Alistair Hicks about Art Basel 2019

Alistair Hicks is a writer and art curator, he was Senior Curator at Deutsche Bank for 20 years. Artdecision’s Irina Vernichenko offers an interview with Alistair Hicks about Art Basel art fair.

Irina Vernichenko: What is the role of art fairs today?

Alistair Hicks: The position of art fairs has changed massively since Art Basel started. The original fairs, Basel and Koln, were devised so that galleries could counter the power of the auction houses. I suppose this is still a function of art fairs, but at the same time they have become diluted: we’ve got an art fair every week of the year. And are art fairs doing the function of relating people to art in the right way?

IV: And why?

AH: Because art is not shown in its most conducive environment. Art fairs do link people to art, because people go to these events, and they start thinking about art, artists and galleries, but fairs are run like a very inefficient dating service. In future we will see more efficient ways of doing it. Fair organisers are going to have to dramatically reassess how they engage people with art.

In a way the art fairs tend to just reflect the market. When I was involved at Deutsche Bank, the sponsor of Frieze Art Fair, at the early stages they were definitely conscious of balancing market forces with projects that countered a market that was already too authoritarian. I now work for the selection committee for “Unseen” and when the projects are working well they do supply a little bit of balance to the art market totally out of control, because just supporting what everybody is wanting at the moment is not really serving the function of increasing our knowledge about what is available, what is out there.

Art Basel is definitely the most important art fair in the world.

IV: Why?

AH: Just because it gets more people linked together: they sell a lot of art. They do have a responsibility to lead the market in diverse directions. The balance is wrong now. For instance there is not a single Russian gallery, there is not a great deal of African art. If you think of what is being made around the world, and what is shown here, it is very uneven. There is quite a bit of dislocation. Basically, an art fair is a market place, it is how the market works. But there is responsibility to show a broader spectrum.

IV: If we talk about the art fair as a cultural place, what do you think about discourse becoming part of art fairs? What do you think of Art Basel Talks?

AH: As a writer, I think that writing, good writing on art, is not supported very well, that is partly because editors in the big newspapers are not supporting people writing about the little shows. In a way, the job of art journalism and art criticism for me is to broaden what people are seeing, explaining what is available. So yes, in that sense, conversations are very important, (and it is very sad to see wasted opportunities). But great to see when it works. For instance, they opened with William Kentridge (artist talk), that was fabulous, it was very popular. And you could see people could not get into the room, it was completely full.

IV: You mentioned that art criticism gives a broad vision

A H: I have not said that. I don’t want to tell other writers what to do. A writer can be very interested in a certain area, a very small area. I am not saying that any artist should do any kind of art, that any writer should do any particular sort of thing. But the reason why I write is that I want people to understand more, engage people like a dating service, really. To help create relationships, how we relate to art, because art is no different from the rest of life, it is just part of the same thing.

IV: And how are people related to art nowadays? Is there any change in the way people are related to art?

It goes to the same thing again, if the market is so strong. There was a poor man in rags rambling and ranting about money laundering, “art is only for the rich”, and there is an element of that. Too often journalists and newspapers are only interested in art when it is about money: their interest is caught when Koon’s Bunny makes a lot of millions, or stories about the price and scholarship about the Leonardo scandal keep on running.

IV:  You said you like Art Basel, and that Art Basel is different. The Unlimited sector is one of the advantages of Art Basel, we do not see it at Frieze, for instance. What are your impressions of Unlimited this year?

A H: When it works it is really good. The hit rate there this year is quite good. I liked several works, and it was very nice to see the young Spanish artist called Alicia Framis, standing there and talking and explaining the works, and how women put on protective clothing to defend themselves from abuse, and it reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaiden’s Tale, and I was able to have a conversation with the artist who had never heard of the Canadian writer. The exchange of interconnecting ideas is great.

There was also very slow movie of Fiona Tan’s. “Unlimited” allows you to sit there and let it unfold, whereas if you treat it like the rest of the fair and you go round very quickly, you will probably just walk in and out.  I was fascinated by her ‘Utopian’ city. A woman was giving this monologue: it was a cross between a newscaster’s report, an anthropological lecture, and a documentary. She was recounting how wonderful the city was, and then suddenly you realized the images were at loggerheads with what she was saying. This soothing voices are telling us things and just lulling us into a fake sense of security.

IV: What art market tools would you recommend to our readers, who collect art?

A H: Interestingly, I have got a meeting later with Denis, a friend of mine from Moscow, he organized the Cube, and he started a business with a partner from New York. It is exactly on what tools are there available, what tools people use. They’ve started their company called “Accelerator”, which is to try and bring in better technical tools for the art world, because they say on the whole the tools are not working, they are not having a huge impact at the moment. There isn’t a match between technology and what the art world really needs.

IV: Then how does one find a trend, so that you can follow it while collecting and then succeed?

A H: I don’t wish to mention names – but some tools are based on trends and on past figures. They take their rules and algorithms from the financial markets, cut off the top 5% and the bottom 5%. If you cut off the top and bottom 5% in the art market, you are not following the trends!  I would prefer to say tools do not necessarily support the art market but actually teach you to get to the work that you really relate to round the world.

IV:  So, buy what you like?

AH: Not necessarily. Sorry to use the dating system again, but you know, you can go out and find someone you like, a friend or whatever. You do not have to be told to meet the same person again and again, you want to relate to lots of different people. And at the moment we have been told that the perfect art work is Jeff Koon’s Bunny Rabbit…

IV: What is your favorite art work here? What do you like the most?

AH: I like Marcel Dzama’s work, Marcel Dzama is a Canadian artist who lives in New York. He decided to make the work on site. I follow him on Instagram, he has 47,000 followers. he mixes so many types of forms, he makes works on paper, antiwar movies, anti corrupt, very political, but he makes it fun and engaging. He works at night, but the organizers wouldn’t let him come and work at night.  When I first met him, he gave me a little card signed with a bat.