The journalist Marcus Woeller interviews Mark Gordon, author of Contemporary Europe. Art Guide: "See art as something to value and to invest in for the future."

You worked as art professional in New York for the Whitney Museum of American Art, the auctioneers Christie's, and headed a gallery. Now you have published a Contemporary Europe Art Guide. Did you visit all the institutions you describe in your guide?

The Art Guide has taken up two years of my life, and with six months to write the book it was not possible to visit every institution. I am hoping to have visited all the institutions by the time the next edition comes out.

Why did you choose Europe as your field of examinations?

I moved to Europe before I came up with the idea of doing Contemporary Europe Art Guide. I moved to Amsterdam four years ago to work on various projects. Then I found in my travels that there was no guide to direct me to contemporary art institutions. You can find a variety of different resources and websites such as or artnet but that requires a significant research. There was no printed guide to assist me. And so I decided to put all the information in one place, with institutions, biennials, art fairs, upcoming museum projects, and auctions. To put all the resources in one book, in one area where people would not have to go to four or five different websites or look at the various travel books and travel guides. Now you just have it all in one place.

The book is organized by nations. What differences did you discover comparing the national art landscapes?

Tremendous differences. The biggest distinction is between the countries in the former Eastern bloc and countries in the west. The eastern countries share a similar heritage with each other but have a disconnection from the west in their cultural heritage. The East does not have the wealth of institutions that we have in the West, for sure. They are structured differently. And so I tried to come to grips with that and understand the difficulties. Without the tradition of the market and capitalism, the East has structured their art system in a unique fashion: by blending the market with the traditional Western model of institutions creating new structures that both work with the market and retain status as publicly funded entities.

Albania funnily opens the book with a blank page without any institutions listed. What do more peripheral countries need to really emerge artistically?

Time and investment! It's whether or not the structures there will encourage the contemporary art scene and see art as something to value and to invest in for the future. If this is not seen as something relevant for the countries involved it is going to be difficult.

And do they have the audience interested in the arts? Or will the audience rise with the institutions of contemporary art?

Eastern countries that have entered the EU, they have a tremendous problem with all the art professionals, or people interested in the arts, leaving for the more established art centers in the former west. Berlin is the perfect example of a city that has drawn from art professionals all areas of Europe.

You moved to Berlin 15 months ago like many other artists and art professionals did during the last years. How would you describe the current singularity of Berlin as an arts city?

Certainly Berlin draws the attention of the artists. And you see the art professionals following the artists. Berlin has a wealth of infrastructure for the arts and you have the people who make the art. This is a crucial factor in developing an art scene. There is a lot of excitement here in Berlin; everybody in the art world comes to Berlin at some point, from artists to curators to collectors. So you have a melting pot that at times it seems as if the entire art community of Brooklyn or London has migrated here. Berlin is where the artists are. There is where a large section of the gallery world is. And that makes Berlin a very exciting place to live.

Your art guide features institutions that are selected by quality. How do you value the quality of exhibitions or the quality of collections?

It comes down to whether the institutions are committed to engaging in the larger art context or whether they are more inward looking. It is my hope that more institutions will look to begin a dialogue with the wider arts community. And for the next edition we want to include these institutions.

What are you planning for the next issue of the guide?

The original idea was to print new editions every two years since the information is extremely time-sensitive. For instance, I have a section on new museum projects that will need to be updated as well as sections on biennials and art fairs.

Coming back to the quality. What are the things that constitute a good museum or a high quality arts institution?

The main thing is whether the staff and the infrastructure at the institution are committed to an engagement with the larger arts community. You find, for instance, in German cities very engaged institutions at all levels: the Kunstverein system in Germany is very good, the Kölnischer Kunstverein, the Frankfurter Kunstverein, the Kunstverein in Munich. This engagement is very typically German. It is one of the things that sets Germany apart from the majority of the European countries. If you notice in Contemporary Europe Art Guide, Germany has three or four times the number of institutions than other countries have. There is just this level of commitment and audience in Germany, which you did not see in other countries. But you also see this engagement at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, for instance, or the Tate in London and at countless other locations throughout Europe.

You set a focus on architecture of institutions in the Art Guide. What is the importance of museum architecture?

The important factor is the way that the architecture is used in concert with the curatorial vision to create exhibits that are challenging both visually and intellectually. The architecture is crucial to the museum experience. Whether it is a renovated factory, a new construction by a world-renowned architect, or a Neoclassical building, the issue is the same: how to present contemporary art in a fashion that fosters dialogue with both the surroundings and the works within the exhibition.

Do you try to look at institutions not as an art professional?

It is impossible to do. You can only come to an institution with all your prejudices and all your preconceived notions. It is very difficult to let go of this. It was very important for me to write from the perspective of an arts professional, of one who does this for a living. It is not a novice's guide. If you want that, you go to Rough Guide or another general travel book. That was one of the factors that drove me to write Contemporary Europe Art Guide. It was reading the art sections in traditional travel books.

So, it is a book more for professionals than for beginners?

Not necessarily. I did write it for a general audience but I wanted Contemporary Europe to come from the art professionals' viewpoint. You have a large audience in Europe that is acquainted with contemporary art from the students of art academies to art aficionados to professionals.

You deliberately focus on the so-called non-profit arts organization in the Art Guide. Why did you completely cut off the economy of art galleries? It is difficult to separate these deeply interleaved parts of the same business, I guess.

We went back and forth with the decision to include galleries, and finally I made the decision not to include them because where do you drop the line? For instance, in Berlin you have several hundred galleries. How do you differentiate what is quality and what is not quality? And then once the economic crisis happened I was very glad of this decision because of the amount of closures that have happened in the gallery world. With non-profits you are guaranteed some sort of continuity there. You are guaranteed that they have a program developed for the next year or two. So I was pretty safe in assuming that the institution will be there for at least the length of time that the book would be out.

The crisis will probably have a strong impact on the art market for years. What do you think will have changed in the next three, four, five years?

Already, in my interviews I was doing with museums over the last year, I have noticed quite a significant change. Institutions across Europe have less money and have scaled down programs. It is the situation across countries. And new museum construction will see many cancellations and delays. There is a lot loss of money across the board.

Especially in the last decade the traditional institutions were challenged by private collectors who proudly present their collections in museum-like venues, for example French luxury entrepreneur François Pinault with the Palazzo Grassi and his new flagship Punta della Dogana, both situated in Venice, or the collection of German PR professional Christian Boros that is shown in a refurbished war bunker in Berlin. Does this trend enrich the diversity of the artistic supply, or is it damaging the "old" institutions?

I see it as a positive. Collectors that are willing to exhibit their works in a public venue are a positive development. Granted, this comes from a situation, especially in Germany, where there has been a disconnection between private collectors and museums. Each German city seems to have a horror story of a private collector and museum having a falling out over the long-term status of the works that have been loaned to the museum. And so collectors have decided to go their own way. But the sort term beneficiary of this is the audience.

So you think it is better when private collectors build their own private but public museum than to joint venture with institutions like the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, for instance, did by their cooperation with weighty influential collectors as Marx or Flick?

I have no problem with private collectors going it on their own but once collectors enter into the museum, which is publicly funded, there are significant issues at stake. Private collectors who place onerous restrictions on museums or withdraw works to sell at auction are deeply troubling. But it is the museums themselves who must safeguard their reputation and core values rather than cash in on collections for a limited time.

When you look into the future, what are the emerging countries or cities on the scene? Apart from nations with a strong and valuable cultural structure as Germany or France.

Of the former Eastern bloc countries I think Poland is very well situated. There is a wealth of institutions and a very engaged audience working in the arts. Poland seems to have a little bit of a lead in that sense. Other countries in the former east have had a harder time adapting to the demands of presenting contemporary art.

Could you foresee what might be the next hot spot?

It could be further to the east in a city such as Kiev. Or, in a different direction, many people mention Brussels. But for that you have to wait for the next edition of Contemporary Europe Art Guide.

September 14, 2009

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