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VOLTA11 opens today in Basel, as the art world heads to the Swiss city for the biggest art fair event of the year, Art Basel. We spoke with VOLTA’s director, Amanda Coulson.
WHITEWALL: You were one of the founding directors of VOLTA. Can you share some personal insight to the trajectory of its establishment as a major Basel fair?
AMANDA COULSON: We were four: three founding galleries and myself, an art critic. From the gallery perspective, they were seeing the international galleries — unheard of 5-10 years earlier — from China, Japan, Australia, Africa, Eastern Europe etc. accessing Art Basel and making it harder and harder to access as a relative youngster. I say “relative” because — at the time — Liste had strict rules: no galleries over 5 years old; no artists over 40, which seemed to me (I was 38 at the time) really ageist.
I think back to our first list, this pool of excellent galleries — Roebling Hall, Taro Nasu, STORE, Foxy Production, Zach Feuer etc.— who were already “too old” for Liste but not yet internationally renowned for Basel. There was a very clear niche and we saw it. From my perspective, as an art critic, I felt that main fairs were badly curated in many of the booths and even in the selection process (galleries were being admitted with artists they had no hand in nurturing and the “mother galleries” were being left in the cold) and from an aesthetic standpoint, I wanted to see a fair with emerging art or where I could make discoveries in a venue that looked like a blue-chip gallery, not an end-of-year university show. So we had this very clear vision: we thought of Art Basel as the 5-star hotel, Liste as the youth hostel, and VOLTA as the boutique hotel. However, we thought of it only as a 3-year project for a laugh… only when we got the amazing feedback and reaction from visitors and other galleries did we realize what we’d started and that it could, indeed, become a major position in Basel in perpetuity. The fact we hit the nail on the head was confirmed both by Liste later on, allowing its “graduates” (galleries older than 5 years) to continue exhibiting and the main fair creating the Premiere section, for which they took quite a few VOLTA galleries in the first year…
WW: The fair’s format of solo artist projects has made VOLTA distinctive. How did this investment in a deeper investigation in artists work come about?
AC: This came about as a response to being asked to start a fair in New York. There were already 6 other fairs in NY — unlike Basel — and we neither wanted to overwhelm visitors nor compete in an aggressive way with the other brands. We wanted to create something which would complement our “sister fair,” The Armory Show, which, at the time, had only 100 galleries and no modern, emerging or “focus” sections; it was all high-end, blue-chip contemporary. So, I conceived VOLTA NY as solo only, to act as the emerging section of the Armory and to have a very distinct profile from the other satellite fairs. We, of course, are distinctive in other ways: we never allow 2 galleries to show the same artist; we do not allow secondary market work; we do not want to see work you can see simultaneously at the main fair…we really curate the fair so visitors will seeing something new in each booth. We also saw the validity of solos for contextualizing the artist’s work by being able to see more of it but also by being able to put it in more meaningful conversations with other artists; with solo booths you can do that, which you can’t if each gallery brings 4-5 artists. Then it just becomes a sort of uncontrollable mass. Once we saw how the audiences responded to this in NY, we started tightening up Basel as well. And as I am sure you are aware, many other fairs started introducing solo sections, including The Armory.
WW: Is there anything distinctive about VOLTA Basel vs. VOLTA New York (2008-)?
AC: Well, the cities have different markets and different audiences. We were convinced of the solo projects for NY right off the bat since there is a critical mass of art producers, writers, critics, curators, collectors right there. NY is, of course, a market but feels much less like one than Basel, which — outside of the fair time — is not one of the major venues for art production in the world either in terms of resident artists or galleries, so this changes the feel of each fair to a certain degree. Also collectors and audiences will be reflected in gallery choices and artist selections… the different cities and different continents have a different set of values and requirements.
WW: You also work as the Director of National Gallery of the Bahamas. How does your experience in Nassau inform the work you do at VOLTA?
AC: VOLTA was always interested in periphery — if you look at our cities list you’ll see we’ve made efforts to search for good galleries from regions like East Asia, Eastern Europe or the African continent — but, of course, being stationed here has made me even more conscious of the fact that we really have to pay more attention to what is happening outside of the major art producing centers as this make us very one-dimensional. This was underscored in Okwui Enwezor’s “All the World’s Futures” for the Venice Biennale, which in fact included a Bahamian artist, Lavar Munroe, who we had focused on in VOLTA NY before we even knew of his Biennale participation. So, I’m very interested in the Caribbean — there is great work being made all over, but a very small market — and I see my very unique position as being a valuable asset to the region because I have an access most people from here do not and I am able to use the VOLTA platform in a really positive way: we invited ARC Magazine to have a booth and host talks panels; we have invited several Caribbean galleries or artists, that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise been turned on to. As a Bahamian at home, I’m also a racial minority and a fairly unwanted minority that comes with a large dollop of negative baggage that I have to deal with daily; I don’t resent it or anything, it’s just the leftovers of history — my husband is German so I’m already well-attuned to having to live with the sins of the father or grandfather on ones shoulders — but it has made me much more conscientious about minorities in the European/American-centric art world. I am still stunned at the lack of people of color represented either as visitors or artists at major art fairs — it makes me feel even physically uncomfortable — so I am actively researching fields outside of the Caribbean and trying to connect to shared histories and experiences and bring some of that to VOLTA.
WW: What can visitors to VOLTA expect from the 11th edition of the fair?
AC: As I mentioned before, we have been tightening up the Basel fair curatorially as the NY fair has blossomed in popularity, but our galleries themselves have been thriving in this direction even as much as we prompt them ourselves. For instance, this year nearly one-third of our Basel exhibitors (about 21 out of 69) opted for solo positions, from internationally-noted artists like Krištof Kintera (presented with us by Galerie Ron Mandos, and Kintera exhibited in a major solo museum survey at Museum Tinguely in Basel last year) to more “regionally recognized” artists like Extrastruggle (presented with us by Galeri Zilberman), who is well-exhibited in his homeland Turkey, including the Istanbul Biennale some years ago, but we can almost consider his project at VOLTA11 a “solo debut” in Switzerland. Plus LARMgalleri from Copenhagen are featuring Danish-Trinidadian artist Jeannette Ehlers in a performance on opening day called “Whip It Good!”. She was just awarded the Danish Art Critics Award and has been featured in some prominent international exhibitions of late, including the 2014 DAK’ART Biennale and “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World” at Pérez Art Museum Miami, and she is participating concurrently in a “video parcours” group exhibition around Basel’s city-center through Art Basel Week. Plus Ehlers’ focus, as a woman of color navigating her birthplace and its colonial past, and translating that into some very grueling performance art, should be quite thought-provoking for visitors to the fair.
WW: Can you share a Basel destination or hot-spot you that you love to go to?
AC: Well, the Kunsthalle is the perennial venue to see and be seen, right? But I have to be honest and say, what with production and install and the brutal fair schedule, I usually want to just eat a great meal with a few people… So, I love to have dinner at Bon Vivant, which has group tables and an open kitchen; you can’t order, you just eat what the chef is making that night and it’s always amazing! Also, 5 Signori (also a very cute guest house), which has a quiet terrace which is lovely in the summer or juts going to the Rhine and sitting on the steps with a good sausage. We “VOLTAnians” have all been known to swim and it’s a great way to end a hot and tiring day, but make sure you have your “Wickelfisch,” which is the special bag for putting your clothes in so they stay dry during your dip in the Rhine.
Due to my field of interest I’ll definitely be checking out “Making Africa”, featuring consulting curation by Okwui Enwezor at the Vitra Design Museum, and I always enjoy the Tinguely because it’s right off the beaten path…they just opened a show by Haroon Mirza.
VOLTA11 is on view June 15-20, 2015.