Beyond the Art Fair: Interview with Eric Schlosser, Art Director of Tbilisi Art Fair

Take a trip to Tbilisi this fall, just in time for harvesting wine and art.

Georgia always existed at the crossroads – from the Ottoman Empire to the Soviet regime, from the Rose Revolution to the era of the oligarchs. Having overcome deep trauma, Georgia is now a vital link in cultural exchanges. In spite of many years of migration, regime change, and economic turmoil, Georgians have preserved their national heritage and dodged the fate of “the cultural melting pot” that befell neighbouring lands. This cultural richness is reflected in Georgian contemporary artists’ work, as they continue to explore their deep ties with tradition and cultural memory. Their imaginative retelling and recycled visual metaphors open up what has been lost in endless newsfeeds and mundane living. With a slower pace of life and a tendency towards meditative contemplation, Georgia’s ambiance lets you focus on meaningful values, reflect on the ever-changing present and consider possible alternatives for the future.

The first edition of the Tbilisi Art Fair (TAF) took place in May 2018 and placed Georgia back on the world’s map of art and culture. TAF is an international contemporary art fair centered on emerging and mid-career artists from Europe, with a focus on its Eastern and southern frontiers. TAF bets on young talents and genuine collectors and galleries, who can support artists at an early stage in their careers, boosting them further.

.ART talked to TAF’s Art Director Eric Schlosser about the role that art and the artistic community play in a geographical context during times of rapid transitions. A trained lawyer, Eric moved to Russia from native France shortly after passing the bar exam. After embarking on a plethora of cultural partnerships and projects as a public servant, he went private to produce, organise and manage various events in visual and performing arts.

Eric Schlosser at TAF

You collaborated with several art fairs as a strategic consultant. What attracts you to the art fair model?

I collaborated with art fairs as an art director – Tbilisi is the third – as well as a strategic consultant. I am attracted to the model for several reasons. First off, there is the act of promoting the art, creativity, and, above all, the people I like in this business – the artists and gallerists. I want to help galleries and artists reach new audiences, discover new artists and increase their collectors’ base and media visibility. It’s also exciting to make new art projects by getting people together and finding resources, and organising medium size events that are interesting, useful and enjoyable. It’s about taking on new challenges!

I want to reinforce the fair as being an instrument not only for sales but also a spring board for international projects, year round mobility and exchange opportunities.

Could you tell us a bit about the Tbilisi Art Fair? What does it bring to the city?

The Fair has helped the art scene tremendously; it is now the most anticipated art event in the region. It’s helped artists find visibility, buyers and even collectors; it’s also helped organise the art market and push international practices forwards, encouraged new galleries and initiatives and increased the presence of Georgian art on the international map. TAF has helped make the Georgian art scene more visible to Georgians themselves; it is now the most followed cultural event in the media.

Andria Dolidze – I saw a tiger. One tiger, one leap, 2020

What’s the story behind the venue; where does the Tbilisi Art Fair take place?

It takes place at an exhibition centre that dates back from the 1950’s. It features wonderful frescos and monumental sculptures in the gardens, surrounding modernist architecture pavilions. The venue has seen constant improvement over the last 20 years; one of the owners is the Founder of TAF, Kaha Gvelesiani –  a visionary entrepreneur passionate about this country. Expogeorgia had all the equipment you need to host a large-scale event like TAF.

How do first-time visitors find their bearings at this great venue?

The best thing to do is to stop by the welcome desk and get a hold of a map of the Fair! You can then move between the 4 pavilions that host the main exhibitions: Gallery booths, Hive (solo artists), Curated shows and Talks and Creative activities for kids. En route, you’ll find food spots for trying out some of the best Georgian dishes on our menus, paired with a glass of wine or something stronger – we make our own Chacha at TAF!

Thea Gvetadze – Untitled, 2004

How do you motivate first-time buyers?

Once they’re at the fair, the job is halfway done. We are very selective; when you make a purchase at an art fair, it’s almost like you buy the work with an authorised stamp of quality. We make sure the prices are fair and diverse. Even for a first-time buyer, TAF is a great opportunity to buy art without the stresses, in a relaxed atmosphere, for a price that matches most pockets. The Hive section exhibits works starting from about 200€ – not for an edition, but for an original art work by a young artist. In the Galleries section, we offer a selection of works at less than 3000€, from artists that are at a turning price point in their career. The price goes up to several hundred thousand euros for seasoned collectors. 

Who and what are you most excited about presenting at the Fair in 2020?

Female artists hold a significant place at  TAF. We don’t make a big statement out of it, we just do it.

I’m excited to present the entire Fair – to take people on board and show them every booth, every artist, every show in town.

That’s why I like the boutique format, otherwise it’s impossible to give and bring attention to everyone. You might have noticed that female artists hold a significant place at TAF. We don’t make a big statement out of it, we just do it. This year, can’t wait to show Tamuna Sirbiladze, who was a Georgian painter living in Austria, had a successful international career and married Franz West. The Sun Has Risen will be her first exhibition in Georgia in 20 years. Another show we are excited about is Sabine Moritz Under the Sky, inspired in part by Robert Capa’s photographs when he and John Steinbeck traveled through the Soviet Union after WWII. Tbilisi was among the places they visited. Sabine lives and works in Cologne and the exhibition is organised with the Marian Goodman Gallery. We will also have a show of 6 young women photographers from Ukraine in collaboration with Photo Kyiv.

There will also be a show built around the artist Vera Pagava – she was a Georgian painter who moved to Paris in the 20’s and is included in several prestigious collections such as the Pompidou. I’m also very excited that most galleries we like to work with are returning this year, like Window Project, Rooster, Project Art Beat,  LC Queisser, L’Aleatoire, Valid Foto.

These are uncertain times, but let’s hope everything will go to plan and the new galleries that have applied will be able to join. Since we have moved the dates of the fair to 1-4 October 2020, applications for both the Galleries and Hive section are now open until August 15.

We exhibit mainly emerging and mid-career artists, which is the best time to acquire their works. By doing so, you make a good investment and act as a real patron for the artist. We also have artists from Western Europe that participate in Hive; you will be happy to have learned about them before everyone else!

Marcin Sobolev – Bloc et Palmier, 2020

Can you tell us about your ambitions for the upcoming editions of the Tbilisi Art Fair? What sectors of the fair would you like to develop?

I want to show even more promising artists and energetic galleries that don’t have many opportunities to be seen at an international art event. I want to reinforce the fair as being an instrument not only for sales but also a spring board for international projects, year round mobility and exchange opportunities.

Eric Schlosser. Photo by Vladimir Mishukov

From your point of view, how does Tbilisi Art Fair fit into the current network of art events in the region (Tbilisi Photo Festival, Biennale of Istanbul, Triennale of Erevan, Sharjah Biennale, YARAT)? What makes it stand out? 

I hope we are complementary and feed off each other. We cooperate with some of the events you mentioned, especially the Tbilisi Photo Festival, with whom we have made great shows during TAF. The main difference is that at TAF you have both curated shows as well as direct opportunities to buy art from the Galleries and from the artists at Hive.

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Daria Kravchuk
Daria Kravchuk
is a curator and art manager with an MA in Museology from Amsterdam University. Her international projects are focused on the intersection of contemporary art, architecture, urban planning and anthropology. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.