The fifth edition of Artgenève will be in full spin this week, from January 28-31. The fair’s director, Thomas Hug, took the time last week to speak with Whitewall about how he runs what he sees as a discreet Swiss salon d’art, rather than an international art fair, proving that the unshakable formula of “quality over quantity” is very much embraced in his home city.
WHITEWALL: You come from a musical background, how and why did you transition to the art world?
THOMAS HUG: I’m originally from Geneva and I studied musicology, notably piano, first in Geneva and then in Berlin. After my studies, in Berlin, socially I met a lot of people, artists, curators, gallerists, and critics. I was fascinated by the vivacity of the art world there. I founded with a friend a contemporary art gallery with a strong musical program: new music, musical installations, classical music, etc. The gallery’s name was COBRA, the abbreviation for Center of Opinions and Musical Art. We had an activity for around four years that was quite successful. That was my introduction in the art world.
WW: For you, what is the key difference between running a gallery and an art fair?
TH: The opportunity to run an art fair is more rare than running a gallery. When I heard about the opportunity to start an art fair for Geneva, my home city, I knew it was a chance not to miss. I really like running an art fair because it’s very global, your activity is very diversified, much more than what I had to do with the gallery. There is artistic work like a curator, political work with motivating galleries to participate in the fair, and you also have to deal with the sponsors, the press, and with insurance and technical matters. These global activities is better for me. There are a lot of galleries and art centers in the world, but here, there is only one art fair and you are not competing with an art fair in Paris or in Italy. Every art fair has a reason for being in its area. This lack of competition is also something very different.
WW: With the proliferation of international art fairs, how do you see Artgenève’s role on the art fair calendar?
TH: When we began the project in 2012, developing a singularity was important. One aspect is our size: we have around 80 galleries now and this is our major size, we will not grow more even if we receive more applications, we want each gallery to enjoy maximum visibility. The other is that we allocate a lot of non-commercial exhibition space. The proportion we have here in Geneva you won’t find in other fairs. For 80 commercial galleries we invite 30 non-commercial spaces: institutions, foundations, private collections, curated shows, etc. Finally, since we are not too big, we can mix the different sectors we have. We have contemporary art but also modern art, contemporary design or contemporary craft. It’s very interesting for the visitor. We call this concept “The Salon,” it’s our label.
WW: Why is it important for you to include non-commercial exhibits within the fair?
TH: At the beginning it was something we did naturally. Important galleries from the area were not convinced about the project because past projects had failed. I had to find a way to show them the big aim of the project and I started inviting curators in non-commercial spaces before speaking to galleries so they could then see it as a serious project in terms of art. Then we noticed that the visitors enjoyed both aspects, so we continued that formula.
WW: How would you describe Geneva’s art community? Do you see Geneva’s art market as reflective of the European market?
TH: In general, Switzerland is a very important place for the art market in the world. You find the most galleries and institutions in Zurich, of course, but the art market is functioning very well in Geneva, too, notably through art dealers. Collectors from the lake and mountain areas are very serious and exigent but much more discreet. Also the positioning of Geneva geographically is interesting, as you are very close to Paris and to Milano.
WW: What aspect of the fair are you looking forward to most this year?
TH: We have been working since early January on a monumental 40 meter-long wall drawing by Sol LeWitt. Another of our project is “The Pool Bar,” integrating sculptors on a water surface, like a fountain. We are also developing quite strongly the sculptors’ work in the public spaces of Geneva, along the lake and in the city and that will be important during Artgenève. And after, these sculptures will stay up for several months.