Expert Eye

Liste Director Peter Bläuer on Basel's Scrappiest Art Fair

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Liste Director Peter Bläuer on Basel's Scrappiest Art Fair
Liste director Peter Bläuer

Every year, when collectors stream into Switzerland for the high-octane market phenomenon that is Art Basel, conversation often turns to a smaller, less-publicized fair a few blocks away from the main attraction. "What did you buy at Liste?" becomes the almost conspiratorial refrain. That's because unlike Basel, which showcases the finest examples of blue-chip art available, Liste is devoted to displaying the newest, least tested art by the world's most promising young artists—in other words, as the cognoscenti know, it's a place where the newest crop of market stars are minted every year. 

Known as the "young art fair"—it mainly accepts exhibitors that have been in existence for five years or less, and artists 40 years of age or younger—Liste was founded in 1996 by the Swiss dealers Peter Bläuer, Eva Presenhuber, Peter Kilchmann as the punish little sibling of the main event. The latter two founders have since gone on to build gallery empires of their own in Zürich, and Bläuer today continues to direct the fair, which today draws avid attention from hunters of emergent art. 

For galleries, Liste is the often entryway to the big leagues, and this year newcomers like 47 Canal, Essex Street, and Real Fine Arts (all from New York) join a cast of repeat exhibitors including Altman Siegel and Balice Hertling.

To find out how Liste occupies its uniquely potent place in the art ecosystem, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Bläuer about the fair's secretive selection process, the challenges facing younger galleries, and where the world's best new art is coming from. 

You founded Liste in 1996 alongside the dealers Eva Presenhuber and Peter Kilchmann. What was the impetus for founding this fair in a small Swiss trade town? 

The reason why is that, at the time, there was a new generation of very interesting galleries that didn’t have the chance to get into Art Basel. As you know, Art Basel is an excellent fair, but it is only for established galleries—not for the new generation. So Eva Presenbuber, who was a curator then who I had sold a lot of art to, called me and said, "Peter, let's do a new fair! Let’s get it into Art Basel." So we spoke to Art Basel and told that we wanted to do something with them for the young generation, or otherwise we would start a separate new fair. And told us no—they didn’t want to change their concept.  

So we started this new fair 19 years ago, and if you look up the list of exhibitors from our first fair, it was David Zwirner and Maureen Paley and a lot of other excellent galleries that were in the young generation. Of course, most of them are now in Art Basel—that's how it works. Every year we introduce the new generation, and in time they can step to Art Basel. 

Your emphasis has always been on emerging art galleries, which you accept based on how recently they opened

We opened that a little bit, because while we're interested in introducing really new galleries every year we also now have some galleries that are a little bit older that haven't yet stepped into the big fair, but which we think are still very important galleries. For example, Peres Projects from Berlin and Ellen de Bruijne from Amsterdam are two—they've been in the fair nine or 10 times. With those galleries, however, we only allow them to show their young artists, not their established artists. 

When it comes to bringing young artists, some galleries feel that they can't even bring artists over 35 for fear of being frowned upon by the fair. Is there an advantage for exhibitors to present only the youngest group of artists in their galleries?

We are most interested in introducing the youngest artists—we don't want to show the same artists as Art Basel. And the collectors and museum people who come to Liste are also interested in finding new artists, not artists they already know. Of course, it’s always about business, and some artists are a little bit better known. But the best thing about Liste is that if you introduce a  good young artist here, there's an excellent chance that collectors will buy them and they will get into shows, because all the curators are here. It works fantastically well. Sometimes a gallery will introduce a really young artist no has heard about, and then one year later I'll hear the artist has been in a group show in this museum, a solo show in that museum, and now has found a gallery in London. Liste is the place to discover new artists, that's why people come to the fair. 

Who is the youngest artist you can think of who has shown at Liste?  

I don’t know exactly, but I'd say perhaps 24 years old or around that. Often, they have just finished art school, or are in their last year of art school.

One of the interesting things about the art market at the moment is that while all the blue-chip galleries at Basel are doing very well, the galleries that are at the lowest level are also thriving. That's in part because many collectors are looking at art as a form of investment, and they realize that if they spend $1 million at Basel they can buy one piece, or maybe half a piece, but if they spend $1 million at somewhere like Liste….

They can buy the whole fair! [Laughs] But, yes, there are collectors who don’t care about the money, but often they want to be sure that the art is famous, so they'll wait—even if it costs them $1 million more, they'll wait. Then there are a lot of other collectors who really love to discover, and they'll  come to Liste for the 12 o’clock preview and explore the whole fair. A lot of what these collectors carry away from Liste is priced at nothing, and then a few years later many of those artists are famous and cost a lot of money. Collectors love that—they're proud that they were one of the first to realize the quality, to see that it's good art. And these collectors love Liste.  

There are many speculative collectors today, who when they find an artist they think has a future will not only buy one or two pieces but 20 to gain a chunk of their future market that they can then flip at auction. 

Yes, of course—but they also need the galleries to be willing to sell 20 pieces. The really good galleries won't sell so many pieces to one collector, because they know that’s not really a collector and that five or 10 years later they'll put the work on the market. They might give them one or two pieces, but not 20.  

How has the relationship between Art Basel and Liste changed over time? Now the main fair also has a Statements section devoted to emerging galleries, which this year will for the first time be placed side-by-side with the main gallery section.

We are friends with Art Basel—it's the great thing of Basel that we have our two fairs together here. You don’t have that in any other city. But, of course, the first step from Liste to Art Basel is to get into Statements. I think about 70 percent of the galleries in Statements this year were in Liste last year. But Basel has very few spaces, and Statements is only for one year. To get a big booth takes more time. But every year we have one or two galleries that was once in Liste and now steps into a big booth in Art Basel. This year, for instance, that's the case with Tanya Leighton from Berlin, who has a booth there. 

So, why is Art Basel considered the best fair in the world?

It’s the history. Art Basel was started 44 years ago, and it was the second art fair in the world, the first being Art Cologne in Germany. Basel started one year afterwards, and, I can say, Cologne had a few directors who didn’t do that good of a job. It’s very sad. Today the art fair in Cologne is not an important international art fair anymore. Basel, on the other hand, did an excellent job—they had some really good directors who made really good decisions. So now they have the highest quality.

Considering that Liste is seen as the farm team to get into the incredibly lucrative main fair, the selection process must be very competitive. 

Yes, we are in a very tough position—every young gallery wants to be in Liste, so everyone applies. They know that if you're in Liste your program will get recognized, and that the collectors and museum people will not only see your booth but come to visit your gallery in your city—and it’s very difficult to start a new business, and it takes time for the collectors to come to galleries in their cities. So of course that helps very much if you are in Liste. Then, yeah, it happens a lot for them.  

You only accept 10 new galleries a year from several hundred applications. How are these galleries chosen? 

It’s classical—like in any other fair, there's a committee that makes the selections. The difference is that in Art Basel and most other fairs, the committees are made up of art galleries. At Liste, the jury is only museum people, who really do their research and try to choose the best.  

Who are some of the jury members? 

We don’t reveal their names. We really have to protect them, because you can jut imagine how many phone calls and letters and books they would get during the year if galleries knew who they were.

This year the jury has chosen a very impressive lineup, and it's tempting to analyze it based on demographics. There are 14 galleries from Berlin, six  from New York, only two from Los Angeles, and then just one from China, one from Africa, and one from the Middle East. What is your reading of this breakdown, and why are there so many exhibitors from Berlin?

What's interesting about Berlin is it's no longer true that the galleries in Berlin are German galleries. Berlin is the cheapest gallery city in the world, so dealers come from other countries like Italy and Great Britain to open there. To open a gallery in London you need a lot of money, to open a gallery in New York you need money. Berlin is a cheap city, and you can get space for very low price. 

For instance, Tanya Leighton, who has a big space in Art Basel, doesn’t even speak German—she’s from Great Britain. Peres Project was in L.A., where it’s just crazy expensive, and now has a big, big space in Berlin and doesn't speak German either. But he brought all his artists from L.A., so that makes for a very special situation in Berlin. That's why we have 14—several of them are not really German.  

That sounds like a smart strategy for younger galleries. 

I think Berlin is the most interesting gallery city in the world at the moment, and it's the same for artists. A lot of famous young international artists live now in Berlin. It’s a very cheap city to rent a studio, to rent an apartment, and for to live, and for apartments. It's becoming more expensive, of course, but you still can't compare the prices with New York, London, or Paris.

There are no galleries from Russia, I see.  

We've had one Russian gallery in the whole history of Liste. Galleries apply from Russia, but we're not very interested. For us, the first question is about quality, not where the gallery is from or whether we have to have a Russian gallery to get the Russian collectors. It’s the same with China—China is very much in fashion, be we're not sure about the quality.  

It's notable, in that case, that there are five galleries from Latin America this year. 

That’s new! It’s the first time, and it’s interesting. It took time for the Latin American galleries to decide to come as far as Basel—if you look at Art Basel, there aren't that many galleries from Latin America there. That’s why, at the end of the day Art Basel moved towards Miami, to get the Latin galleries. But now in South America they're realizing how important it is for a young gallery to be in Basel, because Basel is still number one. So, yeah, this year we have five, and they have very interesting artists. I very much look forward to seeing what they'll show. But Switzerland is a very expensive country, so it's expensive for these galleries to come here. 

How much does it cost for a typical gallery to exhibit at Liste? 

We have different prices for our booths. In the first year it’s around $7,500 dollars, then the second year is more expensive, the third year is more expensive, and it goes up. The top price is now around $15,000. We try to help young galleries come to Basel by not being too expensive—it's cheap to come to an art fair for $7,500, you know. 

Then, of course, the galleries have to pay for shipping and accommodations. 

Yes, I’m afraid it can get very expensive. But, of course, it depends on what you bring. Sometimes galleries that don’t have a lot of money bring artworks in a suitcase. Others spend a lot of money to transport the work. Then you have to find a place to live here, but we look for rooms for the galleries so they don't have to go through expensive hotels. We try to help keep the price down. 

But, on the other hand, the galleries will sell at Liste, and they'll go back with a bunch of cards from important people who are interested in your artists and with addresses of museum people. That means you can go home and then really start to work with all these people you met in Basel—that's what the young galleries tell me. When you start a business it otherwise takes several years to make these kinds of contacts, and later on they translate into money. 

Looking at these young galleries that you've shown from year to year, how have you observed the kind of art they choose to bring changing?

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It's interesting, before the crisis every gallery made sure to include a video, a film, or an Internet work. But now, on the other side of the crisis, the gallery feel more of a need to survive, so we have much more painting again—it's easier to sell than a video. So it’s not an easy time to open a gallery, and not all of them will survive. But a few people still want to open a gallery because they believe in some artists, and it's my responsibility to introduce them and give them a chance to be here in Basel and get into this market and make all these connections. 

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