“The Mistresses of VIENNAFAIR”

Elīna Zuzāne


“We are just like storytellers, who have imagined a castle,” says Christina Steinbrecher, one of VIENNAFAIR’s artistic directors. “We have invented this incredibly beautiful fairy tale and we keep repeating it and repeating it… and in the end, just before the fair, we have become professionals in telling it. But actually, it can only conclude in one of two things – we will either love it or despair it.”

I am sitting down with VIENNAFAIR’s two young and dynamic artistic directors – Lithuanian born Vita Zaman, who has previously co-founded IBID Projects gallery in London and worked at The Pace gallery in New York, one of the most established contemporary galleries in the world, and Christina Steinbrecher from Kazakhstan, who has formerly taken the profession of an artistic director for Art Moscow art fair and Moscow House of Artists. She has additionally been the curator and the head of Sputnik Art Foundation, co-curator of “Unconditional Love” an exhibition at the 53rd Venice Biennale and a member of the curatorial team for the 3rd Moscow Biennale. 

If I understand it correctly, none of you have previously worked within the Viennese art scene.

C.S.: I had come to the VIENNAFAIR for the last four years because of Moscow, to see what’s going on in Eastern Europe. Vienna is a small city so everyone wants to get in touch. The galleries here wanted to have the fair, they were ready to communicate, they were ready to help.

V.Z.: And that was also the idea – not to be familiar with this art scene. We were outsiders. We could provide fresh insight of how things can be done, rather than just taking one side and then promoting somebody else’s vision. Sometimes you need to be an outsider to do something new.

C.S.: It helps, if you want to see the big picture.

What differentiates VIENNAFAIR from the rest of the art fairs?

V.Z: It’s focus. The galleries that are seen here are not at Frieze or Art Basel. Those are new names and new positions, something new to discover and research. And you get to see Vienna.

C.S.: These are galleries from Slovakia, from Poland, from Russia… from Estonia. You don’t see them in many fairs. Here you have the opportunity to meet 47 galleries from Eastern Europe and South East Europe together with some outstanding Austrian galleries. It used to be VIENNAFAIR, “The International Contemporary Art Fair – Focused on Central and Eastern Europe", but we changed it to “The New Contemporary”. We still want to keep 30% of Eastern Galleries participating but we want to communicate it more precisely, be pickier. 

You have previously expressed that it is not your intention to become Frieze or Art Basel. Why not?

C.S.: There already is Frieze and The Armory Show. What’s the point of doing another one, especially, if there is so much more to look at? Collectors and curators that are here have said that it’s great that we are showing new galleries. All the Western collectors, who have come to VIENNAFAIR, are mostly buying [from galleries] from the Eastern European countries.

V.Z.: We had to do a new thing. Otherwise there’s not enough attention span and money in order to buy the same profile art in September and then three weeks later in October [when art fairs such as London’s Frieze and FIAC in Paris take place].

Many argue that art fairs today have more to do with the glamorous lifestyle than art itself. How would you respond to that?

V.Z.: I would say that it’s true. If you want to see just art, go to the artist’s studio. Even a gallery itself adds a level that’s not pure art, but something else. Art fairs are a particular way of seeing art. You see it under certain conditions. In art fairs, besides art, you also encounter politics, zeitgeist, people and glamour. 

C.S.: Collectors that visit art fairs want to see art and meet galleries, but they also want to have a good time. So if you want to have collectors come over, you need to have the full package – something to see and an opportunity for them to meet other collectors. You can call it glamorous, but you can also call it a need for collectors to meet other collectors. I don’t see the glamour aspect. It’s not particularly glamorous, no. People meet, people throw parties.

V.Z.: I think it is glamorous. If you actually define what glamour is, it’s something unrealistic, something phantasy-like and art has very much to do with it. So even psychologically they are related. They share the sense of a possibility – an illusion that actually does not exist. Of course, it also has to do with a spectacle of glamour.

How has your previous work experience benefited the recreation of VIENNAFAIR? 

V.Z.: I was an art dealer myself. I know exactly what’s annoying in an art fair so I tried not to do those things.

For example…

V.Z.: Unsuccessful architecture of the fair, difficult navigation, lack of infrastructure or having to fill millions and millions of forms just to get one light fixed. The most banal practical things can be very, very annoying. Art fairs usually tend to be too long and gallerists get tired. Most art fairs also don’t care what happens to galleries after the fair closes. As new gallerists don’t know where to go and who to meet, we try to be very social and include people. It’s not just about what you do in your booth, it’s also who you meet after. These things are important for galleries. Even if they don’t sell, being happy, seeing the city, meeting new people, building some kind of network is as important as actually earning a buck… as long as the experience is positive. 

Christina, you have already organized art fairs before. 

C.S.: Yes, but this is an increase in scale. Art Moscow is much smaller, it’s one third of VIENNAFAIR. Having three times as many exhibitors takes three times as long to get information from each of them. Although it’s two of us, it’s still a lot of information to deal with. Just pure saying “hello” every morning takes a lot of time. Also the level of professionalism from every participant is something to mention. Everyone knows what they want and how to get it. I think it’s really great. The city is obviously different. Here the city is more cooperative. Mr. Heinz Fischer, the President of Austria, came to open the art fair, which is a significant sign form the city and from the government, displaying that they want the fair to continue. It might not affect the sales but it means a lot to local gallerists, because they feel appreciated, what they do feels appreciated. That has been really a positive step. Also, if you compare Moscow to Vienna, it’s just so much easier to navigate and live here. As a foreigner or as a local you get to do so much more in one day. And at the end of the day you can even go out not being completely exhausted [from the city].

How difficult was it to share the position of the fair’s artistic director?

V.Z.: There were only a couple of times when we couldn’t agree. It’s very interesting to negotiate your vision. Christina obviously has more experience in organizing art fairs. I was always coming up with these crazy ideas, like having some punks running around the fair, (laughs) but Christina thought it would disturb the visitors and the gallerists. All in all, it was very interesting.

C.S.: It’s a tandem. We got on very well with each other from the first time we met, but now we also know how to deal with each other, each other’s personalities, strengths and weaknesses. I think we do it very well. It works on the personal side and on the professional side. 

V.Z.: I am grateful that Christina is here. Sometimes we joke that we would need five clones of each just to go to every single thing. Organizing an art fair actually involves a lot of conversation.

Did you have distinct roles within this position? 

V.Z.: We did it all organically. Organically navigated who wants to do what or can do what.

C.S.: We didn’t have distinct or separate roles because we just didn’t have time to define every task. Ideally we would sit down, outline every assignment and every next step, but it was not really possible to do within this time frame – to write it all down, execute it and report it afterwards. We had to be on the go. I think we saw the big picture where we needed to get to and discussed it within our team.

V.Z.: In retrospect, having a team was one of the biggest assets. 

Have you found your roles for the future editions? 

V.Z.: Not yet, because we haven’t defined the next edition, the direction of it.

C.S.: [to Vita] I think that one of your strengths was definitely with the US. I mean, (now addressing the answer towards me) Vita has been living in New York and I have been living in Russia. 

V.Z.: But we still need to define, if we are really going to touch US. Maybe we will go to Iran. We have to outline what’s worthwhile for us. We need to analyze the results of the fair. At the moment I can tell you that a gallery from Iran sold really well and a gallery from London sold Azerbaijani artists incredibly well. We need to define the course of the art fair, to analyze it strategically.

You both come from countries or lesser-known art scenes, which have not yet established their position within the international contemporary art world… 

V.Z.: It’s so not true. Moscow has an important art scene, important artists, important collectors, and important biennales. I don’t really belong to the Lithuanian art scene but it has some of the most innovative institutions, some really great artists and great curators. Also I have been living in New York and London for a really long time. That speaks for something. I think you can’t subdivide it into important and unimportant art scenes.

My words were “lesser-known”. 

V.Z.: But Russia is known. 

I was just there, in Moscow, listening to discussion panels examining why Russian art scene is not visible within the international contemporary art market. 

C.S.: Russian art scene is considerably difficult. Going to Russia is a pain and the information… I broke my head over it, thinking about it and working with it. So much material is only available in Russian. That makes it difficult to actually extract information about artists. You can’t really translate it either. Only very few translators will do it. It’s because the style is very different. You can’t really transfer it. That’s why very, very few writers are ever translated. I think it’s also a major communication discomfort, especially when the West is very interested in brands. The little information you get is on Garage or the big shots, and, of course, scandals and politics. That’s it. Positive information is rarely communicated. Unfortunately.

V.Z.: Many Eastern European countries are stubborn and they don’t share the information. Regarding the Lithuanian art scene, people are very considerate of it. In that aspect Lithuania has a great thing to show for itself. Austria didn’t have any artist represented in dOCUMENTA, but Lithuania was there. Lithuanian gallery The Gardens is one of the must successful galleries in VIENNAFAIR. Yesterday was the Baltic collectors’ dinner and I was so proud. There were about 40 young and excited people who had come here ready to buy and young gallerists satisfied with their sales. I am very optimistic in where the region is heading.

There have been rumours that VIENNAFAIR aims to replace Art Moscow. Is that true? [This year VIENNAFAIR was held at the same time as Art Moscow, making some art galleries and collectors choose sides.]

V.Z.: It’s just a coincidence. 

C.S.: Somehow this year they decided to put the date at the exact same time as VIENNAFAIR. I have worked with Art Moscow before, so I was immediately on the phone asking them – “Are you crazy? What are you doing? Move the date.” But it will change. Next year VIENNAFAIR is going to be held in October, and the year after that - in November. Also it’s not exactly the same market, per say. Art Moscow mostly caters to Russian market. It’s basically a fair for Russian buyers and it doesn’t compete for the galleries that are here. Ok, we have Russian galleries here as well, but Eastern European galleries don’t go to Moscow because it’s not their market. Eastern European galleries consider themselves as European. They are closer to Europe than to former mother country – Russia.

What determines a success of an art fair?

V.Z.: Satisfied clients. 

C.S.: Our clients are the galleries and they have to sell. They should also be able to meet new international people and communicate with curators and other professionals from the art scene. And vice versa. The Artists need to be happy. We have commissioned a few artists to do projects with us.

V.Z.: Also the collectors and the city need to be happy, same as the local institutions. We want to contribute, to do something positive for Vienna.

How do you gain this satisfaction? Is there a recipe?

V.Z.: There is alchemy more than a recipe. I think artists have been very happy. We have done some amazing artistic collaborations. We have also been happy to introduce a programme called VIENNA Studio, where artists, curators and art professionals engage with students. It has been very significant and much appreciated. And it’s free for students. 

C.S.: The visitors have really been having fun with it - asking questions, unexpected questions from the side, that art professionals have to think about. People have enjoyed it.

V.Z.: Some galleries are very cheerful but others haven’t sold as much… It’s polarised. Some people are extremely pleased but others are counting on the last two days. Collectors seem to be very happy but we have also had problems with collectors being too involved with the VIP programme, and not turning up at the fair. At the moment we are already coming up with some new ideas for the next edition. 

Could you share some of them?

C.S.: It would involve working with students and the collectors’ programme. International art collectors are rather interested in seeing other people’s houses, to meet other collectors and to talk to them.

V.Z.: But they are also very unreliable because we have had so many Turkish and Russian collectors who have changed their minds in the last minute. We will need to plan what would be the best strategy for dealing with it in the future. 

C.S.: We also want to continue working with students. The kick off initiative was great and this could definitely become an ascendant. Also our goal is to get more and more people to come to VIENNAFAIR. Visitors’ numbers are essential to the fair. The more people come to the fair, the more fundamental it becomes to the city and we want that. We desire that every individual, who is interested in art, takes their time and comes to Vienna. 

V.Z.: And we also want to extend other artistic activities that we have initially started. We have this amazingly successful blog that has been active for a week. We will continue this platform even when the fair has closed. There are a lot of possibilities. 

Where would you like to see the fair in five years time? 

V.Z.: On every TV station (laughs). I’m joking. No, just being a unique experience and being something innovative. We would like to do something with other art fairs. We have already looked what others are doing and though “oh, this is good”. One of such ideas came to us in Basel – the thought that we should have a bar where to hang out after the fair. But we would also want to do something more within the local art context. 

C.S.: It would be great if VIENNAFAIR became a fair that everyone thinks of as “yes, I know it. I want to go there.” 

V.Z.: We should also do a pop-up art fair in Vilnius! That would be amazing. [Vita, suddenly exclaims.] 

C.S.: Done!

(Both laugh)

V.Z.: We will be ready in two weeks.

C.S.: Oh wait, we can’t… then it will coincide with Frieze