Keeping With The Times

Lorenzo Rudolf, President of ART STAGE, discusses the evolution of the art world and the changing conversation between artists, gallerists and institutions.

Interview by Charlene Chan
Photographs courtesy of ART STAGE Singapore

Lorenzo Rudolf is perhaps best known for transforming the art fair format during his years at Art Basel. And rightfully so, because under his leadership, the show has expanded into Miami Beach, and become a voice of authority within the art world. These days, the Swiss native helms ART STAGE, the flagship art show of Southeast Asia, backing his love for art with the perspective of one who’s spent time in the publishing and public relations sectors. Ahead of Singapore Art Week, where the eighth edition of ART STAGE will kick off, we speak with Lorenzo about the changing needs of the industry, and his pursuit of balance between the commercial and academic aspects of art.

Hi Lorenzo, please tell us about yourself. How did you find yourself part of the art world?

Even though I did come from a family background which is more cultured, I think it had to be luck as well that I grew up in the right time and at the right place. Bern, Switzerland saw the breakthrough and development of contemporary art worldwide with Harald Szeemann, the director of the Kunsthalle Bern. Not only did he become the first and most important curator globally, he was also considered the inventor of this job—the exhibition maker—and is a god today for all international curators.

Harald commissioned Christo (Vladimirov Javacheff) to wrap the entire Kunsthalle building—the first wrapping of this kind in Christo’s legendary career—and also created the 1969 exhibition When Attitudes Become Form. Most art historians consider it the most important one ever done in history, because it was an exhibition that positioned art in a new way and opened the door to our understanding of contemporary art. Harald eventually became my inspiration, mentor and a friend.

Arin Rungjang Art Stage

I was also an artist during my time as a student. But I realised quite soon that I could only achieve certain regional importance. Thus, I went professionally in another direction, which was international public relations. But art has always been my passion and in 1991, I could combine my education and my passion in a new job. Becoming the director of Art Basel was the biggest factor in shaping my destiny.

At that time, Art Basel was like a classic trade show, organised in the same way as every other industrial trade show and art fair, and was far from being profitable. But we changed the entire concept of the art fair and invented a new format by putting collectors in the centre and making the fair a brand and social event which built partnerships with sponsors and institutes. By the time I left Art Basel, it was the first time an art fair had become a global event, especially with the launch of its new branch in Miami Beach.

You’ve also been involved in the books / publishing and communications industries. How has this versatility influenced your current work?

Yes, after Art Basel, I directed the Frankfurt Book Fair for three years. It is the most important global event of the publishing industry, and when they asked me to come on board to develop the book fair in the same manner as Art Basel, I accepted the offer because for me, literature and art are not only culture; they are also languages. The move was a logical step.

At that time, the Frankfurt Book Fair had more global reach than Art Basel. The art world and market were concentrated in Europe and America, whereas the publishing industry was more connected worldwide. It was wonderful to have the opportunity for interesting exchanges with thinkers, writers and intellectuals from all over the world—they inspired me greatly when I returned to the art world. Even if someone was a painter or a writer, the medium may be different, but they essentially work with languages to transfer ideas and create dialogue.

Lorenzo Rudolf Art Stage

Lorenzo Rudolf, President of ART STAGE.

How is art, as a form of cultural dialogue, continuing to change now with globalisation and as markets mature? There will be some emphasis on cross-disciplinary practices in ART STAGE Singapore 2018, for example.

Without any doubt, contemporary art is a global language. A great artwork by a Singaporean artist is understood in New York, in the same way a good piece of art by an African American artist is understood in Beijing. Unlike literature which is dependent on language and culture, art is globally understood and expresses ways of living. With mass media, artists are no longer only linked to the places they live and work, but to all that is happening worldwide and to other artists and art institutions—this is a situation that has never happened before.

On the flip side, art also becomes more one-dimensional as it tries to be more fashionable and sellable. But because of this, art is developing itself as well. The definition of art becomes broader and artists try to cross boundaries. There is a less distinct definition of what is contemporary art, and what is art.

Read more in The U Press N˚16 (Singapore edition).