Mad Scramble

Kerry Doran on arteBA and Art Basel Cities

Performers in Lolo y Lauti’s Me Huevo Loca, presented by UV Estudios in Stage.

CULTIVAR EL SUELO ES SERVIR A LA PATRIA. This phrase, meaning “to cultivate the soil is to serve the homeland,” is bannered between the stands of the belle epoque stadium of La Rural, built in the late nineteenth century for La Sociedad Rural Argentina’s annual trade shows, when livestock was one of the country’s most lucrative exports. For twenty years, La Rural has been the site of arteBA, Argentina’s largest art fair, which this year coincided with the first Semana del Arte, organized by the Gobierno de la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, and Art Basel’s third “activation” of its “Cities” initiative, launched here in November 2017. The fair’s location, along with the added presence of these parties, lends itself to the reading that Argentine art may be the most promising export of today, especially amid the country’s latest economic crisis.

The twenty-eighth edition of arteBA began for VIP cardholders on April 10, with a morning press conference at Terrazas Bistró (at La Rural), where we were served medialunas with jamon y queso and cortados under the shade of a giant tipa tree. The opening date was a month earlier than usual, resulting in a drop in attendance––imagine changing the date of Miami’s Art Basel, paired with SP-Arte in São Paolo the week before and the Bienal de la Habana at the same time. An upside, however, was the balmy mid-autumn weather, which I overheard some explaining as the reason for the time switch, though another rumor suggested that the adjoining convention center halls were already booked (and therefore too expensive), necessitating a new layout, with the Utopia section––featuring works predominately by emerging artists, all capped at $2,500 USD––in a pavilion separate from the main sections.

A crowd gathers to take selfies with Marta Minujín after her guided tour at arteBA.

Dealers seemed to bring their best––including exceptional works by porteñxs Marcelo Alzetta, Miguel Caride, Florencia Rodriguez Giles, Roberto Jacoby, Ad Minoliti, Kiwi Sainz, Pablo Suárez, Xul Solar, and Osías Yanov––which was especially evident in the Cabinet section (a subsidized initiative that enables galleries to present historically significant work by underrecognized artists alongside their main presentations). Highlights of this section included Dalila Puzzovio (Rolf Art), Nicolás García Uriburu (Roldán Moderno), and Fernanda Laguna (Galería Nora Fisch).

Outside these halls, however, this was less the case. At a pop-up pavilion at the edge of the Plaza Intendente Seeber, a few hundred meters from La Rural, staffers from the city government handed out a nearly sixty-page booklet detailing the activities of the Semana del Arte. Its program is essentially a branding exercise that groups together preexisting events (arteBA), exhibitions (at most of the city’s art institutions), and programming (talks presented by Art Basel Cities in collaboration with the arteBA Fundación, as well as public lectures) under the banner of the Semana. The spectacle made it seem as if the government had done a lot of work—an illusion President Macri’s “Vamos Buenos Aires” campaign thrives on.

In addition to recently allocating a budget for the Semana, the city government has also been funding Art Basel Cities. Since the value of the Argentine peso has nearly halved since their partnership began, this year’s activation had quite a different look and feel. The talks program was brief, barely covering the three days listed on the Art Basel Cities–specific pamphlet. Each talk was held in a plastic-and-metal geodesic dome: One was situated at the halfway point between La Rural and the city’s pop-up pavilion, and another four such “Parallel Rooms” appeared on Saturday in the center of La Rural, where concurrent talks unfolded over three one-hour sessions.

During the talks program for Art Basel Cities. Photo: arteBA.

Given that Art Basel Cities is presented as an initiative that cultivates international networks while engaging with the local context––I’m told by Patrick Foret, Art Basel’s director of business initiatives and partnerships, that their new slogan will be “Bring the city to the art world, bring the art world to the city”––the most stifling of these talks was a conversation between Los Angeles–based collector Laurie Ziegler, Carlos Marsano of Artus in Lima, and Benedicta M. Badia de Nordenstahl, an Argentine collector based in Buenos Aires and Singapore, titled “Private Collections and the Local Art Scene: How to Develop a Productive Relationship.” Ziegler urged local collectors, despite Badia sitting two seats away, “to start spending time at galleries on a Saturday afternoon,” to “start talking to artists” so that they can “get to know their arts community, and to help bring the local art scene externally.” When Badia asked Ziegler if she felt that Art Basel Cities had made an impact within the local community, Ziegler responded, “I can’t speak to the local community because I’m not a local.” The many questions I had went unasked—there was no Q&A. Just a quick thank you and an immediate pouring of champagne. It’s in Buenos Aires where I consistently see collectors at openings. I’ve gotten to know them because they are engaged, enthusiastically asking me about my work and welcoming me into their homes, where they’ve excitedly shared their collections and Argentine art history with me.

One of these collectors is Gustavo Bruzzone, a judge, dedicated patron of the arts, and member of the Art Basel Cities: Buenos Aires advisory board, whose holdings of Argentine art from the 1990s rank among the most significant. The number of attendees for his guided tour at arteBA rivaled that of Marta Minujín’s a few days prior (minus the fleet of television reporters and itinerant selfie queue). Bruzzone squired the group past the sections in the main pavilion to the center of La Rural’s grounds, where he told us about his passion for collecting before bringing us to the Utopia section.

Photo: arteBA.

During the week, I heard frustrations from international dealers presenting at arteBA that they aren’t meeting enough Argentine collectors, and when they do, that those collectors are primarily interested in Argentine art. This inclination, in part, comes from a mentality like Bruzzone’s, as I gather it’s more of a norm here to collect art as a cultural investment rather than a financial one, which leads to the other reason why Argentinian art is favored by these collectors: It’s more affordable. How is someone making forty-two pesos (the current exchange rate, though it fluctuates daily) to the dollar meant to buy a piece outside of this market context? Granted, this doesn’t affect the uber-wealthy collectors; indeed, price volatility and inflation actually encourage sales. But (upper) middle-class collectors, including Bruzzone, are the kinds that we need everywhere to build and sustain markets, not just in Argentina. Local collectors actively engage with their artistic communities, attend events, and acquire works from emerging to established artists. Rather than seeing what exports may be extracted from this context, perhaps we should be looking inward and learning, certainly about the works themselves, but also about the manner in which porteñxs are cultivating their suelo.