An express-interview with Diana Stomienė, director of ArtVilnius 2015
Rita K. Zumberga 15/07/2015
Back in 2009, when it was Vilnius's turn to be the European Capital of Culture, a long-held aspiration was realized and the first ever contemporary art fair in the Baltic region was born – ArtVilnius. Diana Stomienė, president of the Lithuanian Art Gallerists' Association, and representing the interests of the art community, put together a team and took on the risk of creating an art fair that would be recognized as an important player on the international art scene. A look at the numbers reveals an impressive success story – around 100 galleries from 31 countries participated in the fair, and approximately 20 thousand people attended it.
Over the years, as the importance of quality has been increasingly emphasized and the demands that the exhibited art must meet have risen, the number of galleries has fallen. Applicants are evaluated by a commission of professional experts who are not afraid to cull out the weaker participants. ArtVilnius 2015 (June 25 – 28) brought together 55 international art galleries from fifteen countries: Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Latvia, Georgia, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and Great Britain. The participants provided interesting presentations with the aim of not only selling artworks, but also to instigate and galvanize communication and cooperation among artists, galleries, curators and collectors.
According to the latest data, almost 19 thousand people attended the art fair in the spacious Litexpo pavilion, and about 100 artworks, with a combined value of 200,000 euros, found new owners. However, these statistics should not be accepted as the be-all and end-all – as the director of ArtVilnius revealed in our conversation, most of the deals are sealed after the end of the fair – within the walls of the galleries themselves. The interest of wealthy collectors was also evident with the news that French collectors had spared no expense as they traveled to the fair by private plane.
Julita Malinowska. A Joy IV. 2014. Stalowa gallery, Poland. ArtVilnius 2015. Photo: Rita K. Zumberga
As Arterritory.com readers have noticed, this year we've given special attention to the Vilnius art fair – our in-depth coverage of the ArtVilnius organizers' understanding of the contemporary art market in the Baltics may give our local galleries and artists a clearer picture of the fair, and it may even encourage participation in the future. In this express-interview, Diana Stomienė, director of ArtVilnius for many years now, tells us what goes on backstage at ArtVilnius, as well as what the fair's near-future objective are.
Compared to previous years, how would you rate this sixth edition of ArtVilnius? Are there any currents or inclinations that can be felt, or perhaps there was something special that you'd like to accentuate?
I think that with the fair's sixth iteration, its quality has risen even higher – our committee judges have a serious approach to selecting the galleries, and they've set artistic quality as the most important criterion. It's not that easy for just anyone to get into ArtVilnius. We had a very good crop of galleries this year, and as an excellent addition I'd like to highlight the 4th Hall, in which this year ArtVilnius's new partners, Lewben Group, presented a very powerful exhibition of the Lewben Art Foundation's collection – it features excellent works by internationally-renown foreign artists. Although the fair's main objective is, as ever, the activation of the art market, we also have other aims such as showing what sort of collections others have, and we specially invite guests so that they can meet one another.
Jonathas de Andrade. Nostalgia, a Class Sentiment, 2012. Lewben Art Fondation exhibition at ArtVilnius’15. Photo: Rita K. Zumberga
Could you tell us a bit about the behind-the-scenes organization of the fair? For instance, how did you come to the decision of putting a focus on the Ukranian art market this year – and on Poland's market for next year?
Although we are a small team, we always encourage lively discussion as we try to keep the whole region in mind, and we're always thinking about what other interesting things we could do. ArtVilnius is the only art fair in the Baltic region, and that's why we emphasize that we're not a Lithuanian art fair – we are international and we endeavor to think more broadly. By placing such accents, we not only address the bets galleries from neighboring countries, but from farther afield as well. We chose as our main guests this year – and who don't have to pay a participation fee – Ukrainian galleries because we understand their current situation: artists keep creating art and they must make a living, but there's a war going on. Furthermore, they've participated in the fair since the very beginning, and they always bring a very powerful program.
Next year we will be featuring Poland, and in 2018 we will be highlighting Latvia! That is no coincidence, since that year Lithuania and Latvia will both be celebrating their 100th anniversaries, and that will be the perfect time to accent your art. We've already begun consulting with our Latvian colleagues as to what we will be doing and how to do it best!
Why do you think there weren't any Estonian galleries at ArtVilnius this year?
I don't know; perhaps we just have to go to Estonia and speak with them. Looking over the available information on the internet, we concluded that they have very few active galleries. The most active one is Temnikova & Kasela, who have been at ArtVilnius before, but they also take part in other international fairs that often times happen at the same time as ours. Maybe the Estonians don't have such a big interest in making themselves a presence in this region? Perhaps they'll come next year. I'll admit that we do have plans on inviting them as our main guests, and that this autumn we're even scheduling a trip to Estonia during which we'll address the gallerists personally.
ArtVilnius 2015. Photo: Rita K. Zumberga
Taking into account the organizational interest in the fair's financial outcome, do you sometimes notice any critical mistakes in gallery presentations and artwork exhibitions, which you then try to resolve in a timely manner?
I believe that the architecture of ArtVilnius has had a very good foundation from the start – a professional team of three architects, with Rokas Kilčiauskas at its forefront, specially worked on it. Kilčiauskas has a lot of experience creating exhibitions for international fairs, and this year he even worked on the Lithuanian exhibition at the Venice Art Biennale. We don't do it like other fairs where the market space is divided into quadrants which are then sold like market stalls. As we receive requests for participation, we evaluate the big picture; so that each gallery's exhibit is distinct, we create the architecture like one builds with Legos – aha, that's contemporary art, so let's put that here; those are installations, so let's put those over there. In this way we consciously construct zones.
ArtVilnius also has the large-scale sculpture and installation exhibition “Taka” (Path), which we set up among the galleries this year so that the individual artworks would organically fit into the fair's whole, thereby becoming a harmonic part of it. I used to study design, and that's why all of this is still very interesting and important to me; we always think of the fair as one united organism – if we don't, it won't work well.
What about the content of the artworks themselves? Do you ever give the galleries any indication that something in their presentation is not up to par? How do you keep a good balance – to not meddle too much, but still encourage them to strive for better?
Oh, we do, we do! (Laughs.) When the galleries send in their submissions (we have a competition, as I mentioned before) and the commission of judges evaluates them, we sometimes do hear things like – this one is good, but that one won't work. Then we collect the suggestions for improvement and send them to the respective galleries. Of course, we don't do this in a harsh way – we motivationally explain why something won't work because we look at things in the context of the whole.
There have been cases, like last year, when the committee rejected one gallery due to it having too many works, all of which were in total disarray. Later on, however, Sonata [art historian Sonata Baliuckaitė – ed.] and I noticed the exact opposite – some really good works had gone unnoticed. We decided to speak with the commission again – we reviewed it, thought about how to do it better, and what should be featured – to give the gallery another chance. In the end, this Wolkonsky gallery from Munich received the main prize, for it was voted the best gallery at ArtVilnius'14! These sort of surprises occasionally happen when the representing gallery hasn't come up with a good presentation – an overwhelming amount of artworks make one confused, and you loose an understanding of what the end result could look like. Anything can happen, and our responsible approach doesn't allow for things that show potential to fall through the cracks.
Apropos profitability, you've said that about a quarter of the galleries presenting at the fair garner interest from collectors in terms of the artworks and their acquisition. You stress that it takes time to become a commercial success.
During the first two ArtVilnius fairs, collectors from Lithuania and some neighboring countries perceived the event as more of an exhibition. The fair needed time. Perhaps looking from the sidelines, they were thinking – this fair will take place once, maybe twice...
Of course, one must take into account that we were in the midst of the economic crisis; we started the whole think at a rather inopportune time. But step by step, they saw that the fair was growing and that good artworks were being put up for sale; after the first few sales, people set their ambitions free.
We always invite collectors from Latvia and Estonia as well. As far as we know, they've always been regular visitors and have purchased works, but only now has it become clear that these deals are often sealed after the fair – many purchase the artworks in the physical galleries. That's why I admit that all of this is a lengthy process – most of the important conversations move from the Expo to someplace more private where, in the case of very expensive pieces, the haggling and deal-making can become heated.
In your opinion, what is the position of Baltic art on the world scene? Have we found our place, or is the contrary true: we still have a lot of work to do – ?
I think we have very good artists with very good works, but we just lack management and marketing ability. Maybe we should once and for all get together and make a huge shebang? I believe that with the help of ArtVilnius, the Baltic countries of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania can band together. Exhibiting by ourselves in international fairs, our countries disappear – we look completely different there. But here we could come up with a plan on how to draw attention to ourselves – perhaps we ought to involve in ArtVilnius a curator from Estonia and one from Latvia? We're already thinking about doing this.
Curators from the contemporary video art festival Videonale were involved in ArtVilnius this year and presented a special program. Looking at everything together, what sort of place does the medium of video have in today's contemporary art? Does it receive the recognition it deserves?
I think that video is in a very good position right now; video is an integral part nowadays. Western Europe has had powerful video festivals for a good while now – this year saw the 15th iteration of the video biennale Videonale (http://v15.videonale.org/en/), and I have been told by its organizers that when they started out, people had no idea what it even was. When small video festivals took place individually, they really were quite weak, but once they merged, their status grew. When we decide upon what we want to give prominence to each year, we try to come up with something interesting for the video program – we've had Lithuanian videos, and this year powerful foreign videos were brought to Vilnius by Tasja Langenbach and Jennifer Gassmann; we know them both from Art Moscow.
What are your plans for expanding the large-scale sculpture and installation exhibitions?
We're very happy with the sculpture and installation exhibition having taken on an international scale this year because we understand how difficult it is to transport and set up such works. In addition to the usual Lithuanian artists, we also had artists from Latvia and Ukraine exhibiting this year. We were very lucky to find a sponsor to supply the wooden pallets for the Ukrainian artist Anton Logov – everything is possible if you have an idea. We believe that these sculptures are integral to ArtVilnius; we wish we had more of them because Litexpo has an uncommonly good infrastructure and lots of space in which to exhibit them. I am confident that if we use these resources to their fullest, the best in terms of sculpture and installation at ArtVilnius is yet to come.
How does ArtVilnius position itself – as what kind of a platform? Are you part of the Western European art market, or the Eastern European one?
When we first started with ArtVilnius, we thought that we would be at the crossroads of Eastern and Western Europe – a place where both regions come together. But looking at the current situation, we see that the way to Eastern Europe is full of roadblocks. From a geographical standpoint, the region we can, and would like to cover, spans from Estonia to Georgia. Our goal is to bring together all of the best galleries from these countries. That's why it's not all that interesting for us to solicit Western European galleries that already participate in other international fairs – you'll see those when you go to other art fairs. The people who come to our art fair with the intention of buying want something else – something new and unseen – and we really do have unique artists. We just have to present them professionally.