Bologna is a pleasant city, large enough to provide a different restaurant for every night of the week but small enough for you to bump into friends on the street. From Jan. 23-26, 2009, the city hosted the 33rd edition of its prestigious national modern and contemporary art fair, Arte Fiera Bologna.
Some 50,000 visitors came to examine artworks by over 2,000 artists at the booths of 200 galleries. Arte Fiera director Silvia Evangelisti changed the layout this year, adding an extra hall and mixing modern and contemporary dealers together on the same level, rather than placing them on separate floors as before. And though Arte Fiera is largely Italian, a few blue-chip dealers came from out of town: James Cohan, Nancy Hoffman and Sperone Westwater from New York; Jérôme de Noirmont, Thaddaeus Ropac and Lelong from Paris; and Ben Brown from London.
Works by all the greats of 20th-century Italian art were available, from Giorgio de Chirico and Giorgio Morandi to Alighiero Boetti and Francesco Clemente. Next to those popular names, visitors could discover seminal works by less celebrated artists. Galleria Antologia from Monza in North Italy, for example, had a cast of a bust of Benito Mussolini made in 1933 by Renato Bertelli, a work that in its style -- a profile as if turned on a lathe -- clearly foreshadows works by the British contemporary artist Tony Cragg.
Similarly, a painting from the 1960s by Valerio Adami at the booth of Il Ponte from Florence looks like kin to a range of contemporary artists, from John Wesley to Michael Craig-Martin.
The conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, who lives in Rome part of the year, visited the show, saying, "I feel like a whore in a pimp’s convention." A Kosuth neon was spotted in one booth, as were works by Marina Abramovic, the Blue Noses, Anish Kapoor, Kiki Smith and Bill Viola -- but the avant-garde artist whose works were ubiquitous at this particular pimp’s convention was Donald Baechler.
Since it is the first major European art fair of the year, ArteFiera plays an important role in determining the mood of the art market for all of 2009. The verdict? In a word, fiduciosa (confident). With the quality of the work high and the fair full of visitors, most of the galleries were satisfied. It almost seemed as if the financial crisis was nothing more than a conversation topic -- or an excuse to ask for larger discounts.
"The fair is dynamic," said curator and critic Achille Bonito Oliva. "Italian art, having always kept its prices reasonable, was untouched by the financial bubble." The New York dealer James Cohan agreed, noting that "Italians have a sense of perspective -- they have hundreds of years of history to look back upon." Cohan added that Italian collectors take their time, and are open to negotiation. "Most of our sales have been to Italians," he said.
The Italian dealer Filippo Fossati, who runs the Esso Gallery in New York City, expressed a not unfamiliar sentiment when he said he was happy about the financial crisis. "The art market has been far too much influenced by money," he remarked. "Now we can get rid of some art-world parasites and hopefully collectors can start to look at less expensive artists."
From the perspective of Arte Fiera 2009, the art market in Italy seems fairly healthy. As does the appetite of Italian art dealers, who packed Bologna’s many restaurants every night.
LAVINIA FILIPPI is an art critic based in Rome.