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by Georg Imdahl
|Berlin gallery owner Michael Haas, a veteran of more than 20 years at Art Cologne, faced unexpected difficulties when he applied for a stand at the biggest art fair in Germany. The Köln Messe officially informed him that his gallery, which carries classic modern art, would not be included. Haas responded by immediately calling Art Cologne manager Heinz Schnock, who denied knowing anything about the rejection notice that happened to carry his name.
After fellow Cologne gallery owner Michael Werner wrote a letter to the fair organizers to defend his colleague, it was suggested that Haas should formally object to his exclusion, which was then overturned. In the end, Haas is taking part in Art Cologne this year, but he is outraged by the behavior of the organizers. Haas commented to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that this was "a bad joke." He was not treated like a valued client, he said, but rather was degraded to the status of a mere petitioner.
Art Cologne introduced a new "rotation" concept this year in an effort to reduce tension among competing applicants to the fair, according to a press conference last July announcing the change. This hope, as the case of Haas shows, is little more than wishful thinking. The rotation procedure calls for "long-standing exhibitors to do without their stand for one or more years so that other galleries can take part in the event."
Prominent Cologne galleries were held up as a shining example of the new rotation concept. For instance, Rolf Ricke is not taking part in Art Cologne this year. "This year I had no interest in participating in the fair and did not even apply," says Ricke, despite being invited several times to seek a stand. He was very surprised when he learned that he was a forerunner in the rotation scheme.
In fact, the option of sitting out Art Cologne is not entirely voluntary, as the example of Ricke might suggest. Rather, galleries are put on the waiting list when the admittance committee "votes for admission not unanimously, but only with a majority vote." That's how the "universal participation" regulation is being put into effect: the creation of a "group two" of applicants in contrast to a "group one" who are unanimously seen as an asset to the fair. "If they took part in five or more Art Cologne fairs, they have to sit out the next year." This year 30 galleries have been affected by this new regulation, and there is no guarantee that after sitting out Art Cologne 2000 they will have a right to participate next year.
An admittance committee of gallery owners, who take part at the fair themselves, decides who lands in the B-group. The applicants could view them as potential rivals. One disagreement occurred over Samuel Baumgarten Galerie of Bielefeld, which wanted to present the Berlin artist Rainer Fetting in a solo exhibition. According to Michael Schultz, deputy of the admittance committee, the gallery would not be allowed to feature the painter because there was no proof that it had exhibited his work before. Schultz added "whoever deviates from their usual program too much endangers their admittance." Alexander Baumgarten, on the other hand, emphasizes that he displayed Fetting's work in two group exhibitions. Baumgarten is suing the Köln Messe for damages.
Baumgarten's lawyers claim that Art Cologne was obliged to hold a place for the dealer during the course of his lawsuit. The suit was instituted in collaboration with the Frankfurt gallery owner Peter Femfert, whose application to the fair had been rejected for the third time. The verdict in the case is due on Nov. 15, three days after the end of the fair. Curiously, Fetting ended up being represented at Art Cologne by Schultz, who points out that he abstained from voting when the Baumgarten application was discussed. (It is surely a mere coincidence that Fetting's catalogue names Haas & Fuchs as the only place he is represented in addition to Schultz.) There is still a feeling of uneasiness, which the committee senses as well. Soon museum professionals are also going to be enlisted into service on the Art Cologne jury.
A new application fee, regulated in the "special participation agreements," also exploits gallery owners. The fee is 460.60 Euros plus tax -- 1000 DM, or more than $400 -- and is not refundable if the gallery is rejected. According to spokesman Dirk Mangold, the Cologne Fair justifies this by pointing to the labor-intensive task of administering the application process. Still, 1000 DM seems to be a rather high price and it begs the question, wouldn't the fair have to raise the cost of a stand without the entrance fee? What can this mean? That fees paid by the rejected candidates end up holding down costs for those galleries who get in. It's not surprising that this regulation is not very popular.
Dealers have also been confused by the formalities of the application process, and the ways in which the rules are applied. For instance, only galleries with four yearly exhibitions in the last three years are accepted as applicants -- and they must prove this schedule by providing invitation cards. On June 5, the Köln Messe complained that the application of gallery Gebrüder Lehmann only included a single invitation. The Dresden dealers said that since they had received a stand at Art Cologne in 1999, they believed that it was sufficient that they had fulfilled the criteria from last year. Gebrüder Lehmann immediately handed in the missing documents, but it was too late. The admission jury this year has emphasized "the strict obedience to formal criteria of the application process."
Rolf Hengesbach, who manages Räume für Neue Kunst in Wuppertal, was rejected on June 5 -- like Gebrüder Lehmann, he failed to show evidence of his past exhibitions. In his objection on June 8, Hengesbach wrote that he was surprised that "after seven years working with Art Cologne they doubt his regular exhibitions." Rightly he complains that he paid his application fee but was not informed by the fair of his incomplete application, which the Kölner Messe had had since Apr. 1. "One could expect a more polite treatment in such cases," he said. In the end, the Art Cologne admission jury returned a positive verdict -- unlike in Lehmann's case -- and Hengesbach is participating in the fair.
Cologne gallery owner and jury spokesman Karsten Greve emphasizes that every case was "discussed at length and on its own merits." Greve explains that the fair had to resort to the formalities of the rules of the application process after many rejected galleries to the "catastrophic" step of going to court to fight for admission to Art Cologne. These lawsuits "poison the atmosphere," Greve notes. Solution of this problem is going to be difficult, especially considering that Art Cologne is the art market's leading event, even with competing fairs in Berlin and Frankfurt. That is why rejection of some galleries can be seen as a distortion of the market.
Gallery owners see themselves humiliated in front of their clients when they are rejected by Art Cologne. But the idea of decreasing the number of galleries taking part in the fair very popular. Naturally, long-standing participation at the Art Cologne does not make a gallery irreplaceable. But if Art Cologne considers it sensible to rotate the participation of renowned galleries, then it should be done more carefully. The organizers seem to have a problem of moderation. So far, gallery owners are viewing the new jury procedures as a policy of pinpricks and not as a strategy of selection.
GEORG IMDAHL is art critic for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where this text first appeared.