Apr 30, 2008

East lags west in European art

East lags west in European art

Eastern Europeans may have been quick to match their western peers' spending habits on daily goods, but art traders' hopes that this would soon translate into a vibrant new art market have so far not been realised.

Now in its fourth year, Viennafair, Europe's only designated central and eastern European art fair, has failed to live up to expectations and has prompted many in the business to refocus on the west.

But despite the slow start, there is hope that the market of artists and collectors in the former communist countries may still pick up.

Boris Marte is head of 'Erste Bank', the Central and Eastern Europe fair's main sponsor. He says one of the problems is a lack of public funding for the arts in the formerly communist countries. He still believes, however, that the emerging art market has potential.

"Well, the Vienna artfair has become a hotspot of the international art scene. Especially a hotspot for the art scene of east, southeast Europe. And we think that these are, kind of the main emerging markets inside Europe, with a huge development in the future but without an art market yet. So, Vienna is - The art fair in Vienna is the first art fair in this region. And I think it has, by being the first art fair in the region a huge possibility and opportunity in the future," he said.

At this year's fair, that ran from April 24-27, 126 exhibitors arrived to vie for some 17,000 visiting art aficionados. Yet the number of eastern European galleries showcasing in the Austrian capital had fallen to 21 from 26 a year earlier.

Gallery owner, Hans Knoll, who has galleries in Vienna and Budapest, says one reason for the still small CEE presence is budget.

"There are not so many galleries. Most of the galleries are not that far developed that they could afford such affair. They have very little budget, they are very often too young. You know, the galleries in the region are rarely older than 3...4 years," he said.

There are many reasons for why art markets in the former communist east have lagged behind expectations. For one, an eager and affluent scene of collectors is still missing.

"I can tell you that in Lithuania we only have one commercial gallery who has something like an international profile that could participate in a fair. So, in Latvia, in Riga there is none. In Tallinn there is not really one. So that's three capitals of a certain portion of communist Europe where there's no dealers. There's no decent dealer in Kiev, there's no decent dealer in Minsk. So that actually, huge populations within Eastern Europe don't have any market whatsoever. So that can explain the proportional imbalance between the, the western and eastern galleries," said Simon Rees, curator of CEE galleries at the fair.

Auction Houses such as Sotheby's have noticed a weakness of regional art markets at charity auctions but also say that this can change very quickly. Andrea Jungmann, is managing director for Sotheby's in Austria. She points to Poland particularly as showing promising signs in developing quality contemporary art and suggests a look at the explosion of the Russian art market as a sign of how a market can take off.

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