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From the Flea Market to the Art Fair: Selection and Curation at Art Basel
by Elvia Wilk

In 2011, Art Basel’s selection committee rejected three prominent Berlin galleries from the fair: Eigen+ Art, Giti Nourbakhsch and Mehdi Chouakri. This triggered claims that their rejection was the fault of an extremely Berlin-heavy selection committee. Suspicion was that the three Berlin-based gallerists on the committee had denied entry to their local competitors. According to an article by Nicolai Hartvig in Artinfo France, Eigen + Art’s Gerd Harry Lybke went as far as to reference the Stasi in the discussion around this rejection.

Regardless of what actually went on last year, it is safe to conjecture that art fair selection is a complex process with many nuances. And this selectivity pervades every inch of the fair’s setup and programming – far beyond the question of who gets in are the questions of how the artists and galleries are categorized and presented.

Like many art fairs, Art Basel filters its jam-packed program into various categories to help visitors navigate the experience. Besides the obvious Art Galleries section, exhibitions are organized into Art Feature, Art Statements, Art Unlimited, Art Parcours, Art Film, Art Edition, and Art Magazines. Magazines, editions and films are relatively self-explanatory designations, and it makes sense to house them in specified areas. Parcours, also, is a series of site-specific projects that take place in various historic quarters of the city. But what defines the Feature, Statements, and Unlimited sections, which could seemingly be lumped into the broader Art Galleries category? Why separate them as such?

Basel’s Art Feature list includes 20 gallery presentations “from a wide range of cultures, generations, and artistic approaches.” Specific galleries are selected to present their curatorial approach, and as a whole the category is intended to offer a wide-ranging panorama of works with some kind of historical resonance.

In contrast, Basel’s Art Statements list, comparable to Frieze’s Frieze Frame selection, is described as “a frequent site of discovery by those seeking emerging artists...” in which 27 young artists are invited to present solo projects in their gallery spaces. Two of these will be chosen to receive the Baloise Art Prize.

Rodrigo Torres, Uns trocados (Some change), 2009; Courtesy of the artist and A Gentil Carioca. Art Feature Hall 2.1, Booth R2.


This year, the Art Unlimited section has been curated by Gianni Jetzer, Director of the Swiss Institute in New York. The Unlimited area features 62 projects by a “cross-section of the leading figures from several generations of today’s international art scene.” Characterized as the non-commercial area of the fair (as most of the works within it will be too large, site-specific, or expensive for anyone to really buy), Jetzer’s show includes most of the big shots and yet also provides “a forum for young and ambitious artists.”

It is possible to understand the categorization of these sections according to the way curation is situated within them. In Feature, the galleries conceive and curate their own cohesive presentations; in Statements, the individual artists have relative curatorial freedom; and in Unlimited, a fair-appointed curator assembles all the presentations himself. These represent three distinct models of curatorial approach.

On another level, categorization could simply be viewed as maximum-hype generation. The art circuit wants to appear ever fresh-faced, always turning up brand-new, exciting, ambitious, young participants – and this model of filtering artists and galleries makes instant discovery possible. Moreover, the secrecy of the selection process, the competition it induces, and the fact that a good deal of money is indeed involved, add up to a reliable amount of hype.

Chris Burden, Curved Bridge, 2003; Courtesy Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna. Art Unlimited Hall 2.1, Booth K19.


And on yet another level — art fairs also love novelty, which often comes in the form of diversity: from the extremely young to the extremely old; from the world’s major cities to countries never-before represented. It’s possible that the designation of three highlighted fair sectors allows for a curation of apparent diversity that may not actually be representative of the art fair as a whole.

However, as a PR representative told me on the phone, “We can offer curated areas, but we can’t tell galleries how to arrange their shows — we can’t say, you have to include a diverse group of artists. They have to sell work. It’s still an art fair!”

She’s right. Art Basel’s program is indicative of the complex balance that the fair must strike between presenting a carefully curated experience and allowing market tendencies to structure the event. In 2009, Art Basel Co-Director Marc Spiegler said, “It's not the ‘flea market’ model anymore in which we just sold square meters and dealers brought whatever they could. The selection committees […] expect a kind of curatorial approach from the galleries. The people who come are not just dealers and collectors anymore, but also curators.” If there’s one thing to take from this, and to watch for in upcoming years, it’s the way that curatorial practice is shifting in relation to Spiegler’s “flea market” model. How art fairs will continue to retain the tricky balance between the two remains to be seen.


Elvia Wilk


(Image on top right:  Aurélien Froment, 9 intervals, 2011 – 2012, HD video still; Courtesy of the artist and Motive Gallery. Art Statements, Hall 1.0, Booth S08)

Posted by Elvia Wilk on 6/9/12

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I was a solo artist at the International Art Expo New York in 2011. That art fair seemed to me to be done in a very simplified way, much like you explained above, "Just selling space." There was a lot of sales on the part of the producers, making out like there were lots of sales for the solo artists, not just to get us in the door (spending thousands) but even after the event. I spoke to just about every Solo Artist there, to compare how I was doing to the rest of the group. Basically, an Extremely small percentage, below 5% made some money but the rest of us did not even make our money back. It makes the artists not represented feel like they are being used, and as for me, it is unlikely I will enter events like this again.

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