Can Argentina turn its art fans into collectors?

BUENOS AIRES -- Argentines love to look at art. They just don't like to buy it. ArteBA is trying to change that.

From "Tarzan," a video installation by Yoshua Okón (2003)

BUENOS AIRES -- Argentina's capital has one of the world's richest arts cultures, and the city's annual art fair, arteBA, has never had a problem attracting local gawkers. Indeed, more than 100,000 visitors attended the four-day fair this year, which ended on May 27. But in years past, arteBA has not been able to convert those viewers into buyers. Argentines have proven to be much more comfortable buying purses than paintings, which is a problem for a fair that aims to attract better international galleries and compete with top world fairs like Art Basel and ARCOmadrid.

"We want to accustom people to the idea of buying art," arteBA's outgoing president Facundo Gómez Minujín says.

To make arteBA more competitive and international, its directors introduced several changes at this year's 22nd edition. As a step toward improving the quality of the art, the arteBA selection committee reduced the number of galleries while keeping the number of foreign galleries level. This year's fair had 82 galleries (of which 32 were foreign) compared to 98 in 2012.

Facundo Gómez Minujín

"Our goal in recent years has been to make the fair more international," Gómez Minujín says. "To that end, we have not only been working with the layout, which this year had wider aisles and higher walls, but our selection committees has also gotten tougher."

Similarly, arteBA invited more foreign curators to oversee parts of the fair. Mexican Cuauhtémoc Medina curated the arteBA-Petrobras prize, the first time a non-Argentine was picked to do so, and Iranian Abaseh Mirvali returned for her third year leading the U-Turn Project Rooms, which bring together galleries from Latin America and Europe to expose fairgoers to international art trends. Artists in the U-Turn rooms included Mexican Yoshua Okón, represented by the Peruvian gallery Revolver, and Pakistani artist Ceal Floyer, represented by Germany's Esther Schipper.

But while making the fair more selective and less provincial doubtlessly increases its quality, to compete with international fairs, arteBA will have to somehow build a community of local collectors who will buy art and thereby attract better galleries.

"We're working on training new collectors in our country," arteBA's Gómez Minujín, the son of  local art icon Marta Minujín , says. "It's important for us that local collectors expand their horizons and begin to acquire art by artists from across Latin America and Europe. By doing so, more international galleries will want to participar in the fair in order to meet with a public that's interested in the art they sell."

To that end, arteBA offered several training programs aimed at locals with disposable income. In March, the fair put on its third annual "Panorama del arte contemporáneo latinoamericano," a series of lectures about contemporary Latin American art trends by Christie's Latin American Art head Virgilio Garza, Brazilian collector Pedro Barbosa, Argentine collector Raúl Naon, and Mexican curator Cuauhtémoc Medina.

arteBA opening night

And to get more young locals with money to buy art, arteBA introduced Art Fans. In this program, arteBA invited 500 people, mostly under 40 years old, to visit the fair on the afternoon before its opening party. Invitees filled out questionnaires beforehand about their budget and interests, and the Spanish company Arte Global combined this information with the fair's catalog to create a customized "Art Advisory" packet that suggested artworks that would be a good fit for the novice art buyer.

With 2013's arteBA recently concluded, it's too early to tell if the collecting push has succeeded. At the opening party, a good number of works were labeled with the red stickers that signify that they had been sold, but galleries are loath to reveal sales data in Argentina because of tax issues. Nonetheless, building a community of collectors is important -- not only for the fair, but for the artists as well, according to Ximena Caminos, the executive director of the Faena Arts Center (see SmartPlanet story ), which opened a new exhibit by the Russian art collective AES+F the week of the fair.

"We have to encourage people to collect art, and show them that you don't have to be rich, or old, to do so," she says. "It's healthy for the artists. They can survive without it, but with it they are more free. They won't have to drive taxis to make ends meet."

"Overgrowth," by Ceal Floyer (2004)

Photos courtesy of arteBA.

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