Spain’s 30-year-old mega art fair turns slightly modest

It seems that for anyone turning 30, the prospect of impending middle age is quite distressing, if not a time of considerable self-imposed introspection and change. But if we consider the now popular phrase ‘the 30’s are the new 20’s’ applied to the now aging concept of the art fair, then ARCOmadrid’s 30th anniversary this year, under the tutelage of its recently appointed director Carlos Urroz and a revamped attitude, proves that the Spanish capital’s art fair is still beating with a pulse. And after last year’s headlining controversies, that’s an exciting prospect.

There is nothing more dreadful for art fair visitors than a cramped pavilion; the claustrophobic outcome of the burgeoning mega art fair that attempts to be all-inclusive, but terribly fails at its most basic requirements. But at a time when most commercial endeavours are increasingly going ‘super’ or ‘mega,’ ARCO’s Carlos Urroz, with a reportedly carte blanche from IFEMA, decided to go slightly modest. This year, fewer participating galleries translated to pleased gallerists, breathing room between booths, and a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere. Of course, ARCO will never be an intimate art fair, but downsizing from 238 to 197 galleries was certainly a step towards a more quality-driven fair.

Last year’s misstep between gallerists and IFEMA, and the growing fear of the fair’s approaching extinction, instigated some much needed changes. One of these was the move towards showcasing more emerging contemporary artists. The newly incorporated Opening section curated by Maribel López, featuring 19 European galleries was a treat for anyone looking for emerging talent and more affordable works. Young galleries with exciting programs such as Galerie West (Den Haag) with photography by Harmen de Hoop and sculpture by Vincent Gavinet, and Vera Cortês Art Agency (Lisbon), with works on paper by Joanna Bastos, among others, presented engaging works. From the General Programme it was nice to see Luis Adelantado (Valencia/Mexico) returning this year after a noticeable 2010 absence with a beautifully installed booth. Espacio Mínimo, Distrito 4 and Nogueras Blanchard also had their general gallery program on view with sculpture, photography, installation and works on paper. In the adjoining pavilion, the returning Solo Projects: Focus Latin America section showcased works by Margarita Paksa (Faría Fábregas Galería), André Komatsu (Vermelho) and Alejandro Almanza Pereda (Magnan Metz Gallery). This section, as well as the Armory Show’s poorly appointed ‘Focus on Latin America’ this year relegated to a corner of Pier 92, seemed loosely defined, which brings to the table questions concerning the established view on Latin American practice and the investigation conducted by curators.

Occupying a good portion of the fair at the back of both pavilions was the magazine section, that along with publishers, bookstores and other media, displayed one of the best representations of local and international art media. Indie publications and off the beaten track publishers provided the section with an edgier feel.

In general the tone throughout the fair was optimistic and energetic. Works were selling. And although the Spanish art market is mainly based on institutional purchasing, which has steadily decreased in the last few years, young independent curators were making their rounds as well as the familiar local institutions. In the ARCO forums, there was much talk of the ‘economic downturn,’ but the overall feeling of the fair was encouraging. Nonetheless, ARCOmadrid’s 30 year trajectory raises important questions on the art fair and the art market. Should art fairs progressively move towards a smaller format? How effective are these immense commercial undertakings and, most importantly, until when will they be sustainable?

Originally published on ARTPULSE Magazine