My memories of São Paulo are of an astoundingly big, vertical metropolis – it’s not a city, it’s a concrete universe – suffocated with traffic, human and vehicular. Traversing this post-apocalyptic urban desert from the expensive neighborhood of Jardins (fancy brunches, a boutique for Havaianas, and a concentration of pristine, architect-designed galleries) to Republica, I was confronted with a catastrophic scene: a community stricken by extreme poverty, crime, and drug addiction. As an outsider I stood numbly looking on at a splinter of what constitutes reality in Brazil’s largest city.
Founded in 2005 by Fernanda Feitosa SP-Arte is now one of the city’s principal art events, alongside the São Paulo Bienal, displaying booths from world-class galleries to museum curators, celebrities, and some of the globe’s heaviest collectors. On one hand, SP-Arte’s success is proof of the significant progress that has been made in Brazil the last decade. But in the context of a city as riddled with problems as this, where rich and poor remain so heart-breakingly divided, what is the role of the art fair?
Virginia de Medeiros, Meiriele, 2013, Digital photopainting,120 × 90 cm; Courtesy Galeria Nara Roesler
Art fairs, and especially those taking place in the world’s developing economies, where international art markets are growing in tandem, have a real opportunity to galvanize social change. They bring together many of the people shaping the face of the world’s major industry sectors, as well as attract international press exposure and corporate sponsorship. At a four-day fair in São Paulo, London, New York, or Miami, a stand costs a gallery on average $20,000 to participate. A sum that equates to two years’ annual income for the city’s poorest.
While São Paulo’s local labor government, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, is ostensibly dedicated to promoting the spread of culture to poorer areas, with growing initiatives such as the “virada cultural" (an annual series of free cultural events taking place through the night, much like the “White Nights” festivals held around the world), there is still a seismic discord between the activity that happens at the fairs and their resonance within the city. Arts for a Better World is a US-based organization keen to provide a model for the future of art fairs in the form of the only socially responsible art fair, Overture, at Miami Basel. Its co-founder Sandrine Kukurudz, highlights the importance of mobilizing the potential art fairs have to do good in their mission statement “to strongly and consistently promote corporate social responsibility by using the arts as a vehicle for positive change.” While art itself might be confronting social issues, the machine of the art fair is still grinding to an old rhythm of the halcyon days of the economy.
Graciela Sacco, Barrier, from the series BODY TO BODY, 1996-2014, Photographic inlay on 22 pieces of wood, 200 × 270 cm; Courtesy Rolf Art
As my colleague points out, SP-Arte does offer an opportunity to discuss issues pertaining to the wider subject of cultural diffusion, which is undoubtedly a good starting point for cracking open the debate on concerns closer to home. But it’s still a private bubble inside a temporary shell.
For the Paulistanos I spoke to in my research, SP-Arte and the Bienal events lack honest appeal to real social problems in the area, and make no attempt at an enduring commitment to contributing to existing solutions. The corollary seems to be that fairs could and should be engaging with their Corporate Social Responsibility, not just in São Paulo, but in New York, London, Miami, Hong Kong, in all parts of the world. As an effigy of capitalism, art fairs should welcome the same consumer scrutiny as conglomerates in other industries. It tallies with the common skepticism surrounding art fairs around the world, that they only transfer wealth from the rich to the rich. Rather than simply accepting the co-existence of "haves" and the "have-nots," it’s about making an intuitive demand with a collective will to improve our world.
(Image on top: Iris Helena, Notas Públicas #2 - da série Lembretes [Public Notes # 2 - Reminders series], 2010, Ink jet print on yellow notes , 200 × 295 cm; Courtesy of Portas Vilaseca Galeria)