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Artissima Stories: Ilaria Bonacossa in conversation with Joanna Kamm

25 September 2019 Artissima Stories

Artissima, established in 1994, and LISTE, launched shortly thereafter, in 1996, share a founding mission: to spotlight and support emerging galleries. Ilaria Bonacossa and Joanna Kamm came to the helm of the two art fairs from different backgrounds, as curator and gallerist respectively. Over time, both Artissima and LISTE have taken on an experimental identity and expanded the definition of what an art fair can be. How has your direction entered this line of action?

Ilaria Bonacossa: I have learned that art fairs can really be instrumental in bringing new artists to the international art scene. The selection process—based on applications, with the established galleries deciding as a group which new galleries to include in each edition—allows unexpected approaches and discoveries. Moreover, the multifaceted structure of the fair, which has resulted in the launch of new sections such as Disegni or Artissima Sound, and this year Artissima Telephone, fosters surprises and in-depth analysis of innovative creative projects.

Joanna Kamm: Staying true to the concept of LISTE means, for me, continuing to provide young galleries and their artists with the best possible international platform and giving visitors the best opportunity to engage with artists who work with new aesthetics, values and media—and, in this way, create the present. And that is how we differ from other fairs, including Artissima: we are a platform entirely devoted to new positions in contemporary art. The experimental aspect thus lies in the art itself. Of course this involves considering new artistic strategies or ways in which digital media can be adequately presented at the fair, but it is not only about creating new experimental formats within the fair. There are so many new works to discover at LISTE that require time and concentration. With this special concept—our main focus on new art—we foster a pure and personal experience with the artworks. For example, through the meeting place “Joinery” we intend to explain and discuss the latest developments and tendencies in contemporary art. Some of them do not fit into a fair format, but are very important conceptually for young artists. Through the Joinery these positions are also given a presence, to enable our visitors to better understand the art on display.

How did your previous role and your professional experience as gallerist and curator influence your vision for the fair?

JK: I know the desires, thoughts and worries of gallerists. That helps to simplify conversations and makes it easier for me to understand why galleries make certain decisions. And it is always important for me to remind people: many artists would remain undiscovered without gallerists, who are willing to take great risks in tracking down the unknown and—often without any guarantee that the market will embrace the work—enabling artists to have their first solo exhibitions and present their art to international audiences at fairs. It is the commitment of galleries that gives us the opportunity to see great art. Living with this art leads to a richer, more diverse vision of the world. This needs to be supported.

IB: Fairs are so fast, and, in a way, function as catalysts for all the players in the art world. Activating special projects in partnership with the fair’s core galleries is a unique opportunity to understand the latest developments in contemporary art. My vision supports the galleries that really discover the artists and work to develop their poetics, not just to capitalize on the sale of their work … The type of galleries that grow with their artists and don’t just bet on their sales, acting as if artists were racehorses. JK: The word “gallery” is adopted by brands with their own publishing houses and research labs as well as by fifteen-square-meter spaces where low-budget experiments are carried out. Artissima brings together the different actors in this field. How do you respond to their very different needs? IB: In recent years we have focused more on the galleries that fall somewhere between the fifteen-square-meter and the multinational, though we do also have those in the fair. I suppose we concentrate on galleries that focus on discovering artists and fostering their careers, more than on galleries interested exclusively in sales and the growth of the art market, so in this sense it does not make much difference how big they are. That said, last year, as part of the New Entries section, we launched a grant with Professional Trust Company to support three galleries who are participating in Artissima for the first time, and this year—with the launch of Hub Middle East—we are financially supporting galleries who come from the region.

How has the world of contemporary art fairs changed and what do you think is the real challenge for the future?

IB: After the decade of biennials, when the art world zoomed around the world—from São Paulo to Johannesburg, from Venice to Kassel, from Donostia to Santa Fe—we have entered the age of “fairism.” Fairs have thrived following the international growth of the art market, becoming spaces of encounter and cultural exchange in the art world. Educational projects, talks, and performances are now key factors in an art fair. The great challenge is how to offer galleries creative models to develop their business and new occasions to encounter collectors. A project such as Artissima Telephone—based on a call to galleries in the fair who present works on the phone or about the telephone—is one such experiment. Similarly, Artissima Experimental Academy, which offers art students the opportunity to work and live with an artist, is a new form of engagement and a model of support for young talent.

JK: There are more fairs now but what counts is that there are regional and global art fairs of high quality, which manage to present galleries to a relevant audience. Ultimately, the galleries must decide which markets they want to invest in, and the collectors must decide which fairs are important for their collections. In general, fairs are still a concentrated meeting place that bring together many different actors from the art world and enable them to exchange ideas. The physical act of being together in one place creates a certain amount of intensity. This cannot be replaced. But that doesn’t mean that we will continue to do it forever in the same way it’s being done now. You always have to look at these kinds of formats anew. Art changes, fairs will react to it. For us it means determining, again and again, what young galleries really need in order to discover and present new artists. As I said, they are willing to take risks and we have to support this. That sounds so natural, but when you try to find out what their needs are, it’s not always easy to find answers. I see it as a big task to find these answers, which are also changing all the time, in collaboration with the galleries, and to react to them. It is a process, but the personal experience remains relevant…

Do you remember your first time at Artissima? And at LISTE?

IB: My first LISTE was also a revelation! It was 2002, and the fair was quite different at the time… I was struck by the artworks and by an atmosphere that was somewhat akin to a degree show. On my first tour, I felt overwhelmed and confused, but then I started talking to the galleries and they were engaging and enthusiastic about having a dialogue. I remember Air de Paris, Peter Kilchmann, Massimo De Carlo, Emi Fontana, Klosterfelde … all showing amazing work.

JK: LISTE was my first fair and I was accepted right in the first year I had my gallery, in 2001. The artists I showed came to Basel with me, and the four of us camped out in a friend’s living room. We were very excited. And then it became even better than I ever dreamed it could be. All of a sudden, the international art world opened up to us, the collectors and curators were full of curiosity and there was an electrifying energy. At the same time, I made friends with my colleagues, who became irreplaceable in the years that followed. LISTE gave me, like all the other galleries, an opportunity to lay the foundation for my gallery, on which I could build everything else. Artissima was my second art fair with the gallery and a very different experience: also in 2001, but none of the visitors seemed interested in an exchange with lesser-known foreign galleries and in discovering the new art offered there. Also, there was no section especially for young galleries yet. But luckily, a few years later, I gave Artissima another try and it was a great success. In retrospect, I came to the conclusion that the time wasn’t ripe yet or it just wasn’t the right context back in 2001. A lesson from all this: give things a second chance.

IB: Not giving in to first impressions is undoubtedly important to the growth of a gallery that wants to make a name for itself on the international scene. Often it is not easy to make one’s growth coincide with the presentation of one’s work to an audience that is receptive to it. Precisely to support young galleries, in 2002 Artissima debuted New Entries, a section for emerging galleries taking part in the fair for the first time. It was an pioneering choice for a fair, to welcome new proposals and to support not just a new market for art, but also young and less famous artists alongside established ones. That was also the first time I visited: it was the ninth edition, held at the time at Torino Esposizioni, and I remember the excellent works by Marcello Maloberti, Hans Schabus and Hassan Khan, among others. That same year, a number of galleries were selected from countries that had never previously been represented at the fair, such as Iceland, Israel, Mexico, the Czech Republic and Finland. So it was an edition that already asserted the international and experimental character of Artissima, which we continue to conserve today: a small, concentrated but highly specialized fair, with rigorously selected galleries, where the avalanche of offerings seen at other fairs is replaced by a contemporary spirit of experimentation.

JK: I was very happy about the invitation to this interview, because I am convinced that we—the fairs—should exchange our thoughts and ideas; in the end that’s what helps galleries and artists the most. In this context, I also find it interesting to consider how a new generation of collectors could be inspired to follow young galleries and artists —beyond the boundaries of our own fair. What steps are you taking to involve new collectors in contemporary art?

IB: I agree that fairs should, and can, collaborate. We are not football teams that have to beat each other, but instead part of a complex ecosystem in continuous transformation. We are working on this a lot. We recently launched, with the famous Italian encyclopedia Treccani, a project titled “Alfabeto Treccani”: twenty-one Italian artists will each produce an edition, as a way of inspiring collectors to take their first steps into the contemporary art world. Similarly, the new section Disegni, which focuses on the medium of drawing in all its manifestations, has been instrumental in attracting new collectors with smaller budgets and has also been enormously successful with established collectors, making our galleries very happy. To conclude, let me ask you this: how do you approach communication for your art fair—I am particularly thinking about visual identity and the new social media—considering that its main content is always the same, but renewed every year?

JK: That’s a very good question, to which we have given a lot of thought. We build our communication on two pillars. On the one hand, we introduce the galleries and artists who are exhibiting each year at LISTE. On the other hand, we can spotlight current discourse. Compared to other fairs, we know quite well and early on what the galleries are going to show: they all apply with a specific project, so we can identify certain trends and make conclusions about what’s really bothering many artists at the moment, and that puts us in a fantastic position to give a communicative platform not just to the galleries and the artists, but to the current discourse. For example, this year I was struck by a large number of strange-looking creatures—in a world where uncertainty has become the dominant feeling, it seemed that artists had taken this idea to an extreme, populating the universe with human and non-human beings, whose identities, genders and origins were undefined. These creatures embodied insecurity and fear of the unknown, and the artists gave shape to these immaterial states so that we could act on them. This was something we took as a topic for our communication and started a discussion around it. And regarding visual identity: we are currently working on a new concept for LISTE together with Studio Feixen, a design studio from Lucerne. Stay tuned!

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