Turin hosts the largest contemporary art fair in Italy, and this year saw its 20th year. The fair teams up with the town’s large and influential institutions – Castello di Rivoli, GAM, Fondazione Sandretto, Fondazione Merz etc and gathers a lineup of international artists and curators to draw attention to itself and bring people in.
Oiled by money from nobody knows where, this strategy works. A dinner at Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s house (a casual sit-down for 280, though the food was unpleasant) had Hans Ulrich Obrist, Gregor Muir, Beatrix Ruff, Matthew Higgs and the directors of every museum in Italy there. That these people come to Turin is important because if the fair is anything, it is a fair of ideas and conversations, and not one of actual sales.
The fair itself is a very Italian affair, the vast majority of galleries being Italian, and although there was a presentable selection of galleries from Europe there was a very thin presence from the US and Asia. I spoke to a powerful German gallerist who said that they didn’t make any money here, that they never make any, but they never expect to, and so they come to Artissima with different ambitions that are nonetheless worthwhile. Beautiful and impeccably thought-out booths, with difficult and interesting work in a large and elegant hall. Absent are the crazy multi-coloured baubles that compete with each other for your attention in the big top known as Frieze.
There were booths entirely dedicated to obscure dead Latin American conceptual artists – museum-quality stuff worth seeing, and impossible to see in a more commercially minded fair. Video pieces, drawings, archival material…These booths talk not only to the enlightened collector – yes some do have brains – but to serious curators, writers and artists. The only problem being that serious collectors are a dwindling species.
Sales are never good for anyone, not even the Italian galleries, and this year was particularly poor. However, and it is a big ‘however’, much business was done there. Aside from galleries hooking curators up with their artists, Italian collectors don’t suffer the disease of the English and Americans that they must buy it now before someone else has it, and if no-one else wants it in the first five minutes then it is undesirable and therefore bad art.
The Italians take their time. They see the work on the first evening, and perhaps buy it on the last afternoon of the fair. Or maybe they call up the dealer 6 months later and buy something then. Italy creates and is sustained by lifelong collectors that support artists all their lives. It would be hard to imagine the 26 year old hedgefunders prepared to make that sort of long-term commitment on a five second decision to buy the most expensive thing on a booth at the opening of Frieze.
The best Arte Povera collections in the world are in the hands of Italian doctors and dentists, who bought well, and were trusted by non-greedy dealers. Turin faces a double challenge however. One the one hand its museums are being seriously squeezed for funding in a way that makes the Arts Council cuts in England seems like a minor trim. This will have the potential to make it increasingly harder to attract the big serious artists and the big curators so useful in drawing international attention. (there is also a further danger that in their bid for more cash the institutions fall into the hands of the mega-galleries, and become market-oriented showrooms for the display of tacky luxury goods – e.g. the Thomas Houseago show at the Galleria Borghese).
The second prong in the fork is the presence of the new Milan Art Fair, which will potentially drain the more commercially minded galleries, as the new rich collectors would naturally prefer the kitsch Louis Vuitton and Prada attractions of Milan over the refined stoicism of Turin. If Turin models itself as the most intellectual fair on the circuit – a real testing ground for ideas – then it could perhaps survive, and maybe even be that thing that all art fairs are desperate to be at the moment – unique.