Arco art fair looks to the Americas

The Madrid art gathering wants to transform itself into a reference for Hispanic creation

An art dealer walks through the stands at Arco.
An art dealer walks through the stands at Arco.Daniel Ochoa de Olza / AP

When Arco, Madrid’s premier contemporary art fair, opens its doors for the 34th year on Wednesday, it will reveal a clearly Latin American leaning.

Director Carlos Urroz has consolidated the region’s presence at the international art gathering by including 47 galleries from 10 Latin American nations among the 218 participating exhibitors.

That is the largest representation yet from the region at Arco, whose guest country this year is Colombia.

Faced with growing competition, Arco does not want to be just another of the 220 art fairs held around the world each year. But in order to stand out, it needs to develop a personality of its own and become a reference point for collectors.

Mateo Maté, artist

Gallery owners, artists and art dealers agree on the urgent need to consolidate Arco’s Latin American presence, in order to make Madrid an indispensable meeting point between Europe and the Americas.

Playing in its favor is the goodwill of industry professionals. But Spanish galleries have to struggle with a 21% VAT rate on sales, compared with lower rates in other countries.

Urroz, who is into his fifth year at the helm of Arco, believes it is already possible to describe the fair as having a marked Latin American character.

“The gaze towards Latin America was there from the very beginning,” he says. “Let’s remember that in 1997, Arco was dedicated to the South American continent, and that its great galleries began their international activities right here at Arco.”

Madrid, he says, is already a meeting point for gallery owners, artists and collectors from Europe and the Americas.

Miami Art Basel: the great rival

A.G./F.J.

The Miami Art Basel fair has been luring Latin American collectors and galleries away from Arco for several years now. Created in 2002, the US edition of Art Basel, the world’s most important art fair, has reinforced its character and attracted large fortunes in search of museum pieces or investments with a view to speculation.

No business figures are ever released, in line with practice at many other art fairs, but several media outlets have estimated that sales at the last edition, which featured 280 galleries from 31 countries, totaled $3 billion (€2.64 billion).

“This is the fair that attracts the most museum directors, curators and biennale directors. Internationalization is crucial for everyone these days. The new Spanish galleries have an international program and clients in America and Europe. There are also many Spanish artists working with foreign galleries, which in turn participate in our fair.”

Urroz does not believe that other art fairs in Bogota, Buenos Aires and Mexico, not to mention Miami Art Basel, are better meeting points for lovers of Latin American art than Madrid.

“Their very existence underscores how right Arco is to focus on the Latin American market,” says Urroz. “Those are markets that have matured, and thus created their own fairs. Any fair will create new collectors and organize the market, so their existence is good for each other. Spanish galleries are interested in going to Bogota, and Buenos Aires art galleries are interested in coming to Arco.”

But not everyone sees this competition in such an optimistic light. Luis Adelantado, a gallery owner from Valencia who has had stands in Miami and Mexico, feels that “most Latin American collectors go to Miami; its distance away and the sheer power of that fair play a big role, but also the social nature of the relationships that spring up there. Fewer of them come to Madrid, although perhaps they are more serious about collecting if they bother to come all the way here.”

Artist Bernardi Roig also feels that Arco came late to Latin America and that Miami Art Basel has already taken the biggest share of that pie.

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“Arco had it in its hands, but it hesitated,” he says. “Having said that, it is absolutely essential to keep tabs on everything that is going on there, both for galleries and for artists. The Latin American scene is one of the most idea-rich and creative on the entire planet.”

Some people, however, disagree. David Fernández-Braso, of the gallery of the same name, believes that Arco should focus more on Spanish art: “What would bring it more character and personality is precisely to offer a more extensive, in-depth view of modern and contemporary Spanish art. Our culture’s dialogue and relationship with foreign cultures is an added plus.”

In any case, Arco also hopes to play a big role in Europe.

“It is a bridge fair, which we find very appropriate because it brings us closer to Latin America and allows us to cultivate our contacts with collectors and institutions there,” notes a spokesperson for Kewenig, a gallery with bases in Mallorca and Berlin.

Agustín Pérez Rubio, a Spanish curator who heads the MALBA museum in Buenos Aires, confirms this connecting role.

“Arco was always a good showcase for Latin America in Europe,” he says. “Just remember Marco Antonio Vilaça or Ruth Benzacar, who fought year after year to pave the way for Latin American art. Ruth went to Arco for over 10 years without ever selling a single artwork, until finally people began showing an interest in Argentinean art and some artists’ work was acquired by museums and Spanish collections.”

Isabel Mignoni, of the Elvira González gallery, also believes that the future lies in Latin America, but that Spain’s great pending challenge is the VAT rate on sales. “For the art market in Spain to really work, we need to bring our cultural VAT in line with the rest, or with the average, in other European countries,” she underscores.

Artists like Carmen Calvo and Mateo Maté agree. “How is it possible that within the same art fair, my work costs less at a foreign gallery than at a Spanish one?” wonders Maté. “Either someone did not think this through, or else it’s a meditated revenge against a specific sector. In any case, it makes no sense from the point of view of taxation: six percent or 10 percent of something is better than 21 percent of nothing, which could easily happen the way things are going.”

ARCO. February 25 to March 1 at Feria de Madrid (IFEMA). www.ifema.es/arcomadrid_01