“I am do not buy art by a Russian, that’s for sure,” I heard a collector tell a dealer at the preview of Art Genève last Wednesday. Whether this was a dark and timely joke or an outright personal boycott was unclear, but war was certainly a topic on everyone’s mind at the Swiss art fair last week.
Art Genève, the curated boutique art fair now in its 10th year, opened just a week after Russia invaded Ukraine a few hours away by air. I must say that it is also a particularly different Switzerland. The country which has remained neutral since 1815 took the surprising step of imposing sanctions on Russia just days after the invasion.
“Fuck finally!” said a VIP I sat next to at the fair’s opening dinner, an event attended by 1,300 people. She wore a royal blue dress and a golden yellow sweater last Thursday, in the colors of the Ukrainian flag and a new symbol of European solidarity.
Towards the end of the second day of the fair, an army of waiters quietly maneuvered around the guests to set up dozens of long, white-clad dinner tables in the halls of the art fair. (Galleries buy tables and dine with their VIPs outside their booths.) Servers pop up and disappear behind kitchens that seemingly hide between the walls of the booths.
Despite the underlying anxiety, Art Genève has maintained a luminous attitude, which may have something to do with the withdrawal of medical masks, finally.
The fair, which had been postponed from January to March due to soaring infection rates, celebrated its 10th anniversary at Palexpo, its longtime venue next to the airport (and freeport). Beyond the two can be seen the snow-capped peaks of Mont Blanc, while from the exhibition center the city slopes down to Lake Geneva, around which are opulent streets, luxury hotels, Swiss banks and galleries. of art.
The fair remains very Swiss, that is to say, buttoned up, discreet and rich, but there are many things at Art Genève that deviate from traditional fairs. On the one hand, the fair tries to limit its number to less than 100 stands – this year there are 88.
The perimeter of the show is punctuated by 30 institutional presentations of non-commercial shows. The objective is to put into context the shopping malls which this year include major players such as Almine Rech or Kamel Mennour.
Music is woven throughout the fair since its founder, Thomas Hug, is also a composer. There is also a stand dedicated to sound. After the VIP dinner, Hug sat down at a grand piano, which was set up in front of a $200,000 plant installation by Meg Webster at the Paula Cooper Gallery, and casually played a few songs.
Sitting in the UBS lounge, Hug explained that these kinds of details, from organized projects to a sense of intimacy, are fundamental. “It’s really in the spirit of this art fair to be a art fair, that is to say a living room. This is about the human dimension,” he said.
Like its sister fair, Art Monte-Carlo, which takes place in Monaco in July, Art Genève takes a specific approach by targeting collector-rich and tax-friendly areas, keeping it small and focused. It’s a model that seems to be working well, although plans for the fair to expand again this fall, to Moscow, are on hold indefinitely.
There were Russian collectors at the fair. A gallery manager said she thought they “felt the pressure and didn’t really know what was going to happen”. She added this one A Russian customer withdrew from a purchase in London because overnight he was unable to pay due to sanctions.
“It’s very focused and we met a lot of people we hadn’t seen before at other art fairs,” said Sebastian Klemm, who was attending the fair for the first time from Berlin. “The conversations are really good and the collectors, who seem to come here and to Art Basel, are really savvy.”
The gallery sold works by Jan Groover and Thomas Arnold from the second day of the fair.
This hard core of the fair are Franco-Swiss collectors. Dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, presenting for the first time, noted that he had also seen collectors from Germany, Belgium and Scandinavia. The gallery’s best sellers in the first two days included a cast iron sculpture by Antony Gormley, which sold to a private Swiss collection for £400,000 ($524,000). A bluish portrait of the Italian master Titian by Yan Pei-Ming has been nabbed by a French private collection for €300,000 ($325,000).
In a spontaneous gesture, the Geneva director of Pace, Valentina Volchkova, of Russian origin, decided with her team to donate all the proceeds of their sales to Art Genève to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “We sat here on Monday with white walls watching the news on our phones. We asked ourselves: “What are we doing? There are people losing their homes hours from here,” she said.
The world, especially in Europe, remains an uncertain place, but coming together for business, community building and solidarity seems more crucial than ever.
“On the one hand there is this darkness and on the other hand we have to keep going,” Hug said. “We can both be sad and we can also continue to support each other.”
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