Only a few days from now, VOLTA New York is going to inaugurate its next edition with emerging international art and primarily solo projects at Pier 90. In her interview with Sabrina Möller, VOLTA artistic director Amanda Coulson talks about the concept of VOLTA NY, new developments in this year’s edition and the current art market.
This year, VOLTA NY returns to Pier 90 for the second time. Before, the fair was located in SoHo. How important was it to move to a location next to the Armory Show? Could you tell me more about your 2015 experience with this location?
We didn’t take the decision to move lightly. There had been some previous discussions as to whether we should move to the Pier or not. We’ve built a brand and it was important that we retain our identity, but we didn’t want either of the two fairs to be seen as a “mega fair“. The SoHo space was closed down, however, and converted to an office space and so we had to look for a new location.
We’re offering the galleries practically the same platform as the galleries at The Armory Show have. And the proximity was very important, because people are managing their time very differently now. Everyone’s cutting their trips shorter and shorter. To be closer therefore made a lot of sense. We wanted to have mature surroundings. Many satellite fairs look a bit like an end-of-the-year project at an art school and we wanted to have a really clean, professional level. The Pier therefore made a lot of sense for us.
Last year we didn’t open on the same day as The Armory Show, so we were asking people to go back to the Pier twice. This year we’re opening on the same day. That’s a huge change for us. We had to negotiate this with the Armory because we’re partner fairs, but they were very gracious and we worked it out.
VOLTA is focusing primarily on solo projects. In which way is this focus based on current developments of the art market?
There were 23 galleries in the basel fair when we started and I really worked with each gallery on curating their booth. Not that I would tell them what to do, but I gave them feedback. It is really important that an emerging gallery at a fair presents what they do as a gallery. You cannot just bring a random collection of works by all the artists you represent.
We were invited by the parent company — because we were bought by the same company that purchased The Armory — to do a fair in New York. At first I was a bit skeptical, because there’s already so many shows and fairs. Since we are partners with the Armory, we have to involve them in our decisions and together saw many synergies. In 2008, when we opened the New York fair, the Armory didn’t have a modern section and they also didn’t have any focused section. It was purely a fair of contemporary art by living artists with very high-end galleries. We thought about how we could complement that fair and my idea was to create a “Statement”-like section. This would be the young section of that fair and we’d identify ourselves as only having solo projects. It was not about what the market wanted, it was what we thought would work for that scenario. And it was very successful. I don’t want to take all the credit because there were solo sections before, but a lot of other fairs picked up our idea and followed with a similar strategy when we introduced VOLTA NY. Galleries are nervous about it, but visitors love it, curators love it, and so do the artists.
How would you define emerging artists?
I have always been very clear when I say that emerging artists are not necessarily young artists. Maybe it’s because when we founded the fair, my husband Ulrich Voges and I were almost forty. The idea that creativity, originality, and freshness are exclusive to the young is ridiculous. Just because you were born more recently, you’re not necessarily a more creative person. There have been a lot of artists, like Marilyn Minter, who became famous in their fifties. That’s why I don’t want to talk about „young art“. I prefer the term „emerging art“. It’s about where the gallery or the artist is in the trajectory of his or her career. We start to work with them after they’ve had their initial boost and when they’re about to move on, to take the next step, to be a bigger fair or to a bigger gallery. I suppose that’s how we define it. We wanted VOLTA to be a place of discovery.
VOLTA NY is an invitational art fair. Is there a selection committee or how does the selection process work?
The VOLTA12 Basel fair has always been open and we used to invite curators. But now we basically ask people. We approach people whose opinion we value. We used to have a fixed committee of curators during the first six years but I found that having a committee limited us to certain areas of knowledge. Now I have a network that I’ve built over the years that I rely on for recommendations and advice. We look at specific galleries and artists. The solo projects are much easier to do because we can decide based on how interesting the work of an artist is. Or we ask a gallery we appreciate to recommend artists they work with, on a semi-suggestion basis. It is an organic process that doesn’t compare to other fairs. It works for New York because of the solo projects.
What would you say are the key factors in the decision-making process? Which are the criteria a gallery has to fulfill?
Really important to us is what we refer to as “mother galleries”, which is a term we made up. A lot of galleries are working with very specific market segments. Sometimes they have been working with an artist for years or have found them at an art school. Later the artists may get picked up by a bigger gallery, often in a different country. We’re trying to work with those „mother galleries“ that really focus on a certain point in the artist’s career. And we try to make sure the artist is represented by a person he or she has a close relationship with.
Obviously the work selection isthe most interesting part of my work. I look for galleries with solid programs that make sense, that have an identity and are articulate about it. Some galleries seem to just pick and choose and do not care about how the different exhibition pieces work together. I visit dealers and art fairs and choose galleries that stand behind their artists and show that they are passionate and engaged. In different art fairs like Basel, where you can get as many as 300 applications, other criteria come into play. You tend to make a shortlist based quality first and foremost, but then you have to refine based on genre or geographical location, in order to come up with some sort of a global representation of the art market.
This year for the first time, VOLTA NY presents a curated section. How did you come up with this idea and why did you choose Derrick Adams as a curator for this section?
For of two reasons: when we started VOLTA NY, we had only about 45 or 50 galleries. It was very small. And the market was much stronger, which means the galleries could afford much bigger booths. This year we have about 90 galleries but they occupy approximately the same space as the initial 45 galleries back then. As the market lost strength, galleries asked for smaller booths. At the same time, their numbers grew. Also, the fair became more popular and we needed a bigger venue. Of course, the larger a fair becomes , the harder it gets to curate it. The first three years of the New York fair had themes, for example “ugly sculpture“ (and the show was entitled “In the Eye of The Beholder”) and we invited galleries with artists that represented peculiar positions. But over time, we lost that tightness and I wanted to put in a section that contextualizes contemporary art. With the decision to introduce a curated section I wanted to bring this idea back, because what other fairs such as Basel and others present is not the best way to see art.
We invited Derrick Adams because I’m very fond of his work, both as an artist and as a curator . For the VOLTA art fair in New York in particular, I’ve always felt that the art world was lacking diversity and that many positions were not represented. The art world is very eurocentric and very New York-centric and very racially uniform. New York is a city where you can see all different kinds of people living together and we thought that the fair should reflect what the city is like. At VOLTA, we’ve always tried to represent the city we were in at the moment and tried to interact with it. In the last 2 or 3 years we made a concerted effort to reach out to Caribbean or African American galleries and artists, but also from the Arab world or from Asia. That’s why Derrick was an interesting choice: he plugged in into a scene that refelects what we are actively engaging with.
This year’s VOLTA NY also marks the debut of a video wall program. What is the idea behind this section?
When you choose a new venue, you think you know what it’s going to look like but sometimes it looks differently. There is a big entrance that is monumental and it felt dark and uninviting, so we wanted to change that. We invited the galleries to bring artists that work with different mediums and with video art. They present their more approachable works at the booths, so we decided to create an area where visitors can go to watch the videos later. Also to concentrate on this medium. It is an experiment to see if it works and also serves as a kind of resting area for the visitors.
What is the future of the art market going to look like in your opinion? What concepts are going to be dominating over the next five or ten years?
I think that’s a really good question, I don’t think anyone knows. Sometimes my husband and I wonder if we created a monster, a Frankenstein, because I think art fairs have a lot do with the demise of how art was consumed before. A lot of galleries keep their brick-and-mortar stores open to present themselves in fairs. I noticed, however, that some of them choose not to take part in fairs, which is great, but then there are galleries that choose to close down and just go to fairs. Galleries are hard to sustain. Especially the kind of galleries we’re working with. Big galleries like David Zwirner can afford to send some of their staff to the fair and there are still enough people to run the gallery back home. But for a lot of smaller galleries it’s tough. I don’t want to see galleries closed down for the sake of fairs. Some of the galleries are doing pop-up actions and some of them select specific spaces and curate specific shows for these places.
There are so many different fairs and so many people and so many different markets. We deal on a very specific market. But how the market is going to evolve is hard to predict because the financial pressures on young dealers are making everything very difficult. It’s possible that we’ll see more people sharing one space, and I think dealers will definitely have to get more creative with how they approach their work.
Do you have a personal recommendation for young collectors or, let’s say, emerging collectors?
I would just say be curious and don’t prejudge. Even good collectors still go see everything, sometimes even in obscure places. And furthermore, don’t buy with your ears, buy with your stomach, don’t listen to what other people or magazines are saying. You’re probably going to live with that work for the rest of your life. For my husband and I, our works are like old friends and family. These are things you’re going to develop a relationship with over time and it’s important that you take it seriously and that you look at everything with an open mind. Use your instinct, that would be my recommendation.
Interview by Sabrina Möller
March 2-6, 2016
Pier 90, West 50th Street at 12th avenue, New York, NY 10036