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Veteran dealers swerve Berlin Art Forum 1998 due to dearth of big collectors

A fair in its infancy, Art Forum proved fruitful for younger dealers with affordable art, although its concurrence with Yom Kippur did not help matters

This year, the third Berlin Art Forum coincided with the opening of the Berlin Biennale and the official inauguration of the Potsdamer Platz—Berlin’s answer to Times Square. Unfortunately the fair’s opening also coincided with Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, which meant that several dealers and many collectors stayed away. Perhaps God was angry, for He smote Germany with a stock market crash during the fair.

David Juda of London’s Annely Juda Fine Art, which has sold well in the past two Berlin fairs, said “We decided that it was inappropriate to go on Yom Kippur. My mother, who founded the gallery, was originally from Germany and she felt strongly about it. It means that we will concentrate on the Cologne Fair.”

The European Galleries, the association of fourteen German galleries which organises the Art Forum, was apologetic. “It was a mistake which will not happen again,” said Volker Diehl, a Berlin dealer and director of the fair. Instead he emphasised that the European Galleries were honouring the Jewish art dealers active in Berlin before the war by founding the DM40,000 ($25,000) Paul Cassirer Art Prize, named for the celebrated Jewish art historian and dealer who was forced to flee Germany in the 1930s. The prize for two promising young artists at the fair was awarded to Liam Gillick and Monica Bonvicini and sponsored by the Berlin real estate developers Groth and Gralfs.

“Paul Cassirer was a revolutionary dealer. He brought the new French art to Berlin, hired Van de Velde to design his gallery, introduced a minimal hang, and had a broad understanding of culture and publishing,” said Mr Diehl. “He was part of the pre-war Jewish culture that made Berlin an art centre.” Nonetheless, the European Galleries announced this homage to the Jewish cultural past in Berlin—which they now call the “diaspora city”—on Yom Kippur. Someone is a little unclear on the concept.

Cultural confusion aside, the Art Forum seems to have fulfilled its promise of becoming a young, contemporary fair for a city that is pinning its hopes on the future. 146 galleries took part this year, up from 135 last year; of these 60% came from abroad. Of the German dealers, 23% came from Berlin.

The European Galleries want to exploit their position in Berlin by acting as an art lobby to the German government as much as a commercial enterprise. “It is important to state the case for the visual arts in Germany, particularly regarding EU tax issues. At present there is a 7% sales tax on art sold in Germany. We don’t want that to increase,” said Mr Diehl. The Art Forum also receives around DM200,000 ($125,000) in sponsorship from the Bank Gesellschaft Berlin, enabling it to invite international collectors, curators and journalists to Berlin for the fair.

Art Forum Berlin will never be Basel, nor will it replace Cologne as Germany’s premier modern art fair. Instead it has carved a niche for itself in the $5000-50,000 price range, attracting young and established international dealers of mainly emerging artists. The fair’s turnover this year was around DM20 million ($12.5 million).

British dealers performed well again this year, reflecting the continued international interest in young British art and the opening of the “Sensation” show at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof. Maureen Paley of Interim Art in London sold out her stand, which included works by “Sensation” star and Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing (£5000; $8,500), Mark Francis (£12,000; $20,400) and Sarah Jones (£3000; $5,100). “We did even better than last year,” said Ms Paley. “Young British art is performing well because it is still affordable and not so widely seen in Europe.”

London’s White Cube gallery sold two sculptures by Mark Quinn and a spin painting by Damien Hirst, although the gallery commented that it did not do as well as last year. The new gallery Asprey-Jacques sold photographs and moulded rubber sculptures by Jane Simpson in the £1000-3000 range ($1700-5100). Anthony Reynolds did better than last year, selling some Richard Billingham photo prints from the series on view in “Sensation” for between £2000 and £5000 ($3400-8500).

However more established British galleries stayed away. Anthony d’Offay participated in both the Berlin and Cologne fairs last year but is only doing Cologne this year. London’s Lisson gallery also chose Cologne over Berlin.

Among the European dealers, it was mainly moderately priced, user-friendly works that sold well. One of the most interesting young Berlin galleries, Neugeriemschneider, won the prize for best stand with the lounge-like ambience of its stools created by Tobias Rehberger. Two sets of twelve sold for DM25,000 ($15,600) each. Elizabeth Peyton drawings on offer sold for $4000 each and a Sharon Lockhart photo piece went for $15,000 to a museum. A painting by the unknown young Berlin artist Antje Majewski sold to an American collector for DM6500 ($4,060).

Another success was the young gallery Ars Futura from Zurich, which sold out of its works by Daniel Buetti: photo-collages stretched over fluorescent lights, which parody the image of ideal beauty fed to us by fashion magazines, priced between DM2500 and DM6500 ($1,560-4,060). Gallery Lumen Travo from Amsterdam sold all of its limited edition Shirin Neshat photographs of Iranian women inscribed with the artist’s writing ($1800 per print in an edition of ten). Micheline Swajcer of Antwerp showed works by Mareike van Warmerdam, who has a DAAD fellowship in Berlin this year. Particularly popular were her unusual photos by Alicia Framis entitled “Dreamkeeper”: the artist offered to sleep with strangers to “catch their dreams” by keeping her camera’s shutter open during the eight-hour slumber, creating a ghost-like apparition in the room.

The Swiss dealer Susanna Kulli from St Gallen stood out with a large-scale sculpture by Thomas Hirschorn, who also made an installation for the Berlin Biennale and has a show at Portikus in Frankfurt opening this month. His tent-like vitrine “Gold Mic Mac” (SFr25,000; $19,200) uses the imagery of gold bars and the Nazi auctions of “degenerate art” in Switzerland as a metaphor for the idea of transubstantiation through art. Although she met a curator interested in purchasing the piece through the fair, Ms Kulli felt the level of interest was not high enough. “I had smaller pieces which sold immediately in Basel and didn’t sell here. People didn’t even appear curious.”

Christian Nagel from Cologne, one of the organisers of the Art Forum, showed a compelling sculpture by artist-cum-philosophy professors Clegg and Guttman called “Zionism as Separatism”, consisting of bookshelves covered in photoprints of books to make a library of “isms”: feminism, nationalism, Zionism, etc, to illustrate how such movements can divide people instead of bringing them closer together. They remained unsold at DM25,000 ($15,600), although one sold last year at Basel. “There was no improvement in sales from last year. We need to bring in more buyers, but we are still a young fair,” said Mr Nagel.

Did the Americans think Berlin was worth the transatlantic journey? Again, younger dealers fared well while blue chip galleries did not. Richard Heller of Santa Monica sold out of seventy drawings made of ink, watercolour and rootbeer by the young Canadian artist Marcel Dzama priced at DM400 ($250) each. “I’ve never been here before and I’ve made great contacts with German collectors and curators. I’ll definitely come back,” he said. But Marion Goodman, who also came for the first time with works by Rebecca Horn, Marcel Broodthaers, Thomas Struth, John Baldessari, Christian Boltanski and Juan Muñoz was disappointed. “There was a lot of interest in the Muñoz sculpture, but beyond that the audience was not great in terms of meeting new collectors,” said a spokesperson for the gallery.

Obviously no one ever told the LA-based dealer Patrick Painter that art should be seen and not heard: he offended everyone near him with a noisy Mike Kelly installation which he refused to turn down. It did sell, however, for $60,000. Painter plans to return next year, despite the noise complaints.

Art Forum Berlin 1998 fact sheet

Dates 1-4 October

Type of art contemporary

Number of exhibitors 146 from 22 countries

Cost of stand DM262 ($164)

per sq. m.

Size of fair 7000 sq. metres of stands

Size of stands 15 sq. m. (for young galleries), 30 sq. m., 60 sq. m.

Number of visitors 2000 per day

Turnover DM20 million ($12.5 million)

Types of work sold paintings (40%), works on paper (38%), photography (37%), sculpture (28%), video art (4%), installations (4%)

Number of years operating three

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Still needs to grow up'