TEFAF, a fair full of art history, leaves room for today

The Maastricht European Fine Arts Fair is a one-stop shop for treasures from the past. Under its vast ceiling, you can find Greek vases and Egyptian statuettes, Dutch genre paintings and French chests of drawers. However, for much of its 35-year history, it has not been the go-to place for contemporary art.

Now, contemporary galleries are setting up more and more stands at TEFAF Maastricht. A surprise newcomer this year is White Cube, an international gallery based in London. Founded by Jay Jopling, it represents artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Bruce Nauman, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, and Theaster Gates.

Why choose to show there?

“In Maastricht, you have a selection of the world’s best dealers in each area,” said Mathieu Paris, senior director of White Cube. “For a gallery like ours, where one of the goals is to make the contemporary historic and the historic contemporary, it actually makes sense to build bridges.”

Mr. Paris noted that White Cube had been exhibited four times at TEFAF New York: the satellite show started at the Park Avenue Armory in 2016. Therefore, the decision was made to exhibit on the show’s territory in the Netherlands.

When asked what business sense that made for White Cube, Mr. Paris said that leading Dutch, French, Italian, German and Belgian collectors attend the fair every year and “love to mix, create bridges, links between items from his collection.

At its inaugural Maastricht stand, White Cube is displaying a pixelated black sculpture of a body by British artist Antony Gormley, which was previously displayed in the ancient ruins of Delos in Greece, and is priced at around 500,000 pounds ($610,000). Other exhibits include two works by Georg Baselitz: a black-and-white painting of a figure (€1.2 million or $1.26 million) and a hand-painted bronze sculpture of a leg ($1.3 million).

Bringing together the old and the new “wins everyone,” said Martine d’Anglejan-Chatillon, an independent producer of contemporary art projects who previously co-founded the Thomas Dane Gallery in London. She said that she gave historic galleries, as well as contemporary art galleries, “something else to chew on.”

In the past, Ms d’Anglejan-Chatillon explained, the world of contemporary art was “very impervious to many other possibilities”, because it had so much to sell. Today, the “hyper-obsession with younger artists” has created a sense of “saturation” and a movement towards “a kind of plurality”.

There were also commercial imperatives, he noted. Contemporary art dealers were always looking for the next big thing and eager to cultivate a new clientele. Meanwhile, TEFAF was looking to rejuvenate its profile, because for a long time it was “a fair about works and historical objects made by people long dead”.

In fact, TEFAF has worked hard to modernize its image over the last decade. In 2013, the fair announced that it would partner with Sotheby’s and China’s state-owned Gehua Group to start a satellite fair in Beijing. Nine months later, the project was cancelled.

Instead, TEFAF opened its New York satellite in October 2016, concentrating on antique art galleries, and then held another edition in May 2017 focused on modern and contemporary art. It was an opportunity for the fair to reach out to American collectors.

Meanwhile, TEFAF’s board of directors began consulting with younger dealers and specialists familiar with the contemporary scene.

One such dealer was Hidde van Seggelen, who runs his namesake gallery and now heads the TEFAF executive committee. His gallery is part of the Maastricht Modern section, which this year includes more than 40 galleries, mostly European, out of a total of 243 throughout the fair.

Mr van Seggelen recalled telling TEFAF’s board of directors, long before his appointment, to “look at the context in which we operate and contemporary and modern art: the market has grown tremendously.”

He noted that TEFAF Maastricht had organized a series of contemporary art exhibitions in recent years to establish the link between old and new. In 2015, “Night Fishing”, an exhibition of modern and contemporary art curated by Sydney Picasso, showcased works by artists such as Mr Baselitz, Nam June Paik and Tony Cragg, whose dealers had never exhibited at TEFAF before.

In 2017, a special section curated by Penelope Curtis—then director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon and former director of Tate Britain—showed works from different periods of art history, including contemporary ones.

Mr. van Seggelen said that TEFAF’s presence in New York had helped attract new art galleries to Maastricht.

The Dutch fair attracts contemporary art galleries because “you will find collectors who are not part of the contemporary circuit,” he said. “It’s a different world. It may be quieter, but it’s incredibly powerful, because it’s a completely different context.”

A recurring exhibitor at TEFAF Maastricht this year is Galleria Continua, a contemporary art gallery based in the hilltop town of San Gimignano, Italy.

It was first shown at the fair two years ago. The gallery was born in 1990 as a showcase for contemporary art in Tuscany, a region known mainly for its extraordinary Renaissance heritage.

“It was a wonderful experience for us to participate in 2020, so we decided to come back,” said Verusca Piazzesi, gallery director, noting that both media coverage and sales had been good.

“Showing art in Tuscany means being in a constant confrontation with the past,” he added. “So I am very happy to exhibit in Maastricht.”

“The kind of audience that Maastricht attracts is different from the audience for contemporary art,” he said. “These are truly international collectors with very good taste who are interested in everything from illuminated manuscripts to contemporary art.”

Ms Piazzesi said that the 2020 stand was entirely dedicated to Mr Gormley, the British sculptor. This year’s booth will showcase works by him, Ai Weiwei and Anish Kapoor.

Ms d’Anglejan-Chatillon said Maastricht’s growing appeal was “a reflection of our times”.

“People need more meaning, somehow,” he said.

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