While Geneva may be a relatively small city in terms of the number of inhabitants (450 000 people), it is ultra-powerful in terms of its financial clout, thanks to the presence of numerous large international fortunes but also a great many private banking establishments. In terms of the art market, however, it has never been a stronghold. The dealer Marc Blondeau, famous for having trained the eye of French art collector and owner of Christie’s François Pinault, operates in the Bains district. He announced the closure of his exhibition space last May. “There is no audience here.
The collectors are there, but they keep a low profile and they travel a lot. They have limited availability”. Even though the multinational Gagosian Gallery is present here in Geneva, it would seem for operational and administrative reasons – the freeport facilitates the administration of artworks on a Europe-wide scale – the encephalogram of the art market in the Helvetian city seems to be flatlining. And yet a small miracle takes place here once a year and lasts a little under a week. For the seventh year running, a fair called Art Genève is being held until 4 February near Geneva’s airport at Palexpo, comprising 85 galleries. This year it has partnered for the first time with the PAD art fair, which focuses mainly on the decorative arts (24 galleries). “Genevans are very proud of the growing status of our art fair,” explains the fair’s director Thomas Hug.
Indeed, it’s a rare feat in the world of art fairs, but here the whole city is united in its support for the show. Starting with the local museum of contemporary art, the Mamco, directed since 2016 by the visionary art historian Lionel Bovier. A booth at the fair has been reserved especially for him. Sponsors such as the private bank Mirabeau and Mamco’s Friends Association have enabled him to accrue a budget of 100 000 Swiss francs for Art Genève acquisitions. These are arranged progressively around the space and, according to Lionel Bovier, they produce “an emulative effect among the collectors”.
On the first day he had already chosen one artwork, an edition from one of the conceptual artists On Kawara, plus another by the Swiss artist Mai-Thu Perret. Nicolas Trembley is the curator of the very contemporary collection of art at Geneva’s Banque Syz. Their luxurious new premises are filled with 300 works selected in a particularly forward-looking spirit of a kind that is rarely seen in a financial establishment. On entering, there is a damaged shop window mannequin dressed in frills, a work by leading German artist Isa Genzken – for whom a retrospective was held at Moma in 2014 – which greets the wealthy, often bemused, visitors.
Nicolas Trembley emphasizes that the Syz regularly makes purchases at the Art Genève fair. He justifies it by saying, “it is necessary to support local efforts in the art world”. An identical phrase is uttered by Loa Haagen-Pictet, who runs the collection belonging to Pictet bank. Since 2004 she has acquired 736 works dating from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first that have links with Swiss culture. In recent years she has also found things that have caught her eye at the Genevan art fair. At the Muraille space in the old part of Geneva you can currently see a beautiful exhibition on the celebrated Danish star artist Olafur Eliasson.
The venue belongs to a couple who are both collectors, Caroline and Eric Fremont – a former investment banker – who, incidentally, are loaning a 16-metre-tall tree-sculpture to Art Genève made by the famous Italian artist Giuseppe Penone. The piece takes pride of place at the epicentre of the fair.
This year the famous Pace Gallery of New York, London, Beijing, Palo Alto and Seoul is taking part in the show for the first time. At their booth the artworks are on sale for between 40 000 and 350 000 dollars. Their presence is explained by the fact that next March will see the opening of a new Pace gallery in Geneva. Valentina Volchkova, the gallery director, explains: “Geneva will act as a European platform for us. The targeted clientele is completely different to that of London and the large number of museum institutions in the region.”
Broadly speaking, the offerings at Art Genève consist of galleries of varying, yet satisfying, levels presenting artworks at lower prices than those of the large-scale global fairs. So you have Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois of Paris displaying a remarkable series of minute ripped historic posters (on average 7 x 9 cm) by Jacques Villeglé (born in 1926), made during the 1960s and on sale for between 3500 and 5500 euros, alongside equally minute compositions from the same period by Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) (on sale for 10 000 euros). Mini-prices for mini-artworks of a very high quality.
Until 4 February. www.artgeneve.ch