A short history of the art fair, from its roots in medieval marketplaces to Rudolf Zwirner’s art Cologne (and beyond)

In August 1932, Venice lifted the curtain for the world’s first film festival Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as the first in fourteen days of views during the city’s famous biennial. Conceived as a showcase for new films in the midst of a wave of American imports, it was a European cultural ointment that resonated through the ages. The film festival industry, the native, soon expanded to Cannes, then Berlin and eventually worldwide. And these festivals, in turn, fostered a whole new audience for films and a generation of auteur filmmakers from Italy’s own neorealism to France’s Nouvelle Vague.

Thirty years later, Europe’s art dealers faced a similar challenge: how to launch a market in a world that is only now ready to embrace it. Just as the continent’s economies had gone through the long post-war reconstruction, its cultural centers had needed time to absorb the loss of the artists and intellectuals who had either died or emigrated. In the 1960s, Europeans felt a growing need to break away from an ugly war past. Avant-garde art, despised by the Third Reich, proved to be a way through. Cities such as Cologne, Bologna and Paris boasted long cultural histories and a relatively high concentration of collectors, determined by historical art. In the early 1960s, Europe’s cities also had local and national government officials who were able and willing to support a fresh start. But trade in art through galleries was limited, even at the national level.

Fortunately for Europeans, the art fair model was already in the blood. In medieval marketplaces, situated at the confluence of rivers or roads, middlemen had paid rent to offer their wares to a mass gathering of interested visitors. Meanwhile, hundreds of years of religious festivals and accompanying pilgrimages had increased the importance of being in a particular place at a particular time of year. As the German negotiator Johann König notes, Exhibition, the German word for a mass is also the word for a religious mass.

Great Exhibition, Hyde Park, London, 1851. Interior view of Crystal Palace showing two visitors showing a booth featuring oriental products. (Photo by Universal History Archive / Getty Images)

As time went on, the goods simply came further away. At the so-called international exhibitions, which began in London’s Hyde Park in 1851, visitors paid an entrance fee to see thousands of artifacts, including elephant fabric, exotic silk and even the Koh-i-Noor diamond from India, all set for spectacular purposes – built environment. For the Mayday opening of the London International Exhibition in 1862, England’s poet laureate, Alfred Tennyson, wrote about its “gigantic hallways / rich in model and design” and highlighted

Fabric coarse or fairy-fine. . .

Polar wonders and a party

Of wonder, out of the west and east. . .

And forms and nuances of divine art!

All beauty, all use,

The one righteous planet can produce.

The language may be 19th century, but the message is not so different from the press material broadcast ahead of art fairs and biennials today.

Five days in Cologne

Rudolf and Ursula Zwirner with Francis Picabias La nuit espagnole (1922).  Photo: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln.

Rudolf and Ursula Zwirner with Francis Picabia’s The Spanish night (1922). Photo: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln.

About 100 years after Tennyson’s ode, the modern art dealer Rudolf Zwirner sat in his gallery in West Germany’s Essen and discussed where it was best to seek out a wider audience. His choice at the time was between nearby Düsseldorf, where Joseph Beuys had just begun to make a huge impact on the city’s pioneering art academy of art, or to go a little further down the Rhine to Cologne, one of Europe’s oldest cities, with “a Catholic openness to for images and culture. ” Cologne won out for many reasons, Zwirner says, including its relative proximity to Bonn, then West Germany’s political capital and with an international airport that boasted non-stop flights to New York. Cologne had other things in mind, not least its contemporary music scene, which gravitated around the homemade, avant-garde electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. But for Zwirner, Cologne’s kneeling was the Sammlung Haubrich Museum (now Museum Ludwig), which seemed to mark a cultural sea change after the country’s dark war years. Its founding took place through the donation in 1946 of works by the local lawyer and collector, Josef Haubrich, who had privately collected works by Germany’s so-called “degenerate” artists, banned by the Third Reich. A selection of hundreds of Haubrich’s works, including those of Otto Dix and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, were first shown at the University of Cologne in 1946. Their audience included a young Peter Ludwig, later a chocolate magnate, a significant collector and donor of American pop art, and a cornerstone client at Rudolf Zwirner.

Installation view, "The masterpieces of modernism.  The Haubrich Collection at the Museum Ludwig" in 2012.

Installation screening, “The masterpieces of modernism. The Haubrich collection at Museum Ludwig” in 2012.

The shadow of World War II still hung over Cologne’s burgeoning trade. With the added backdrop of 1960s lawsuits against Holocaust organizers, the vast American art buyers – many of whom were also Jews – turned away from German culture. “Something had to happen to breathe new life into the stagnant art trade,” explains Rudolf Zwirner in his candid biography. So in collaboration with his fellow Cologne dealer Hein Stünke, he founded the world’s first official contemporary art fair, the Cologne Art Market or Art Cologne, in 1967.

Often seen as a groundbreaking moment in art market history, Stünke and Zwirner were deliberately embarking on a commercial model they knew worked. Events that created a marketplace for individual traders, especially specialists in books and antiques, had been on the scene for centuries. As early as 1460, Antwerp’s international hub status was cemented with Our Lady’s Pand, a fair for art and booksellers who drove in the courtyard of the church that ran it for a hundred years. Germany’s Book Fair in Frankfurt, the most significant in its field today, also traces its history to the 15th century.

In the 20th century, London’s Grosvenor House Arts & Antiques Fair was launched as early as 1934, while book and antique fairs were held throughout Europe after World War II. Temporary biennials and other non-commercial exhibitions also left their mark. Documenta, the now five-year 100-day exhibition of contemporary art, was founded 250 miles east of Cologne in Kassel in 1955, also with the ambition of breaking away from Germany’s recent past.

fifaens document ruruHaus.  Photo: Nicolas Wefers, 2020.

fifaens document ruruHaus. Photo: Nicolas Wefers, 2020.

The growth of the more modern events was accelerated by the industrial revolutions of the 19th century throughout the Western world. With this came a marked shift in wealth away from the aristocracy – the traditional buyers of art and antiques through inheritance – towards a new breed of self-made patrons. They wanted to connect more with the art of their time and demonstrate their success with the finer things in life. The farther away, the better.

This new customer base was then well served by the marketplaces in industrial age: department stores like Samaritaine in Paris and later Selfridges in London, which consolidated several merchants below a roof. The notion of the encyclopedic museum, with a wide range of artifacts from around that world, also began to take hold in Europe in the 19th century. These department stores and museums had regular opening hours all year round. But the world exhibitions, it started with London’s store The exhibition from 1851, was able to create greater enthusiasmsimply by being time-limited events. potential buyers were equal willing to pay a premium, via an entrance fee, for the temporary admission to that most recent and most exotic estate from all around that world.

Such a model supports today’s commercial success art fairs. Money comes in from stand rent and entrance, while that temporary nature of one fair calls related events and other locals investment to hold all happy. ONE marketplace generates dens own momentum. Or as a magazine The mirror put it after the well-rereceived the first edition of Art Cologne with its 15,000 visitors, “Germany’s contemporary art trade, otherwise scattered and thus insignificant of international standards, had -one big city center to five days. “

The Cologne trade fair provided a platform for some of the new ones Neo-expressionist artists of the time, including Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, as well as show American pop artists to a European clientele. But the fair was not without challenges, many of Which one ville be well known to event organizers into that 21 century.

Prof. Joseph Beuys in his studio in Düsseldorf on June 26, 1967. (Photo by Horst Ossinger / image alliance via Getty Images)

Art Cologne was Founded much much in that spirit of post-war accessioncivility and freedom, with the support of the city’s liberal-minded head of culture. But its meeting place, a ballroom in a medieval building, only had room for 18 galleries. Its small size contributed to one reputation for elitism. This was thrown on by artist Joseph Beuys as when he learned that artists, unlike journalists, must not early access to the fair led to a protest that briefly managed to close it down quite. Zwirner notes to Beuys wasmanufacturing money inde and protesting outside. “ In fact, one of the artist’s works has been sold on 1969 fair edition for DM110,000 (equivalent to € 205,000 in 2021), highest price at the time for a West German artist. And Beuys clearly overcame his objections. Madrid gallery owner Juana de Aizpuru, later the founder of the Arco trade fair in Madrid in 1982, says that she met for the first time Beuys because that artist visited Art Colognealmost every day.”

The biggest challenge for the fair, however, was the competition. Initially from Düsseldorf to that extent, between 1976 and 1983 fair alternated between the two cities. In the end, though, the real threat was from -one town 500 km down that Rhine.

Extracts from The Art Fair Story: A Rollercoaster Ride by Melanie Gerlis (Lund Humphries, 2022).

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