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The spanish influence

Letter from Madrid  January, 2005

Big, eclectic and distinctly Latin, ARCO is the centerpiece of Madrid's increasingly global market for contemporary art By Samuel Loewenberg

you know it's time for the arco fair, Madrid's big contemporary art event, when dozens of art world luminaries are lined up outside Bar Cock. This is the gathering place for the city's artists, actors, dancers and gallery owners, where high-columned ceilings and white-jacketed waiters belie the easygoing atmosphere that helps keep the crowd buzzing past 4 a.m. In the past five years, the bar has been joined by dozens of other after-hours venues in Chueca, a formerly seedy neighborhood that is just a few minutes' walk from three of the world's most important museums-the Prado, the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. But like Spain as a whole, Chueca has undergone a recent renaissance. The barrio's labyrinthine streets are now the center of Madrid's contemporary art scene.

More than three dozen galleries are scattered throughout Chueca and the adjoining Alonzo Martinez district, including heavyweights Juana de Aizpuru, Elvira González, Soledad Lorenzo and Antonio Machon. At night the streets are filled with the patrons of clubs and trendy restaurants like La Bardemcilla, owned by the Bardem family, an acting dynasty that includes Javier Bardem, the star of Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls. A bit of fortitude may be required for visitors sampling the nightlife for the first time: This city doesn't come alive until well after midnight.

The days are sure to be hectic as well during the 24th edition of the Feria Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo, better known as arco. Held at the Parque Ferial Juan Carlos I February 10 through 14, the fair features some 285 galleries, nearly three-quarters from outside Spain. Organizers have been pushing for more international exposure, and in addition to many of the usual suspects from Europe and the U.S.-including Hans Mayer of Düsseldorf, New York-based Marlborough, Chantal Crousel of Paris and Haunch of Venison of London-the fair features exhibitors from Brazil, Cuba, Korea and Mexico, this year's official guest country. "arco is the most important week of the year for the world of Spanish art," says Maria Porto, director of the Madrid branch of Marlborough, which has participated in the fair since 1987. Its booth will feature recent sculptures by Spanish artists such as Martín Chirino and Blanca Muñoz. "The market in Spain is young, but each year it becomes stronger and more consolidated," says Porto. "At the same time, many Spanish artists are beginning to sell their works abroad."

The transformation of Madrid's contemporary art scene began in the 1980s, a period known as the movida, when a newly liberated generation of artists (including the film director Pedro Almodóvar) indulged in once forbidden experiments in art and sexuality. arco was born in 1982, the brainchild of a group of artists and curators eager to make the international connections that were denied them under the previous 40 years of authoritarian rule.

"After the first sensations of the movida and the opening of Madrid to the cultural life of Europe, there was a period of calm and, coincidentally, an economic crisis," says Isabel Mignoni, director of the Galería Elvira González, whose owner is president of ArteMadrid, the association of galleries in Madrid. "Many small galleries opened and closed, collectors stopped buying as much and the market got quite local. But in the past five years, the situation has gotten strong again. The market has become much more active and less local."

arcofounder and Madrid gallerist Juana de Aizpuru says that "the atmosphere now is very different- very professional. And the young generation of artists from the '90s are better than the '80s. They are international artists. They live in New York or Berlin, and they travel. For them to have international contact is normal."

While a more global orientation is inevitable and probably necessary, arcoretains a decidedly Spanish and Latin American emphasis that distinguishes it from other big international contemporary shows like the Art Basel fairs, Frieze and the Armory Show. "What makes arco different is that it's not dominated by the Anglo- Saxon world," says Javier Lopez, one of Madrid's premier dealers in contemporary photography and new media who is presenting installations by New York-based Leo Villareal and the French artist Xavier Veilhan.

While a more global orientation is inevitable and probably necessary, arcoretains a decidedly Spanish and Latin American emphasis that distinguishes it from other big international contemporary shows like the Art Basel fairs, Frieze and the Armory Show. "What makes arco different is that it's not dominated by the Anglo- Saxon world," says Javier Lopez, one of Madrid's premier dealers in contemporary photography and new media who is presenting installations by New York-based Leo Villareal and the French artist Xavier Veilhan.

Elisa Hernando, a director of the Galería Fernando Pradilla, a dealership in Madrid and Bogotá, Colombia, notes that attendance by Latin American collectors seems to have fallen since Art Basel Miami Beach debuted in 2002, but she expects a larger Latin American presence this year because of arco's spotlight on Mexico. She adds that "there are some people who buy only once a year, and they do it at arco."

Many of the Madrid dealers view the fair as a major opportunity to make connections with international buyers, who come primarily from France, Belgium, Portugal, Germany and Italy. Attendance has been growing steadily, from 170,000 in 2000 to 200,000 last year, and local collectors remain a core group. "Nearly all of the main collectors in Spain go to arco," says Alvaro Alcazar of the Galería Metta, whose booth will showcase a new aluminum sculpture by Spanish artist Nacho Criado, the 2004 oil painting Piensos Unamuno by Eduardo Arroyo and three charred-wood sculptures by the British artist David Nash.

For exhibitors from outside Spain, the fair provides key exposure to Madrid's growing base of collectors. "I make sales to people I don't make anywhere else," says Carolyn Alexander, co-owner of the New York gallery Alexander and Bonin, which has taken a booth for the past three years. "I was selling to lots of people I had never seen before, who don't necessarily visit me in New York, but whom I expect to see in Madrid." Still, arco has only about 20 U.S. galleries this year, up from 13 in 2000. "I don't understand it," says Alexander. "I did as much business at arco last year as we did at the Armory Show." Among her sales were two paintings by the Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn to the Tate Modern. This year she is offering new steel works by Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo and a painting by the German artist Stefan Kürten.

As the centerpiece of Madrid's contemporary art market, arcois vital to the local galleries. Borja Casani, co-owner of Galería Moriarty in Chueca and an arco participant since the fair's inception, estimates that the city's galleries make 40 percent to 60 percent of their yearly sales at the fair. Other dealers put the figure at closer to 20 percent. Some of the galleries stage concurrent exhibitions as well. Elvira González, for example, plans to hold a Donald Judd show and Antonio Machon will exhibit work by Spanish painter Chema Covo.

Of course, arco has never been solely about business. An extensive program of panels and colloquiums, which bring together some 200 artists, collectors, academics, curators and gallery owners from around the world, help make the fair a genuine cultural, and not just commercial, event. Says Rosina Gómez-Baeza, director of the fair since 1987, "arco is not only about contemporary art-it is also a time for a debate over art."

Carolina Díaz Amunarriz, executive director of the Galería Salvador Diaz, cautions against putting too much emphasis on the fair. "Sometimes it seems that art galleries exist just for arco," she says. "But Madrid has very good galleries that offer the best all season round."

Joan Gaspar, a Barcelona gallerist since 1992, opened a branch in Madrid in 2001 after discovering that he often lost touch with new collectors he met at arcobecause, he believes, the gallery had no representation in Madrid. Even Spanish collectors based in the capital often do not get to Barcelona, he says. "The attitudes of collectors are quite similar in both cities. All are eager to see new ideas and new kinds of art," he says. "But Barcelona is now an old lady-an explosive and exciting lady, but still old. Madrid is a young girl who has everything. Everything is flourishing."

By Samuel Loewenberg