‘At an art fair you have to seduce the customers’

Suitable art projects:
Tree bark cloth

A 1.7 meter high tree bark cloth, a so-called tap, made around 1900 at Lake Sentani in the present-day Indonesian province of Papua. Tender price 80,000 euros. Photo Duende Art Projects

Art fairs are still able to create momentum, says Bruno Claessens, the Flemish dealer of ethnography and art from Africa. “More than a hundred art sellers at once, many art lovers find it more efficient than visiting a few galleries on Saturday.”

Claessens will make its debut this weekend at the 35th edition of PAN, the national art and antique fair in Amsterdam. He symbolizes the remarkably great innovation of the ‘anniversary edition’: he is one of the sixteen foreign participants (out of a field of 125 dealers) and one of the thirteen newcomers. In addition, he is the first dealer in years to offer only ethnography at PAN.

Bruno Claessens (39) has published three books on African ethnography and worked for five years at the auction house Christie’s as an African art specialist. A year ago, he opened an art shop in his hometown of Antwerp, Duende Art Projects. PAN seems to him to be a suitable platform to present himself to a Dutch audience.

‘The young collectors live on Instagram and other social media. That’s where you need to be as a trader’

Bruno Claessens dealer in ethnography and art from Africa

Since Mark Grol began managing PAN three years ago, the fair has created an energetic impression, says Claessens. “In September, I participated for the first time in the Parcours des Mondes in Paris, the international fair for art from Africa and Oceania. Unfortunately, the organization was resting on its laurels, I noted. There were almost no conferences, book presentations or other initiatives.” To his satisfaction, the Amsterdam Stock Exchange organizes all kinds of side activities, from a special campaign image (by architect Winy Maas) to an educational app for young visitors. Claessens: “The organization wants to share a passion for art, I believe that.”

Investing in innovation pays off, he says. “With all due respect to my fellow ethnographic dealers, I started my business because I feel there is room for improvement. Where are the young collectors, I sometimes hear older colleagues complain. Well, I think they live on Instagram and other social media. So that’s where you need to be as a business owner.”

At PAN he shows the ethnographic collection of Kees van Strien, a Dutch architect who died three years ago. “A small collection,” he says, “that makes it clear that, despite a limited budget, you can build something special with a good eye, passion and knowledge.”

He wants to inspire fair visitors, says Claessens. “I hope some people will walk by my booth and think, ‘Wow, what is this?’ As an art dealer, you plant many seeds without knowing exactly what will come true. I hope some will come to fruition in Amsterdam.”

Martin van Zomeren:
Cardboard box sculpture

shelter II (2022), a 56 centimeter high wall sculpture made of painted cardboard by Machteld Rullens. Tender price 4,200 euros. Photo Martin van Zomeren

PAN a fair for cool contemporary art? Martin van Zomeren (57), owner of one of the hippest galleries in Amsterdam, begins to laugh. It is thanks to exhibition director Mark Grol’s tenacity, says Van Zomeren, that he is participating in the art and antiques fair at the RAI for the first time. Between stands filled with old masters, designer furniture or belle époque jewelry, he will show experimental wall sculptures made of cardboard boxes, works by The Hague sculptor Machteld Rullens.

Van Zomeren: “I got to know Grol as a visitor and customer in my gallery. He convinced me to participate with a good proposal. I see it as an attempt.” With, among others, Andriesse-Eyck, Lang-Art, The Ravenstijn Gallery and Hidde van Seggelen, he is one of the regular Art Rotterdam participants who venture into uncharted territory.

PAN will be Van Zomeren’s fourth exhibition participation this year. He has previously presented himself at Art Rotterdam, Art Island near IJmuiden and the June Art Fair in Basel. Grants are important to him, he says. “During corona there was dead silence in my gallery, really dramatic. And it took a long time for the barrel to come back in a little while. Only since the summer boom it’s old fashioned again. At fairs, I meet new customers and museum representatives.”

‘At the fair it’s more about trade and seduction than in the gallery’

Martin van Zomeren gallery owner

Presentations in his gallery are all about the content, he says. “At a fair, I also try to stay close to myself. But there it is more about trade and seduction than in the gallery.” He therefore brings slightly more accessible and colorful work to RAI.

His first PAN participation has been a success, he says, if he gets new customers and sells well. “I’m not averse to a little commercialism.” By the way, he only starts to earn something, he explains, from the moment his turnover exceeds three times the cost of participating in the fair. His stand rent alone is already 8,000 euros.

Having a little fun also counts, says Van Zomeren. Including the preview for invited guests on Saturday, the fair lasts nine days. “Quite long. Fortunately, I cycle home in ten minutes in the evening. How do I get through quiet trading days? As an exhibitor, you have to be able to hang on well. And you have to be sharp when necessary.”

Laughing with colleagues also helps. “Have a chat and have a cup of coffee together. A fair like this is always a good gossip circuit.” Afterwards, he says, he is fully aware of the ups and downs of the art world.

Joost van den Bergh:
Buddha statue

Buddha head from the Gandhara area (now Pakistan), 52 centimeters high, made in the fourth century AD. Tender price 46,000 euros. Photo Joost van den Bergh

Joost van den Bergh (54) had not finished high school when he traveled to London in 1988 on an art history course. 34 years later, he still lives in London and runs an art shop specializing in Indian and Japanese art in the exclusive neighborhood near Buckingham Palace.

As assistant to antiques dealer Clemens van der Ven and later in collaboration with Ben Janssens Oriental Art, Van den Bergh participated in many large Dutch art fairs. But earlier this year he was at TEFAF Maastricht for the first time with his own stand. Now that PAN is focusing more internationally under the leadership of director Mark Grol, he thought it would be a good idea to also participate in Amsterdam. Nostalgic feelings played a role in this, he says: “PAN was the first stock exchange where I ever worked in the late eighties. I wanted to help Clemens van der Ven build his stand. For fun, I stayed for the opening. When I sold an old Chinese teapot to a visitor there, Clemens said, “You can stay.” Later, I also spent years on an inspection committee at PAN.”

‘Fair visitors come to see and are sometimes willing to be surprised’

Joost van den Bergh art dealer owner

He had little affinity for Chinese art, Van der Ven’s specialty. With Indian art. Van den Bergh discovered this when he came across a book of seventeenth-century Indian miniatures back in London. A revelation, he says. After that, more worlds opened up to him as he immersed himself in other Asian arts. From 1994 he also started trading with it.

Van den Bergh does more and more business at fairs. PAN will be his fifth exhibition this year. “Not many customers come to my gallery and the exhibition concept works for me.” The big advantage of fairs, he says, is the international audience. “Fair visitors come to see and are sometimes willing to be surprised. For example, I regularly sell Japanese art to collectors of modern Western art.”

Van den Bergh likes to make surprising combinations at fairs. In June at TEFAF, for example, alongside ancient Indian bronze sculptures, eighteenth-century tantric gouaches and Japanese bamboo sculptures, he presented a precious, minimalist painting by Roman Opalka, a French painter of Polish descent who spent his life filling canvases with an increasing number , to depict the passage of time. Van den Bergh: “Such a canvas would not make much sense in my gallery, but people come to a fair like TEFAF who understand such a painting.”

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