Camilla Barella: Over the twenty-eight years of Continua, there have been a lot of changes in the art world. What have been the most important ones for you? How was being a gallerist in the 1990s different from being a gallerist today?
Mario Cristiani: There have been a great number of changes in Italy, and even more so in small centers off the beaten path, like San Gimignano. Here, in the 1990s, contemporary art was considered something rather extravagant and had absolutely no following. The opening of our first venue took place in a particular historical moment: after the giddy 1980s (a period of great media excess and speculation) and then in 1991 we witnessed the collapse of the art market, with the closure of a great number of galleries and the fall in sales figures for many contemporary artists. We took our first steps right when people were starting to open their eyes again, and perhaps also thanks to this, we were listened to. With the passing of the decade, we moved from merely collecting to the concept of art as a means of encounter and a tool for relating to others. Many fairs were founded and grew, which initially helped us expand our user base and make ourselves known on an international level. At the time, taking part in a fair was far simpler: the paperwork was leaner and the system was less structured. Today, the bureaucratic procedures are much more complicated and the access threshold has become higher. With the new millennium, contemporary art has taken on a leading role in international economic and cultural systems. Access is more complex, but I believe the will to take part and your passion—even when your starting capital is minimal—remain the main driving forces necessary to carry on.
CB: I love the fact that you’re not afraid of situations that are unstable from an economic or political point of view. Over the last few years of political and economic crisis, you have invested a lot in Brazil by being present at the fair and representing four Brazilian artists. Also Cuba, where you opened a venue in 2015. What were these experiences like?
MC: Having been born in Italy, where political and economic changes are our daily bread, and having set up our activity without any initial capital or groups of collectors behind us (or at any rate families well-off enough economically to be able to cover our backs), toughened us up. Our intention was to take art into new places and make it known to those around us. We started in Tuscany and, with the same spirit, we reached China in 2004, the Parisian countryside in 2007, and Havana in 2015. We had the courage to face difficult situations thanks to the key role that art plays in our lives and thanks to the artists we work with.
CB: I always say that being a gallerist is one of the most exhausting jobs. Your best friends are artists, in your “free” time you visit museums, and in the evening perhaps you go out to dinner with collectors. How much of your life revolves around art? Do you separate your private lives from your professional ones?
MC: Yes, it really is an activity in which personal and professional lives intertwine. The people with whom we work and develop projects are often also our best friends—our experience with Lorenzo Fiaschi and Maurizio Rigillo from this point of view is emblematic. Our work leads us to travel around the world, and involving family and those close to us can be difficult, so it’s also vital to find time to spend with them.
CB: Today there’s the constant refrain that there are too many fairs. What in your opinion makes Artissima stand out from the others? The city? The time of year? The guests?
MC: Artissima takes place in a city where international contemporary art is very much at home. The spirit of innovation, the research and the attention to experimental practices, are elements that have remained constant as it has unfolded over the years. What’s more, the season in which it’s held is an excellent opportunity to associate art and food. Ever since I’ve been on the committee, I have supported the search for a relationship with Slow Food which I hope sooner or later will become a reality.
CB: How do you think collectors and collecting practices have changed over the years?
MC: The primary motives that have always guided good collecting are curiosity in, pleasure from, and passion for art. Collecting is one of the few activities that truly involves one’s complete range of emotions and impulses. The 2008 crisis changed a context that up to then was perhaps a little less demanding and selective, but I believe real collectors have never changed. Today, collecting represents one of the hubs around which the contemporary art system revolves: the collector is not just someone who buys an artwork, but also the sponsor responsible for many important developments in today’s art.
CB: I’ve had the pleasure of being your guest both at small lunches in the gallery and at great parties in Venice, and you are the perfect host on all occasions, I suspect because you always genuinely enjoy such events. You must have fond memories linked to these moments. Could you share one of these stories with me?
MC: I can think of a wonderful story linked to the fair in Turin and a generous collector. A few years ago, with Ruben Levi we organized the Associazione Arte Continua e Artissima, a fundraising project for Arte × Vino = Acqua. Ruben paid for the dinner; the association paid for the cases of wine and the lithographs, numbered and signed by Lothar Baumgarten, Richard Hamilton, Roni Horn, Cildo Meireles, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Gilberto Zorio; and the fair brought its guests. With the funds we raised, water wells were built in Half Assini in Ghana. Why not imagine an even bigger fundraising event to be held together in the future?