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Of Paintings and Potatoes

On Wednesday, Art Forum Berlin kicked off in the German capital. One focus at this year's major contemporary art fair is eastern Europe.


Gallery owners at the Art Forum fair dream of profits and the arts.

Entering the building, the first sound to be heard is that of a drill. Inside the exhibition hall, two men hammer a colourful frame into place, while their female colleague unpacks a large wooden crate. Bruno Nagel, meanwhile, lugs a sack of potatoes up to a row of wide wooden shelves and starts filling them with the brown vegetables.

There are only 20 minutes left to go before the opening press conference of Art Forum -- one of Europe’s largest international fairs for contemporary art -- and artists, gallery owners and fair workers are still busy building the stands.

A critical success

According to Berlin-based artist Nagel, who is adding the finishing touches to his potato installation, the fair is the most exciting in Europe for young and innovative artists.

The Art Forum Berlin opens its doors on Wednesday for the seventh time. Organised by Messe Berlin and an advisory board of international galleries, it is “the most successful trade fair for contemporary art”, says Executive Director Christian Görke. In 2001, it attracted some 25,000 visitors, 1,500 journalists, and curators, gallery owners and artists from all over the world.

Looking eastward

The number of foreign galleries represented at the fair has increased steadily, reaching around 60 per cent of the total this year. But whereas Western European galleries dominated the fair in previous years, Art Forum 2002 has a strong focus on Eastern Europe.

This focus is reflected in the presence of 11 galleries from eastern Europe. Among those showing from eastern Europe are the galleries Skuc, from Slovenia, D-137 from Russia, and Deak from Budapest, Hungary.

A penchant for paintings

According to Gabor Ebli, of the Hungarian Academy of Art Sciences, Hungary's market for contemporary art has only developed in the last two years.

”Despite a thirst for young art, especially among well-off 30-year-olds, the art market in Hungary is still focused on modern art produced from the 1870s to 1950”, Ebli says.

Additionally, the Hungarian audience has a great penchant for paintings, he says. Instead of new media, collage and sculpture, many Hungarians are only interested in famous names, and not unknown, young artists.

These, along with problems of finance, and a lack of contact between artists and public institutions, are all hindrances to the development of the contemporary art market in Hungary, he says.

But they are problems shared by artists and gallery owners face in other eastern European countries, too.

Pioneering the Eastern European art world

Gregor Podnar sits on a plastic chair in the stand of the gallery Skuc, relieved that the fair has finally begun and that everything is in place. The Skuc gallery was founded in in Slovenia in 1978, as “a pillar of non-governmental culture”.

In 2000, the exhibition gallery and art centre begun to represent artists at art fairs, including the Art Forum. This year, Skuc is showing the works of various international artists including Marjetica Potrc, who won the Guggenheim Foundation’s prestigious Hugo-Boss-Prize as has had her work exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Slovenian art is already internationally recognized”, Podnar says. But, he warns, “success is connected to national support, and this has deteriorated in Slovenia in past years.”

Diminishing government support prompted Podnar and his Skuc gallery to commercialize and take part in trade fairs, he says. Skuc and other galleries from across Eastern Europe are pioneers when it comes to attracting foreign audiences to local art. Skuc is supported 50 per cent by the state, with the other half of its funding coming through sales at events like Art Forum.

Struggling to break even

At 138 euro per square metre, space at the fair is not cheap. But Messe Berlin spokesman Peter Köppen rejects critical suggestions that the company should be more lenient to its eastern European guests: “It is not good to subsidise galleries”, he says. “That is something that must be sorted out in the country itself”.

Indeed, Messe Berlin is itself strapped for money when it comes to Art Forum.

“In the last six years we have not made a penny”, Executive Director Görke says. Nor does he expect any -- at least not for a few more years.

Berlin dynamics

For Görke, the Art Forum has been a “strategic investment.”

"With our concept of youth, high standards and international focus, we believe the marketing of the fair will increase," he says.

But there is one element which plays and has played a major role in the development of the fair, and that is Berlin. “Berlin’s international standing as a location for art is increasing all the time – the Art Forum reflects these dynamic changes”, Görke says.

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  • Date 02.10.2002
  • Author Louise Brown
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2hRm
  • Date 02.10.2002
  • Author Louise Brown
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2hRm