Montreux Art Gallery, now in its tenth year, is a contemporary art fair with a juried selection of more than 150 exhibitors. The fair takes place in the Montreux Convention Centre, situated in the heart of Montreux.
“We chose the right place,” says Jean-François Gailloud, director of MAG. “The Centre des Congrès is a very interesting place to create events and the location is just wonderful.” MAG has grown exponentially and expects 20000 visitors this year. The five-day programme of special events includes the launch of two publications.
“We have a large space for artists and a large space for galleries, but these two spaces are separate so it doesn’t cause any confusion,” director Gailloud explains. “It’s good because artists meet gallery owners and gallery owners choose artists… It’s very special. It’s a friendly event and for us it’s important. The artists of this period, of this time, are really something exceptional.”
MAG’s unique artist-centric approach to the commercial art market dates back to its origins. “It’s a long story because before MAG it was another event for artists only,” says Gailloud. “We started that in 1996. We were just a group of friends. We formed an organization called Art Forum and we invited artists from all over Switzerland… these artists told us it was great. They didn’t have events like that and they needed a space for exhibitions.”
Relationships with curators, gallery owners, dealers and the like enable artists to become commercially viable. Art Forum’s logical progression was to enable such relationships. “In 2005 I decided to make a second event for gallery owners… we had to be more professional,” Gailloud continues.
Art fairs, a phenomenon of the last fifty years, are the centre of the modern-day art scene. The rigorous fair circuit developed in response to globalization of the art market, professionalization of the art world and overproduction of contemporary art. It also happens to suit the growing event culture, i.e. the scene.
Seventy percent of exhibiting galleries return to MAG each year, including galleries Dubner Moderne and Art & Emotion from Lausanne. The fair is a platform for new and emerging galleries too. “We have many interesting people,” says Gailloud, “All of these people are stars in their business… we have very good representation of contemporary art in Europe.”
The fair attracts both local and international visitors. “We have the chance to be on the Riviera, so we have a lot of contact with big international companies. People from all over the world are coming to the exhibition,” Gailloud says.
Drawn to its convivial atmosphere, visitors typically revisit the fair multiple times throughout the week to canvass the expansive show or to finalize purchase decisions. “The weekend is very important for sales,” says director Marie-Hélène Heusghem. “There is a big area with a restaurant and lounge bar… we have the opportunity for exhibitors to take time with their customers… they present their art works, then they go there, they negotiate, they have lunch together. They have the opportunity to talk about the artists or the artwork, and the decision could be made there.”
The estimated gross value of the art sold annually at MAG is two million Swiss Francs and the highest recorded sale was around CHF 150,000. However, director Heusghem says, “we have gallery owners going out in the evenings to go directly to the clients.” Official figures are based on sales made on the fairgrounds during open hours. She adds, “Certain artists and gallery owners, during the year, still have contact with customers who went to MAG… calling, meeting and buying, so this is the second effect of the show. We can see part of the amount which is directly sold during the show, but then there are pieces sold with the second effect.”
MAG presents a good investment opportunity because collectors may acquire affordable works from emerging artists and galleries. “Très clairement, we are a contemporary art fair. Not like Art Basel where you have a whole stage with Picassos,” says Gailloud, “We don’t have these kind of pieces. It’s really contemporary actual artists who are living and working now in the real market.”
Often MAG identifies promising artists – such as K Soul, a Swiss holokinetic painter – and provides a platform for creating a market for their work. “K Soul is really the best example we have. He’s been coming to us for five years. When he started, nobody knew him and now he’s in Shanghai, he’s in Dubai, he’s everywhere,” says Gailloud. “All these artists, I think their pieces are going up very very fast.”
Heusghem adds, “We are not in the same range when we talk about Art Basel… we are not targeting in the same way. But in fact, for the collectors, to come and see new artists or new technologies or discover new talents is very easy in our show.”
“We want to be open to all people…” Gailloud insists, “Of course we are happy to have collectors so they give a chance to artists, but it’s very important to have a public qui n’est pas connoisseur, who can decouvrir la contemporain at MAG.”
“We like people,” he laughs.
Education and public engagement are part of MAG’s mission. They welcome nearly 600 students each year to engage in art discourse. “We see the effort,” says Gailloud, “We have a lot of young people, who came to MAG while they were at school, who are coming back now. For us it’s important to prepare people for the art and not only to have people who are in the arts.”
Unlike larger commercial art fairs, MAG is unique for its accessibility and educational initiatives. “We want to be different in this way…” Heusghem explains, “There is a lot of explanation and participation from exhibitors who appreciate having time to talk to young people because they are, of course, the future customers.”
This is an important distinction because art fairs have changed the way that art is consumed. A mass commercial environment is prone to lose some of the physical nuances of art exhibition. MAG reconciles this by programming thematic exhibitions within the fair. The thematic exhibitions strive to be alternative and they highlight a different country each year.
Coinciding with the bicentennial of Switzerland and Russia’s diplomatic relationship, Russia is the guest of honour for MAG 2014. The exhibition features twenty Russian artists under the tutelage of Zurab Tsereteli, president of the Russian Academy of Arts. The Russian consulate in Lausanne and the Russian ambassador in Bern have accredited the exhibition. Heusghem insists, “This is concentrated on art and not on politics.”
“Art can be a good way of transmission between people, “Gailloud adds, “Politics are one thing and what we do is not politics. We are really into the art and I think it’s important to keep a relation with this very big country. For us it’s an opportunity to say OK there are problems, but maybe there can also be solutions, and ways of discussion other than war and politics. So art can be a transmission.” The director continues, “We hoped to have some sponsors, and a lot of Russian society in Switzerland were on the EU blacklist, so that was the only problem for us.”
Another thematic exhibition, in collaboration with the commune of Montreux, promotes eight emerging local artists. Their collective work spans all mediums, described by the directors as “very modern and very contemporary.” Another thematic exhibition commemorates the forty-year career of Anglo-Swiss kinetic sculptor Charles Morgan. A jeweller by trade, the Vevey-based artist creates exquisite “machines” from a boundless assortment of objects.
Since 2007 participating artists have been donating works to the foundation. For the first time, this incredible collection is catalogued in a new publication chronicling the running history of participating artists. “The collection is really the image of the people that we receive in MAG,” says Heusghem. “It started as a way to give something to the foundation, because basically we are not people with money. So now the foundation has a collection.” With over 400 works, the collection has never been exhibited. The directors hint that a 15th anniversary exhibition of the collection may be on the cards.
MAG officially represents only two artists: Mieke Heybroek and Ulysse Plaud are based in Luberon and have been making monumental sculptures for 45 years. Their practice and work is the subject of the second book published by MAG this year.
And for those who think it important, MAG is also opening its first VIP bar and lounge area. “There are always parties, all day, every day,” Heusghem smiles. On Wednesday the official vernissage is open to the public and runs until midnight. On Thursday there is an afternoon roundtable discussion about binocular perspective, or the two-dimensional rendering of three-dimensional space as seen with both eyes at once. One of the roundtable participants is Albert Sauteur, a photorealistic still life painter from Fribourg who specializes in the study of binocular perspective.
After the roundtable, MAG hosts a private dinner “to promote economy in the Montreux Riviera.” Welcoming 200 guests, the dinner is staged in the gallery space alongside the art “with some intervention around art and economic relations between artists, galleries and people from the economy,” Gailloud explains. “It’s important to have contact with them—and to have more than just commercial contact. It’s friendly contact with gallery owners and artists.”
MAG welcomes students on Friday, followed by a second vernissage for 3,000 artists, gallery owners, clients and friends. On Saturday there is a networking event for exhibitors only, with raclette to feed hundreds and a spotlight on Russia. Sunday, closing day, is branded as Take your time.
The empirical success of the programme can be attributed to MAG’s hands on directors, Gailloud and Heusghem. “The ambiance and the relationship are very important,” Heusghem says. “This is probably one of the rare shows nowadays where (exhibitors) can meet the organizers every day. We are there from eight in the morning till midnight every day at their disposal to discuss, to show, to help them, to follow them, to congratulate them and to support them during the five days. One specific point of our organization and the strategy of the show is to be here and to discuss with them, not to be somebody who never see the exhibitors.”
She explains how this is possible, “We are not in a commercial relationship. We promote quality and respect, and we are proud of working with them to find a way to promote the arts for a large public.”
Gailloud agrees, “We are a foundation so we don’t have a commercial objective. We don’t have that pressure.” In comparison with most art fairs, MAG offers remarkably accessible rates for exhibitors, who benefit from the space, the services and the success of the fair. Supported by the commune and other partners, the foundation strives only to cover programming and running costs, and takes no profits from the sales floor. And that is how the directors like it: “The issue is not to distribute money… it’s really to promote the fair. So for us, it’s very nice to work on that objective.”
The art fair is MAG’s flagship project, but the foundation also organizes a sculpture biennale along the border of Lake Geneva, which draws an estimated two million visitors per year, and an annual Christmas market, among other projects. The commune of Montreux is MAG’s main partner.
Montreux, famous for its art and music scene, has a rich cultural economy. The success of its cultural and corporate events is borne from a flow of resources and an appreciation of culture. “And from the decision of the community,” Gailloud insists. “It’s not just financial. The motivation of the commune is culture. Culture is really important in Montreux. It’s a meeting place for people from different cultural disciplines, music, art and sport… it’s a lot of big events but also more small events.”
The commune houses a motivated and creative population, which has generated a hub for cultural events with a certain draw. “Of course we have big events management in our commune,” Gailloud remarks, “ but Montreux is quite small, it’s only 20000 inhabitants. We have a lot of big events and all these events are organized by people from the private sector.”
Gailloud also credits the local government, “…they have this vision of culture that is very important in Montreux. It’s la ville de tout la culture… we have good political people and we have good objectives.”
In terms of future growth, the directors hope to become “more and more professional,” to enlarge their team, and to perfect their structure for presenting galleries. They also wish to attract more international galleries, especially from Germany, while maintaining a strong contingency of local artists. “But in terms of size,” Gailloud clarifies, “we are of the opinion that we are the right size. We don’t have the intention to be bigger. We can be bigger… but it’s a very big exhibition already. 8000 square metres is difficult to see in one day.”
Le News has 25 pairs of free tickets to give away.
Stephanie Twiggs is an American art reviewer living in Geneva