair market. There are two mega top events: Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach. These events are followed by e.g. Armory and Frieze. And there is the strong desire to compete with or, even better, to overtake Art Basel.
In your opinion is there room for three or four mega art fairs in the world?

AS: I think right now, we have two mega art fairs. We have certainly additional art fairs that are going on, and they are very important art fairs because of our complementary team work. But in general, we do not really tend to comment on what other art fairs are doing. We tend to look at ourselves and benchmark our own work and try to stay on top of what we are aiming to achieve.

AfN : One crucial, initial element of Art Basel's success was its open-mindness about other galleries. They were invited, and Art Basel became international. That was a competetive advantage.
Now, being number one, how can you be innovative enough to overcome incrusted structures?

AS: I cannot really see incrusted structures in here. I find that we have always had a certain amount of change within what we are doing. But when something is successful, there is no need to change.

We try to highlight certain topics or highlight certain trends or we add on platforms for dialogue etc. That is what we are interested in - increasing that kind of quality.

MS: As this is for an internet TV station, I will use an internet example which is Google. Google, on the one hand, is an incredibly powerful player in the technology space, and on the other hand, is incredibly innovative. So the notion that you cannot be at the same time an organisation which has a lot of impact upon a sector and innovate, to me, is ludicrous.

In fact, one of the strongest success factors for Art Basel has been the constant innovation, and we are still innovating. I mean, last year we added "Art on Stage" for instance, and for those who saw the "Elmgreen & Dragset" performance last night, it is clear that there is a real place for theatrical settings within the art world. And one of the nice things is that we can afford to experiment, that we have the time, the energy and the sources to play around with the structure.

In terms of the galleries, I think there is a constant turnover, especially with the younger galleries and statements in our premiere, but even if you looked at the galleries of "Art Galleries" which is the main section, year to year, it is only a few galleries, but over time, there is a constant process of new galleries coming in. Other galleries who have lost the strength and power to stay here, leave.

AfN : I had the ARCO in mind when I was asking the question.
The ARCO fair in Madrid felt incrusted and was cleaned up very drastically. They cancelled invitations to lots of galleries which have been there for years.
So according to your answer, I guess that you do not have to think about such a blood-letting for the Art Basel?

AS: We do not need to do that.

AfN : I read some interviews with you where you mentioned the word 'best' quite often. What do you exactly mean when you say 'best' galleries or 'best' quality in art?

MS: What we mean is that we work with the galleries which work with the artists who have the most resilience and relevance in terms of what is going on in the last 110 years of the art world. Obviously, there are many different ways to discuss and assess quality, but I think, most people - and it is not just us - would argue that Art Basel has the strongest galleries with the strongest artists of their very experience.

AfN : With 300 galleries you are the biggest event. Do you think that 300 galleries is the limit or will we see even bigger events if other fairs size up as well?

AS: 300 galleries are very hard to cover over a [short] period of time. Many of our visitors have to come back, once or twice, maybe three times, to be able to cover the full show. So by increasing the number of galleries we would not be doing anybody a favour. If there is a slight increase it is because there is just more evolving, very good galleries. That would be a reason to possibly do that. But beyond that, we have to limit it to an amount that is actually feasible to cover.

AfN : Do you think that 300 is feasible?

MS: I mean there is no quota, there is nothing set in stone. We do not measure quantity. We measure quality. If the selection committee decided there were only 280 galleries that were worthy of inclusion, we would have 280 galleries. I mean, there are physical limits but that is not what drives us.

AS: The last difference is that we increased the number of statements, of "Art Statements" that we are showing, we have more "Art Unlimited" projects than ever this year. So yes, if the necessity is there, we will do it.

AfN : The Asian market is a contemporary issue. Art Basel is reacting to that dynamic market by inviting the top collectors.
Will they find what they seek in Basel?

MS: It depends on what they seek.

AfN : Asian collectors like Asian art a lot. Is this something you take into consideration or do you say: "We show the best art in the world, and it does not matter where it comes from"?

MS: I think, one of the great things about the art world is that it is not nationalistic. It is not a secret what sort of work is being shown here. I imagine that someone who came all the way from India or China for example would have a pretty good idea of what he is going to find and would not be surprised to find a very broad mix of works from all over the world.

AfN : Ms. Schönholzer, Mr. Spiegler, thank your for the interview.

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