The Marx Halle in Vienna, home to SPARK Art Fair.

Last week marked a turning point in the pandemic — at least for the art world.

Frieze Art Fair returned to NYC and the response was nothing short of ebullient, at least once the initial shock of re-entry wore off. Sales were reportedly swift and robust, unsurprising since collectors, museum curators and other industry fixtures were practically giddy at the ability to once again view — and discuss — art in person. 

Social media lit up with emoji exclamations, art selfies, and images of airy, spacious booths at The Shed (where Frieze was holding court), as well as the more experimental NADA house, located on Governors Island and, by all accounts, worth the commute. 

American art collectors also have another reason to celebrate. In late April, it was announced that Europe will allow fully-vaccinated American travelers to enter the EU this summer. Art fairs across Europe rejoiced at the news and the international calendar quickly began filling up again. For example, the beloved Spanish art fair, Arco Madrid, will return from July 7th - 11th. 

Beyond the circuit stalwarts, however, an exciting new fair has appeared on the global radar — SPARK Art Fair in Vienna, opening on June 24th. 

Vienna is home to many major museums and collections including The Leopold Museum, with its jaw-dropping collection of works by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, The Belvedere, the MAK, and the Vienna Secession, just to name a few.

Still, Vienna doesn't yet boast an international reputation as a contemporary art capital on par with cities like London or NYC. 

SPARK hopes to change that reputation and to position Vienna for what it truly is — a nexus for cutting-edge contemporary voices, many backed by academic and state-supported funding, as well as a gateway to Eastern Europe, a burgeoning region of cultural philanthropy and emergent art production in its own right. 

We reached out to Renger van den Heuvel, Managing Director of SPARK, to get the scoop on the inaugural event, located in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. 

Renger van den Heuvel, Executive Director of SPARK Art Fair.

AA: Tell our readers about SPARK Art Fair.

RvdH: SPARK is a new art fair, and it's putting art at the forefront because the format is only solo artist presentations. The goal of the fair is to only exhibit art that has been recently produced, so that SPARK becomes a platform for completely new artistic perspectives.

Having said that, SPARK will also reveal and build bridges to the past. These connections will manifest in the fair’s section devoted to historical art movements so that these two perspectives can counterbalance each other. 

For the first year, I expect SPARK will have about 70 galleries. The fair is divided into four sections. Some galleries will present works in more than one section, so approximately 70 galleries and 80 presentations will be featured in the inaugural edition. 

SPARK will have a general section for galleries, in order to fully support the local art scene. The core exhibitors in the general section will be Austrian galleries, supplemented by some very well-known and highly-regarded international galleries. 

The fair will also feature three curated sections. One section will be dedicated to international galleries and artists, which is curated by the Slovenian curator Tevž Logar. The second section is curated by Sabine Breitwieser and will feature the historic positions that I mentioned earlier with modern postwar art.

The third and final section is entitled Interfaces and will concentrate on new media and digital art. Interfaces is curated by Marlies Wirth, who is the Curator of Digital Culture and Design at the MAK Museum here in Vienna. 

AA: How did the pandemic influence this inaugural edition of SPARK Art Fair? 

RvdH: One important development is that only a few cities in the world will be able to host a global art fair. So, that means there's a lot of space for artists who have a lot of clout and visibility in their regional art scenes. It also means that by focusing on and promoting the strengths of a particular region, SPARK can still reach an international level. 

The other thing — a good thing — that I think arose from the pandemic, is that the art industry had been lagging a bit behind in terms of digitization and had to take a big leap forward. At the same time, I think that — because of being in so many zoom meetings and spending so much time on apps like Clubhouse — people are in desperate need of real art and real in-person conversation. 

So this, of course, is where every art fair has to develop its own hybrid model. I think that what you can do online really depends on if you're a new art fair or established art fair, like Art Basel — these digital platforms are also about investments and the momentum you can generate. 

SPARK will also host an online platform that will go live in June called SPARK Studio, but I want to use the physical fair as a means to move away from the more-or-less static, virtual representation of an art fair. So I'm going to use the fair to do a lot of real-life reporting on this digital channel, and — instead of just showing art online in PDFs or JPEGs — I'm also going to show the fair’s visitors and their experience at the fair to those who cannot make it to Vienna this summer.

AA: Prior to SPARK, you were the co-director of VIENNAFAIR and ViennaContemporary, which you ran for close to ten years, correct?

RvdH: That’s true. I'm a lawyer by education, but my background is mostly in publishing. When I first came to Vienna, I was planning on staying for eight months to manage VIENNAFAIR’s initial takeover of another fair. I ended up staying for ten years, and I'm still here. 

Before, when I worked in publishing, there was always a tension between editorial independence and the commercial needs of newspapers and/or magazines. I think the art world struggles with the same tension between the purely artistic and the commercial side of the market. I don't see it as a tension, however. For me, it's fine to combine both.

An art fair is a platform that creates a unique opportunity for visitors to see a lot of art at once, so you can discover what you like, you can see works or artists that you're familiar with, but you can also discover new artists. As a beginning collector or art lover, I think it's a great way to learn what your preferences are and to educate yourself. 

For galleries, art fairs have been a huge part of their annual income in terms of generating revenue. So, fairs play a key role in the art market. 

AA: What are some things about Vienna you would like our readers to know?

RvdH: Vienna has a very lively contemporary art scene. There are quite a number of exceptional galleries here that operate on an international level. Vienna also has world-class academies and universities. 

There are actually a lot of international artists living in Vienna — either they came to study here, or they moved later to Vienna because it's safe, the architecture is beautiful, it has excellent public transport, and there’s a lot of state support for cultural initiatives. So, in many ways, Vienna is a very attractive place.

At the same time, there's still some people who have yet to discover Vienna. Berlin is still considered much more hip, I think, but Vienna is just as exciting of a city, culturally speaking.  It also has a very interesting location in Europe. If you look at the map, you’ll see it's positioned even more to the east than Berlin. In fact, I think Eastern Europe really starts in Vienna.

Left: Lawrence Weiner, SPARK TO FLAME, Cat. #1157, 2021, Language and Material referred to. Courtesy Lawrence Weiner and Galerie Hubert Winter. Right: Marlies Wirth, Curator of the Interfaces section of SPARK and Curator of Digital Culture and Design at MAK Vienna

AA: Are there any galleries, artists or projects in particular that you would like to highlight?

RvdH: Well, first of all, I'm really excited that so many galleries and their artists are already working on something new for the fair. One artist, in particular, I want to highlight is Lawrence Weiner, who works with text and is already quite an iconic contemporary artist. In the past, he did a piece incorporating the word SPARK. So, he's going to redesign that work for the fair.

We will also have works by Ingrid Wiener who’s been an essential voice of the Viennese art scene since the 1970s. KOW Berlin will be showing works by Anna Boghiguian, who has never exhibited in Vienna before. We will have a very good mix of new and established artists, as well as a balance between male and female artists.

The fair will also have a different architecture than most fairs —  instead of rectangular booths, the booths will be more open and spacious. This is partially because of coronavirus measures, but it’s a very friendly format because it won’t be crowded. The layout will actually be an ideal atmosphere to engage with the artwork, the artists and the gallery — in a format that really allows visitors to take their time.

We are very excited to welcome art collectors to Austria from all over the world. Because we have partnerships with all the museums in Vienna, as well as incredible private collections, we will have a parallel program for our VIPs. 

Now that the art fair season is open again, SPARK is one of the first major art fairs on the calendar in 2001. It will be a place where you can have a deep and thorough conversation about one particular artist, because of the solo presentation format.

Essentially, SPARK will be a wonderful place to discover new artists and new galleries, and to then tie those back to historical precedents that are maybe a little more universal in terms of Art History writ large. So, there are a lot of good reasons to spend a few days in Vienna this summer.

Register for your VIP pass to SPARK by clicking here. 


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