Art Fairs

Gesine Borcherdt
Gesine Borcherdt

“Of course I get recognition – is that a bad thing?”

Gesine Borcherdt in conversation with Bettina Böhm, director of Outset Germany

alt Photo: Christian Hasselbusch

Bettina Böhm is a patron, manager, and art historian – and the new director of Outset Germany. Her role: getting people on board who support museums in buying art. In this interview, she explains why she’s chosen not to be compensated for her work, how she wants to change the charity mindset in Germany, and what sets Outset apart from other museum societies.

Gesine Borcherdt: You’ve only been doing this job since the summer and already you’re one of the most popular people in the German art industry. That must feel good!

Bettina Böhm: (laughs) Yeah, but in the first place I’m a door to door salesman. I go looking for donors to support Outset in making the purchase of contemporary art possible for museums. Only once I’m as successful as Outset’s founder in England will I be able to pat myself on the back. But that’s still a long way off. Germany’s mindset towards charity still needs some love.

What is Outset exactly?

We see ourselves as a bridge between private patrons and public institutions. Our goal is to make contemporary art possible through private and corporate sponsorship – to support its production and purchase by museums. What is important here is that it’s about public institutions that can’t resell the art.

So how does a sponsorship procedure like that work?

We’re actively asked by museums if we can assist in the purchase of a work that they would like to have for their collections, but that they can’t afford to buy themselves. Recently, a highly internationally regarded museum came to us: it wanted to buy a complex installation by Mika Rottenberg which the artist was producing at the time and was going to be shown first at Skulptur Projekte in Münster. In order to make that possible, the Outset locations – we call them “chapters” – in England, India, Israel, the Netherlands, and Germany are working together. For these kind of purposes, we have access to the IPF, the International Production Fund. We have a shared interest that an installation by this great artist goes to good hands.

You took over the position as the director of Outset Germany this year – but internationally, the institution already has a longer history.

Candida Gertler and Yana Peel had the idea – they founded Outset in London in 2003. Both of them wanted to be philanthropically engaged. The initial idea was to make an acquisition budget available for the Frieze Art Fair that the Tate Modern and Tate Britain would benefit from. In 2015, the Tate purchased its one-hundredth artwork from Frieze through Outset. And with that, the project was completed. But already from the start, a lot of other purchases and productions were being supported by the London chapter, and of course that’s continuing. In the meantime, there are now eight chapters worldwide. Sometimes we work together, often in collaboration with other institutions and foundations. We have offices in England, Scotland, Estonia, Greece, Israel, Germany, and the Netherlands. I’m also planning to set up a chapter in Switzerland and to lead that one together with the one in Germany.

Interesting mix.

Yes, and of course you ask yourself why there still isn’t an Outset chapter in other large countries like France or Italy. But it’s not so easy to find someone to devote their cumulative labor to this cause, and uncompensated. Myself, I’m always asked why I’ve devoted myself to this unpaid. First of all, it’s simply a pleasure to put good ideas into action that benefit the public. And of course I get my own personal benefit from it, and that doesn’t have to be monetary. Yes, and of course you get recognition – but is that a bad thing?

Up until now, no one’s heard that much about Outset Germany. That should be changing now under your leadership.

Outset Germany has been around since 2008 and, at first, was run out of Munich as an association that was strongly focused on Bavaria and supported a lot of projects for the Pinakothek der Moderne and the Haus der Kunst. Now we’ve moved to Berlin and I’ve taken over the leadership. I work full-time and can move around all of Germany and Switzerland. My goal is to give Outset a much broader footing in this area. In England, there are already 500 patrons. At the moment we have 23 here in Germany, but I’ve only been active in my search for new additions since October. My first step was to change the association into a non-profit society – you can operate more flexibly that way, and don’t need to hold general meetings. But of course I have to make sure that the donations are completely tax-deductible. That’s a prerequisite for that kind of financial commitment.

What amounts do your patrons need to contribute?

There are two categories: The normal patrons pay € 3,000 a year. If you want to be more strongly engaged – and then also develop the projects together with me – then you’ll pay at least € 8,000. Up until this point I’ve had one patron from Munich who is so strongly engaged that he takes over whole projects. Last year that was one project – and one that will take place annually from now on – that he financed with € 30,000: the purchases at abc, Art Berlin Contemporary. Luckily, he wants to continue this commitment for 2017 and possibly even increase it.

What amount of funds have you had to work with so far?

Since 2003, we’ve generated a total of € 8,5 million. Unfortunately, that’s not as much money as you think. This is the issue I want to focus on now. I want to influence the charity mindset in Germany by trying to convince people of its necessity. I think it’s clear to everyone that museums have too little money for acquisitions. But up until now, no one has really been thinking about how to tackle that.

Besides, every museum has its circle of friends that also finances new purchases. Do you encounter conflicts when you meet potential art patrons?

That is an important question. When I talk to people from those circles of friends, I’ve already heard the answer: “Actually, you guys are competition.” But that’s not true. We provide support independent of institutions. The circles of friends need money for their own institutions. And they often don’t hear precisely what’s being done with it. Acquisitions are mostly funded “with the help” of the friends of the museum – how high the contribution is, exactly, remains unclear. But that’s not meant to be critical. We cannot replace the circles of friends, nor do we want to. They are essential for every museum. But we want to help bring more new, current art to museums and see ourselves as a supplement. The Outset patrons take pleasure from knowing exactly what they are contributing to and also following the process, but most of all from not just supporting one institution, but every conceivable one.

Why is it actually only about acquisitions? You could also finance a new volunteer with the money. And incidentally relieve the state…

Correct. I experienced that myself at Museum Folkwang in Essen. My ex-husband and I were engaged in the fundraising for the museum. Then the new Chipperfield building went up and the structure expanded. The museum belongs half to the city and half to the museum association, which was founded in 1921. The director at the time, Hartwig Fischer, needed more staff, but the city didn’t want to give him the money for it. So we decided to fund a position at the museum through fundraising. That went well for two years – until the city of Essen decided to let another person go because there was a private donor who had paid for a position there! Of course we then gave up our position there. It’s exactly for these reasons that there’s reluctance to fund such posts privately: the city can simply withdraw from its responsibility. In this case, it was especially shortsighted as this associate was responsible for fundraising.

Public art sponsorship is on a continual decline, and that could also be down to the horrendous prices on the art market. What purchasing budget can handle them?

Art doesn’t always have to be expensive. We just assisted Kunsthalle Hamburg in purchasing a video work by Annika Kahrs, “Strings”: thematically, it’s about “failing better” – four string instrumentalists play different instruments and change them among themselves. The piece they play keeps getting worse until everyone goes back to grab their own instrument. For years, Kunsthalle Hamburg had reserved the piece in the gallery, but it simply lacked the money. When I took over Outset in January, the curator called me – a private collector was going to buy the piece if they didn’t finally get the money together now. I thought: Oh god, it must be expensive. I had already spent a lot on other projects and was afraid that there wasn’t enough left. But then came the surprise: The price was only € 10,000 – I could hardly believe it. I made an ad hoc pledge because I knew I would somehow get this amount together. There you can see: It’s not always about really big contributions. Kunsthalle Hamburg is now one step further ahead with this purchase.

What project is coming up next?

We have a lot planned – 2017 is a year full of major exhibitions! For Museum Ludwig in Cologne, for example, we’ll be buying a new work by the New York painter Avery Singer, who is now showing at Vienna Secession and will be at Kölnischer Kunstverein during Art Cologne next year. Her work has become rather pricey. But we got a very good discount on a piece from her new series that was even a little more than the usual museum discount.

Maybe some gallerists aren’t so happy about these special discounts and would rather sell to a private collector instead?

Gallerists know to value Outset. Essentially, we’re doing their work, getting artists into museums. And there, good discounts are completely normal – you have to think in the long-term. At the same time, we’re also sponsoring the catalogs for both exhibitions at Vienna Secession and Kölnischer Kunstverein.

So, who makes the decision about your funding projects – and especially if the artist hasn’t secured a historical position or isn’t already established high up in the market?

I decide what we sponsor, together with our patrons. In January 2017, we will hold our first “Annual General Meeting” where we’ll present the projects of participating curators and artists to our patrons. There we’ll decide what projects will be supported, and to what extent. We have to be really convinced of something. With Avery Singer, that was already the case since her exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. I have an insane amount of respect for her work. This young woman has re-invented painting again! She is constantly on the search for new paths of expression and new techniques. I consider her an outstanding artist that is absolutely worthy of support. Her age is of no relevance to me. And if her market value is already gaining, then it’s good for the museum that we’re buying now – before it’s too late.

Translation: Melissa Frost

OutsetArt MarketArt Fairsabc art berlin contemporaryKunstvereinFrieze Art Fair
OutsetArt MarketArt Fairsabc art berlin contemporaryKunstvereinFrieze Art Fair
Jan Winkelmann
Jan Winkelmann

Art fairs, algorithms, and aficionados

Jan Winkelmann in conversation with art advisor Sima Familant

© Sima Familant Photo: Sima Familant

Jan Winkelmann: I think we first met in Basel some 14 years ago. If I look back, I must say the fair and the buzz around it was, at that time – although the fair was already quite big – almost cozy compared to today. Now there are two days of previews with different access categories. The VIP Lounge is four times as big as it was some years ago. Hotels, even small ones, double or triple their prices during Art Basel. It seems to me as if the hype rolled from Basel to Miami, and came back to Switzerland even bigger. How do you see this development?

Sima Familant: I completely agree with you about the strong development of the art fair culture, specifically with Art Basel as the leader and the strongest. When I met you there in 2000, Basel was a very cool place to visit, and you were an aficionado if you went. Everyone there was very serious about art and/or the business. I remember that it was very heavily European, and felt even more exotic to me as an American. With Art Basel Miami and then the rest of the art fairs, some 50 per year across all the major cities, the idea of Art Basel – a coming together of the art world and intelligentsia – has become watered down.

Until recently, missing Art Basel seemed inevitable. There are already two big art fair weeks in New York within three months of each other (the Armory Show in March, and Frieze in May – both with many satellite fairs) as well as Art Basel in Miami in December. Do you still feel the necessity to travel all the way to Switzerland to see Art Basel? Is it different from all these other fairs, and if so, how?

I still hold Art Basel in high esteem and recommend it to all my clients. Especially because many of my clients are from the US and don’t know and/or haven’t seen the collection depth that you find in a city like Basel. The problem is that many collectors confuse the fairs and feel that if they go to one – i.e. Miami Basel – it is enough. But they each have a different theme. And I find that with Fondation Beyeler, Kunstmuseum Basel, Schaulager, and Zurich nearby with all that it has to offer in the arts, there is no comparison to the US. Miami Basel is only eleven years old. Basel is over 50 years old. The other reason why Basel is different is that it was started post-war while the small galleries in Europe were struggling for commerce. Now an art fair is started because they want to capture yet more commerce. It feels more like our focus has shifted to capitalism, and that is the driving force behind art fairs as opposed to the coming together of the art conversation.

It seems to me that although the global art fair roundabout turns faster and faster, it interestingly becomes more regional at the same time. Do you share this observation?

I love this question as I have been saying the exact same thing. I found this to be the case when I went to Hong Kong for the fair. It was two years ago, and when I was attempting to buy work, the dealers would only sell to me, an art advisor, if the work was going to a client in that part of the world. I was there for two clients – one based in Melbourne and the other in Singapore – yet if I had not had that type of clientele, I would have been wasting my time. It is as if the fairs are geared to people of their region, instead of, for example, to an American wanting to experience all the flavor of seeing art in Hong Kong, predominantly art from that region. I found this astounding. And short-sighted. It deters travel and global understanding. If an American collector isn’t initially interested in Asian art, that could easily change once they visit the region, deepen their understanding of the culture, and begin to participate.

After Art Basel in Miami and Frieze in New York, another major fair from Europe is expanding to the United States. FIAC launches the first edition of FIAC Los Angeles in late March of 2015. LA was always a great place for art production, but was rather quiet when it came to the art market. Now there are a number of bigger galleries soon to open new spaces there. What do you expect from the fair, and do you think it might help bring LA back into the light?

The art world in a city happens in stages. LA has been known as a center of art production as it has fantastic graduate art schools. With less expensive living, LA has become like Berlin, a city known to have artists settling there after grad school, and moving there for community, more space, and less expensive studios.

Now we are seeing the next step. Galleries want to be closer to their artists and the galleries are moving there en masse. Established galleries such as Hauser & Wirth and Matthew Marks, as well as younger galleries such as Hannah Hoffman Gallery, are opening to accommodate artists who live in LA as well as to show international artists. And with less expensive rent, especially for bigger galleries, I assume it makes financial sense to have a base in LA.

The criticism of LA as an art town has been the lack of collectors. Yet as we see it, it feels like “build it and they will come.” Collectors, especially from Europe, are fascinated by LA and are visiting, while more LA-based people have begun to collect. And New York/LA is an active corridor for anyone involved in the art world, with people from both coasts continually traveling back and forth, myself included.

With all this happening, it is no wonder that the art fair market wants to be in LA too, and take a piece of the financial pie. Art fairs want to be where there is some depth in the art world – artists, galleries, institutions, and presumably collectors.

The art market is becoming more and more industrialized. Companies such as ArtRank give well-paying clients advice about who to buy and who to sell. Art advisors like Stefan Simchowitz are highly controversial because of the speculative practice of "art flipping" – buying works by up-and-coming artists with the intention of reselling them quickly. How has this development changed your job as an art advisor?

As you mention, these new companies are a result of the professionalization of the art world. With the Internet as the biggest disruption in contemporary society, it is of course going to have an effect on the entire art system – information, production, and distribution.

Your question has two parts. First, how are companies such as ArtRank affecting my job as an art advisor? Second, how has the dissemination of information, and the distribution, and the transaction quotient, changed my job as an art advisor?

The Internet is allowing an increase in information and data sorting, and companies such as the one you mentioned are using this as their mode for discussing art. In this case, it comes down to numbers and algorithms as opposed to a critical conversation about the artwork – who has the most sales and most articles – a deciphering of elements that are countable and tangible. This is changing the type of clients that are purchasing, and the type of art that is being produced. The funny thing is, the art world used to be about the intangible. One wanted to find the most unusual and unique art object. Instead, using this new model, the collector wants what is the most popular. As an art advisor I work harder to find the collector who is not transfixed with this counting of information, to find the collector who understands that this is art collecting, not buying art. For me, popularity comes into the equation because it is great art, not because an article or an online service says this is so.

With regard to art flipping, the crux is money. Who is making it? This has changed exponentially, and is a major change in distribution. Now, when a gallery sells a work to a collector, and the collector turns around and re-sells the work fast due to the demand – what is known as flipping – and makes a profit (and in this market, sometimes a very large profit), it is the collector, not the gallery and artist, who is controlling the price and location, and realizing the upside. What gallery and artist want this? Now “who are you?" becomes the big question. Why should the gallery sell to you? Which brings us full circle, as this is the area where the Internet is not helpful, as it is now no longer about numbers cranked on a computer, but about what I like to call a classic business model. It is about relationships, which is where my job is crucial. It is my responsibility to have great relationships with the dealers, and work with clients that the gallery wants to help collect. Meaning I have to sift out the people who are in it for a short-term profit.

This sounds like a very sympathetic approach. And it seems as if you are in the enviable position of being able to choose your clients. Very nice.

The art system and with it the market has grown over the last 20 years. There is more of everything. For me that is exciting, as it allows for opportunities. More people will survive in the creative field. A great thing. Like all good things, though, there is an over-indulgence. Happens all the time within capitalism. The system easily tips over. Like all markets, it will find its balance. I feel the real question is about connoisseurship. What is it? Who is doing it? How do you teach it? That is the niche where I want to be interacting, and think about such things as where is the next Leonard Lauder who will give a billion-dollar gift to the Met? Or something comparable. And perhaps that is the nexus of collecting, and what we, in the art system, should be thinking about.

Sima Familant is an art advisor and private curator, based in New York.

Art FairsArt Market
Art FairsArt Market