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Last updated: June 9, 2012 12:03 am
A furious row erupted in the run-up to last year’s Art Basel, when three prominent Berlin galleries – Eigen+Art, Giti Nourbakhsch and Mehdi Chouakri – were turned down by the world’s most prestigious art fair. It sparked a major dust-up, with Gert Harry Lybke of Eigen+Art making very vocal accusations of collusion by other Berlin galleries to keep competitors out.
The spat was a rare public airing of what is normally a behind-the-scenes, some would say cloak-and-dagger, aspect of art fairs: selection committees. Competition to get into the top art fairs is intense. It’s easy to see why: fairs can represent up to 70 per cent of a gallery’s annual turnover. And then there’s the ignominy of rejection, the possibility of losing gallery artists as well a loss of prestige and significance in the eyes of collectors.
With 950 applications for just 306 booths at Art Basel this year, and despite a non-refundable fee of SFr450-SFr550 (£300-£370) just to get on the list, there are plenty of disappointments. And getting in one year doesn’t guarantee anything for the future – every gallery has to reapply, every year.
So who decides? The selection committee is made up of dealers: this year, Xavier Hufkens (Brussels), David Juda (London), Jochen Meyer (Karlsruhe), Tim Neuger (Berlin), Franco Noero (Turin) and Eva Presenhuber (Zurich). The only American is Miguel Abreu, who advises on the young galleries sections.
So fraught is the selection process that galleries will seldom criticise (even when they are rejected) for fear of jeopardising future chances. And Art Basel co-director Marc Spiegler says, “We have a policy of never commenting on selection.”
But behind the façade, there are major issues at play. “The Basel committee has too much power,” says one dealer who has had ups and downs with the fair: “They can use that power to get the best artists, because they know they are sure of a stand. They form a tight clique, and some people say they turn down exhibitors who show the same artists as themselves.” A few years ago another dealer complained: “My gallery was rejected for Basel, yet my artists are all over the fair.” But, says former selector Claes Nordenhake, “My experience of Basel is that the [selection] process is extremely honourable.”
So what are the criteria for acceptance into Basel? Nordenhake says, “We look at the gallery programme, where they have placed works, and the presentations in other art fairs.”
During the fair itself, the “rehang” which takes place as pieces are sold will also be carefully scrutinised to ensure that it is up to the opening display. The committee goes around the whole fair every day at 8am: a mediocre rehang has sunk galleries in the past.
“Being a selector is a serious job, people don’t believe the amount of work it entails,” says Nordenhake. “You have to devote up to 21 full days for meetings, there are planning sessions in the summer. And then, when you’re totally hung over, you have to be up at 8am for the morning visit every day of the fair.” Juda says you “burn out” after about six to eight years. This year he is stepping down, to be replaced by the New York dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes.
And as he also points out: “Being a selector is terrible for relationships between dealers. If someone is rejected, there is the question, ‘who spoke out against me?’ It can get very personal.”
So what about Eigen+Art, which is back this year, as is Mehdi Chouakri? Juda says: “Last year the committee felt that Eigen’s stand was not up to Basel standards. Since then, it has improved so much that it has been readmitted.”
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