The 20th edition of ARCO, Madrid's international contemporary art fair, broke its own visitor and sales records yet again. During its heady, six-day run, Feb. 14-19, 2001, the 274 gallery exhibitors from 29 countries played host to more than 176,000 visitors, a four-percent increase over last year's record-breaking attendance.
Spain's art institutions and foundations kept up their tradition of buying in bulk at ARCO, spending a sum total of $2.2 million. The Reina Sofía accounted for $840,000 of that amount, while Spain's Coca Cola Foundation spent $420,000. As is the case every year, the totals of purchases by collectors and entities outside of Spain are kept out of the public eye. ARCO officials simply say that this fair's total purchases were up 20 percent over last year, another "all-time high."
The 100 Spanish galleries made a strong showing, as usual, and this year's ARCO was a good place to see some very nice works by established artists like Julio González, Joan Miró and Francisco Leiro, works that aren't generally available for public viewing. A few of my favorites from the Spanish scene: a "poem-object" entitled The Novel by Catalán artist Joan Brossa, whose work is undergoing something of a revival now; a delightful collage spoof on Don Juan by Eduardo Arroyo; and a futuristic fountain design for an exhibition in next year's architectural biennale in Venice by Javier Pérez, a former occupant of the Reina Sofía's Espacio Uno gallery.
The invited guest-star country this year was the U.K., which brought 46 galleries and art organizations, chosen by curators Charles Esche, Matthew Higgs and Kim Sweet. There was lots of variety, but little to "write home about." Nevertheless, this year's works and installations by U.K. artists tended to have more substance to them than the works shown last year when France occupied the guest-star role at ARCO.
Claire Barclay's sculpture at the booth of Transmission Gallery, Glasgow, showed an interesting use of paper media, a tight, Zen-influence in its structure, and a good dose of conceptual mystery. Mark Dean's Visual Proposal at Laurent Delaye Gallery, London, was quite magnetic in spite of its simplicity, and in spite of the fact that it invited the classic comment from the "uneducated" viewer -- "Why, I could do that, myself."
A large untitled installation by John Wood and Paul Harrison at the Film and Video Umbrella Gallery, London, which consisted of more than 15 televisions turned this way and that, all situated on a shiny, reflective floor, looked positively quaint. Where are the dynamism and challenge that are the hallmarks of good installation art in the 21st century?
One of the U.K. section's greatest contributions to this year's fair came in the discussions and round-tables, where people had an opportunity to find out how the British art world is working and expanding these days. Curator Higgs commented that the last decade has seen an "unprecedented evolution in contemporary British art," one that has been aided and abetted by the Labor Party's victory and Tony Blair's election and, just as importantly, by the establishment of an art-purchasing fund, which uses money from the national lottery.
The lottery fund is an idea that could work in many countries, and the same goes for Britain's Contemporary Art Society. CAS was formed in 1910, with the goal of raising money to purchase contemporary art that could be donated to museums. The CAS grew to include branches in the U.S., New Zealand, Canada, and Australia, but most European countries are still in need of such an organization that could lend a boost to contemporary art.
Next year's country of honor will be Australia, with gallery owner Paul Greenway serving as chief curator. Greenway announced that his selection will include galleries that feature contemporary artists as well as aboriginal art. Greenway has been an exhibitor at ARCO for several years, and is known for his astute eye and his sense of adventure in choosing artists to represent.
As for ARCO proper, little was different this year. The selection of Spanish galleries was solid and interesting, but not decidedly different from years past.
What was new, however, was the absence of controversy, missing for the first time in three years. The fair passed with no formal complaints by "rejected" galleries or rumors of ARCO director Rosina Gómez-Baena being pushed aside by even one centimeter. Digital art played, as would be expected, a bigger role; and for the first time, money prizes were offered for digital/internet artworks. The national newspaper El Mundo awarded ARCO's first Digital Art Award of $9,000 to Igor Stromajer for his work Intima City.
Although, just as last year, Gómez-Baena warned that the selection committee may choose fewer galleries to exhibit at ARCO 2002, the director of Madrid's trade fair entity, Fermín Lucas, announced that ARCO will have its greatest square footage in 2002, when the fair changes from Pavilions 5 and 7 to 7 and 9 -- 22,000 square meters, to be exact. This will enable the organizers to widen the passageways between booths and to provide galleries with larger and more interesting exhibition spaces. The dates for ARCO 2002 are Feb. 14-19.