Thursday, February 12, 2009

Volta New-York: An interview with Amanda Coulson

Amanda Coulson, Executive Director of Volta Show, answered our questions about the Volta fair, New-York and the challenges faced by the art market.

Do you consider the purchase of Volta by MMPI as a new step/new challenge for the Volta fair or does it remain business as usual?
It’s always a challenge when a small “family run” operation gets absorbed into a large company but we certainly wouldn’t have been able to expand to the U.S. platform so quickly -- and fairly painlessly -- without the support of MMPI and The Armory Show, the entire staff of which was incredibly welcoming and helpful. It’s business as usual in the sense that the core group organizing it have remained in place with the same vision we always had, the Merchandise Mart supports us with logistics and back office, but we can focus on content.

Have you received specific guidelines or recommendations from MMPI? Are you encouraged to coordinate your program with The Armory Show (also owned by MMPI)?
Absolutely not. MMPI does not meddle in artistic decisions about the fair though of course it’s now a serious business and there are expectations and there is oversight. To use an analogy offered to me by a journalist, Steven Kaplan : Volta used to be a small town for which I was mayor, sheriff, garbage collector and dog catcher. But the small town has now been incorporated into the county; I remain the mayor, but the other services are taken care of by county personnel, which gives me more time to be mayor. However, I have to shape up: no more lounging around the spittoon chewin' tobacco with the local yokels. I have to tuck in my shirt and meet my budgets.

Regarding the Armory, we do work very closely together and, of course, to “graduate” from VOLTA to the main fair is a natural progression but it’s not like Katelijne De Backer and I sit around deciding who’s going where like Masters (or Mistresses) of the Universe. We have a very friendly collaboration and part of that is due to the fact that I conceived the NY edition to complement them with the solo projects. We are not in direct competition, doing precisely the same thing as them; we have a very precise focus and profile and we stick to that, but we keep each other au courant of each other’s lists and choices and exchange opinions.

Do you consider single artist booths is a way to give more importance to the artists (even thought there are consequently less artists shown in total) than to the galleries?
Absolutely. Even now people scan the galleries at a fair and make a snap judgement based on their names and where they are based. I’d like people to open their minds to the notion that good art is made everywhere and even a gallery you’ve never heard of might have a good artist in their programme. The fair is a market, of course, but I thought that the solo project concept was a way to make it feel hopefully less like a trade show and more like a kind of exhibition. It’s why we base it loosely around a theme as well.

I suggested to a lot of galleries that they band together to promote an artist work: this was as much for economic reasons as to purposefully encourage a more collaborative feel. It was actually surprising how few galleries – even in this climate—didn’t want that!

Are you concerned by the current art market and, as a consequence, would you consider giving the galleries more flexibility in the organization of their booths if it would enable them to sell more works?
It would be pretty callous of me if I wasn’t concerned. To pretend it is not a huge commitment for a gallery to support a fair at a time like this is really disingenuous. Some fairs give the impression that they are doing the galleries a huge favour by accepting them: yes, a fair can do a lot for a gallery or an artist’s career but there is also a responsibility one has to one’s exhibitors and a bad fair can also break a gallery. But I don’t think a solo project means necessarily harder sales; sometimes a deep exploration o a single artist’s work can be a real asset… at least that’s what many collectors told me at last year’s VOLTA NY. This year though we are having a whole second space as a “Collector’s Lounge”—a kind of storage area where galleries can bring more than they can fit in the booth and even other works.

We started VOLTA as a platform to help galleries reach an audience, the last thing any of us would want is to become a hindrance to continuing business, so I do think a lot about that aspect. Having said that, I believe 100% in our platform: New York is and will always be the epi-centre of the art world. To have a solo project for an emerging artist in a place where you will get both the curatorial boards and the collecting groups of institutions like Dia, MoMA, New Museum, Whitney, Guggenheim, Brooklyn Museum, Sculpture Center … just to name NY institutions! an incredible asset. Then all the galleries that might offer your artist a show; it often changes an artist’s career to get a NY gallery.

What’s the profile of collectors at Volta? Do you think that the development of Volta means that you’re stepping away from young and moderately-wealthy collectors to more established collectors with an eye on emerging artists?
No, not really; I just think the more established are now coming as well, it doesn’t mean they are pushing any one out. The art is not changing… As some galleries mature they progress to The Armory or Art Basel. We’ve had a large number do so already and that allows us to keep bringing in new galleries or different artists. VOLTA’s not a place to come and see the “greatest hits,” it’s the place to make discoveries so I think the audience might get bigger but remain a group with the same interests: to look at emerging art.

Do you already see consequences of the economic environment prior to the fair (number of applicants, experiences of galleries, countries of origin of the galleries, experience of the artists shown at Volta, etc…)?
Yes and no. We had the same number of application for Basel and that was well after the crash started… even more applications came in way after the deadline and after Miami. There are some galleries who are cautious or scared but for each one of them is someone who sees crisis as opportunity. So, what I’ve seen is a shift but by no means an all-out decline or run for cover. Certainly the U.S. galleries are having a much harder time than their European counterparts mainly because the good ol’ “Old Europe” economy that everyone used to make fun of for being “sluggish” means, indeed, there are not the extreme highs but also not the extreme lows. I’m not saying there isn’t a recession, but it’s not a full-scale bloodbath and—surprisingly-- there are even signs already of a pick-up in the art market according to a lot of galleries I talk to regularly in Europe.

Is Volta NY intentionally more business-focused than Volta Basel? What are the differences between Volta NY and Volta Basel? How important is the influence of New-York (biggest art market in the world, permanent presence of the biggest collectors in NY, major artists as well as buoyant emerging art scene) over Volta NY?
No. In some ways I might even say the opposite, going back to the point I made above about the sheer number of institutions in the Greater New York area (and beyond)!! NY isn’t just about the market because it has a very strong curatorial backbone… Still, Basel might not have a gallery or institutional scene as rich as NY but it is the Mecca of the art world so thousands flock there—especially in a Biennale year like this one—so the exposure one gets not just to collectors but to curators, critics and observers is huge. Being so central in Europe is also a factor and particularly being so close to the German-speaking countries, which have such a high percentage of contemporary art institutions and collectors. Really both have a good balance between market and other factors, which is precisely why they are such successful venues.

There are differences between VOLTA Basel and NY but it’s more about how we approach the fair and what we think it brings to each cities scene: I don’t believe that VOLTA should juts go anywhere there is an overflow: London, Berlin, Miami… our idea is to really fulfil a function. In Basel that function was very specific to the time and place where it was born: when Liste had an age-limit (even for the artists!!) and a limit on the amount of times you could do the fair (which changed since the arrival of VOLTA) and in a city where the main fair gives half it’s floor-space over to Modern. Conversely, in NY, we came in a year that Armory was contemporary only, so we had to react to that, to think about what we could offer that was different from everything else and possibly even needed. So the fairs definitely have a different slant and flavor.


Address: 7W 34th Street, 11th Floor. NY 10001 New York USA
Dates: March 5th- 8th , 2009
Vernissage: March 5th, 11 am - 1 pm
Admission: Regular US$ 15 Reduced US$ 10
The Armory Show + VOLTA NY Combination Pass: US$ 40

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