Is going small the only way to get big? That’s the bet of artgenève, a bijou Swiss art fair, which opens to the public today. Gathering a relatively modest 74 galleries, it presents itself as a fair “on a human scale.” And there’s no expansion project in the pipeline. For director Thomas Hug, artgenève, now in its fourth edition, has “reached maturity”—at least as far as size is concerned.

It’s a smart formula, which it has seduced top exhibitors. Gagosian is already a regular, and the likes of Thaddaeus Ropac, Meessen de Clercq, and Blain|Southern have since joined the ranks. “What we need isn’t more quantity, but more quality,” Massimo de Carlo’s director Larkin Erdmann told artnet News. The advantages of a small fair are obvious: quality control is easier and galleries can indulge in larger booths, giving the ensemble a pleasantly airy feel.

But perhaps more importantly, artgenève’s size is proportionate to aim to be supported almost entire by its strong local market. “Here the focus is on the region,” explained Blondeau & Cie’s director Philippe Davet. “The fair was done first with its collectors in mind.” Exceptional private collections abound in Geneva: banker Eric Syz’s—a selection of which is displayed at the fair—is only the tip of the iceberg. The banking industry and major corporations established in town have fueled a culture of collecting and philanthropy. So while most art fairs have to spend all their time crisscrossing the globe to woo potential VIPs, artgenève just goes down the road and knocks on a few doors.

It doesn’t mean that this is a purely local affair, however. Director Hug maps artgenève’s territory as going along “an ark from Lyon to Gstaad; although, the fair attracts an increasing number of visitors from further afield.” Only a train ride away, French and Belgian collectors have also added artgenève to their already busy art fair calendar. Few of them seemed deterred by the recent rise of the Swiss Franc, being, in Hug’s own words, “of a certain level”—although he conceded that Swiss dealers might be “more willing to negotiate” this year.

Add to Geneva’s rich collector-base, its great location easily accessible from most of Western Europe—including the exclusive ski resorts of Gstaad and Courchevel—and a handy free port zone, and one is left wondering why on earth Geneva didn’t have a decent art fair before. Yet previous attempts never really came to much.

“It didn’t make any sense,” said Hug who launched artgenève shortly after moving back from Berlin, where he ran COMA gallery. Art Basel Unlimited veteran Simon Lamunière joined as president, and together, they got the show rolling. (Lamunière has now moved on.) In many ways, artgenève exists in its current format because of Art Basel. The team knew they couldn’t compete, and so they went for the “boutique” approach: intimate and curatorially substantial. Hug hopes to position artgenève as “complementary” to Art Basel, scheduling it as far as possible from the June extravaganza to allow exhibitors doing, or tempted to do, both “to replenish their stock.”

“We needed a proper fair,” said Stephane Ribordy, of the Geneva-based gallery Ribordy Contemporary. The dealer is a champion of emerging artists: several of them, including the Americans Ryan Foerster and Zak Kitnick, barely deserve the label anymore having shown in a string of institutions in the US and Europe. Unwilling to give names—the Swiss can be frustratingly discrete—he said that Genève’s collecting intelligentsia was out in force during the preview yesterday. Solid sales inevitably followed. By the early evening, Ribordy reported having placed several pieces by Foerster and abstract paintings by Eric Lindman.

Over at Blain Southern, two large fabric pieces by Abdoulaye Konaté sold in the fair’s first hour for €35,000, as did a handful of small landscapes on paper by Marius Bercea. The booth also showcases a dramatic geometric beast by Lynn Chadwick priced at £600,000. But overall, the price point is significantly lower than at some of the top fairs (see Europe’s 10 Best Art Fairs in 2014). Hug estimates that most works are priced between a few thousand and 50,000 Swiss francs, with several pieces in the six-figure range, and rare exceptions above the million mark. He advises dealers to be “reasonable with what they bring,” he said. “You need time to build things up.”

Marion Papillon, from the Parisian Claudine Papillon praised the fair’s very “attentive audience,” who takes time to “ask questions” before reaching for their wallet—which they do, more often than not. The gallery sold a Lotta Hannerz sculpture to a French collector as soon as the doors opened.

This attentiveness is actively nurtured by artgenève, which dedicates a significant portion of its floor space to non-commercial ventures, including many local public and private organizations. While this curatorial varnish has become a must-have accessory for most art fairs, the scale of the endeavor at artgenève is impressive. Just take the Estate Exhibition, which features one monumental artwork by a dead artist, displayed for viewers’ enjoyment only—at least theoretically. This year, it’s General Idea’s diorama Fin de Siècle (1994), with taxidermied seals on a mountain of polystyrene cubes.

Berlin gallery Esther Schipper saw the opportunity and came with three white “AIDS Paintings” by the cult Canadian collective. Displayed alongside Karin Sander’s “mail paintings” (white monochromes bearing the marks of their transit via various postal services), they attracted much interest, said Schipper’s Floran Wojnar, who also confided having sold pieces by Matti Brown and Isa Melsheimer.

As art fairs proliferate worldwide, many European collectors increasingly crave a return to slower, more scholarly business (see FIAC Is the Art Fair Europe Wants). artgenève has seized the mood. “We want to talk about art here, rather than market and performance,” sums up Blondeau & Cie director Davet. The fair has good days ahead.

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