Luca Lo Pinto: Artissima was founded in 1994: a year that ideally symbolises the progressive transformation of the art system into a global phenomenon and an ensuing professionalisation of all those involved in it. Today, that process has reached a peak, accelerated by the impact of technology. The museums try their hardest to pursue languages that run at different speeds; the model of European public institutions has been hit by populist politics; the Asian market has acquired ever more power; some galleries hold exhibitions of a museum level that the museums themselves cannot afford to stage. To this scenario, we need to add the presence in 2018 of 260 art fairs. Over the course of your career, you have had the privilege of observing the art system from all points of view. How has your outlook changed over these years as regards the role and the function of fairs today?
Andrea Bellini: I believe the function of fairs has been and will always be the same: they are the main economic driving force behind the art world. They should be neither sanctified nor demonised; they are what they are, and like all the fields of human knowledge, they are events that may evolve and improve. However, we mustn’t forget that fairs are part of a more complex system, made up of museums, kunsthalle, non-profit spaces, art schools, magazines etc. Fairs cannot take the place of any of these systemic elements. Try and imagine an art world in which only the fairs are left… It sounds like an image of the apocalypse.
L.L.P. You directed Artissima for three years, from 2007 to 2009, and you were among the first to sense that an art fair shouldn’t be limited to being a purely commercial do, but that it might be transformed into a broader cultural event. In this sense, Accecare l’ascolto is the finest example of your vision. A rich programme of performances, concerts and happenings produced by the fair and presented in five theatres around Turin. How would you define the distinctive traits of your directorship?
A.B. First of all, I’d like to say that when I came to Artissima, it had been a fair for some time and it was already excellent. I tried to transform Artissima into an event which on one hand might work on an economic level for gallerists (leading to the reduction in the number of galleries from 200 to 140), and that on the other hand might work for a broader public as a production space for experimental projects. Every edition I directed featured a series of diverse and ambitious events: the theatre one was just one of the many we came up with and implemented. We created various containers for parallel projects such as those dedicated to sound, performance, video and cinema. With Stéphanie Moisdon, we staged a temporary school within the fair, inviting artists such as Roberto Cuoghi and Tino Sehgal to speak. We printed a tri-lingual newspaper and published a number of monographs. In a word, I think the distinctive trait of my directorship was the desire to make Artissima more than a cutting edge fair, dedicated to emerging art, but also a place for the production of energy, a crucible of ideas and experimental projects.
L.L.P. Artissima is a very rare example of a fair financed with public money. On one hand, people might object that that money could be invested to support or create non-commercial situations; on the other hand, however, it offers the chance to stage more experimental projects such as Accecare l’ascolto. What’s your opinion on the matter?
A.B. In the face of the investment that Turin makes in Artissima, the return for the city – in economic, cultural and communication terms – is absolutely extraordinary. I’m convinced this is a virtuous model, something diametrically opposed to the wasting of public funds.
L.L.P. Another peculiarity of Artissima, from your nomination onwards, has been that of calling on curators as directors: Manacorda, Cosulich and then Bonacossa. Miart in turn has imitated the model with De Bellis and now Rabottini. It’s an entirely Italian phenomenon. For some of you, the fair was also a launch pad from which to land jobs as museum directors. For Bonacossa, it was the other way around, as she came from a museum background. What are your thoughts?
A.B. The idea of getting me to direct Artissima was first had by Samuel Keller (ex-director of Art Basel and at the time already the director of the Beyeler Foundation) whom the Fondazione Torino Musei asked to nominate a few candidates. Samuel had sensed that in Turin, as there was not a strong art market – a far cry from that of Art Basel – what was needed was a director who could come up with something new, a curator more than a thoroughbred manager. I think events have borne out his intuition. After Artissima, Miart was reinvented on the basis of the same logic, nominating another curator, Vincenzo De Bellis. As you say, it’s an entirely Italian tendency: we are quite used to making virtue of necessity. Since in Italy, there is no truly international collecting community like that of Basel, London or Paris, we need to create other elements of interest and attraction around fairs. I came up with a fair model and a strategy for Turin which I would never have adopted had I been nominated director of Art Basel. In Basel, the mechanism is so well-oiled and the market is so strong that it would have been suicidal to try and push it in any other direction. For this reason, from my point of view, that is a much less interesting fair to direct for a curator.
L.L.P. The tendency to conceive a fair as if it was an ephemeral museum open five days a year or a ‘curated’ festival is now the norm, especially for mid-sized events. The major art fairs (Art Basel, Frieze and FIAC) often adopt the formats developed in more experimental fairs in order to further enhance their offerings. Over the last few years, we have witnessed shows and sections dedicated to historical artists, even with their own catalogues. Do you think it’s still important to draw a line between the various contexts in which certain kinds of operation should take place? Is it anachronistic to attribute exclusive responsibility for producing thought, carrying out research and rereading history to museums and contemporary art centres? In 2016, Elmgreen & Dragset conceived an exhibition at the UCCA in Beijing as a fair split into booths with their works inside. A critical and self-critical comment on the state of art today…
A.B. All the fairs, however prestigious, need to present some sort of novelty every year. This is normal: I don’t believe it’s a dynamic that may endanger the museum system; it’s best to leave morality out of it. What’s more, this more pro-positive activity on the cultural level on the part of the fairs may lead to the elaboration of new ideas and formats. For example, I don’t see any museum or art centre investing a considerable amount to produce fifteen new projects to be staged in five different theatres, as I did with Artissima. No institution can afford to invest a major budget to stage projects exclusively outside its own walls. After the fair, I directed a museum and an art centre, and in these contexts I was unable to repeat that kind of experience. You mentioned the responsibility of producing thought… You see, I don’t believe our intelligence is found in single brains but in the collective mind. The responsibility of producing thought lies with the whole art system, fairs included.