A Review of Rotterdam Contemporary Art Fair in the Netherlands

February 8, opening Art Rotterdam. Photos: Geert Broertjes

February 8, opening Art Rotterdam. Photos: Geert Broertjes


Over the years, Art Rotterdam has gained a reputation among European contemporary art fairs for being one of the major art events for galleries, dealers, artists and collectors. Earlier this year, the 18th edition gathered more than 100 galleries in 4 curated sections including the Prospect and Concept sections, all hosted under the roof of the Van Nelle Factory. Inevitably, Art Rotterdam is also a cultural opportunity for the city as a whole. A broad spectrum of pop-up shows, cultural events and exhibitions take advantage of the concentrated contemporary art audience, making lasting connections at both a local and global level. Moreover, Art Rotterdam aligns itself with the city’s philosophy and some of its policies such as the cultural policy launched in 2009 which aimed to develop its cultural offering and cosmopolitan character. The fair reinforces the image of Rotterdam as a creative and dynamic city reflecting the cultural growth of other larger European cities such as Amsterdam, Paris or London.


February 8, opening Art Rotterdam. Photos: Geert Broertjes

February 8, opening Art Rotterdam. Photos: Geert Broertjes


What are the underlying reasons for galleries to attend such fairs? Beyond their commercial value, art fairs have much more to offer their collaborators and audience. During this 18th edition, the majority of the galleries came from the Netherlands or from northern European countries such as Germany, Belgium or France - one exception being Pablo’s Birthday Gallery, the only gallery from the United States (New York City). It was, therefore, interesting to know more about the motivations of its director, Arne Zimmermann to take part in his third year of Art Rotterdam, especially given that traveling overseas has significant costs in term of shipping and insurance. 

The gallery represents mostly European young and mid-career artists, such as Thorsten Brinkmann, Pius Fox or Matilde Duus who all seem to consistently appeal to the audience of the fair. Zimmermann suggested that he might sell less than local galleries who have their base of collectors here, but that it was still financially worth coming. Additionally, it's a great way to enhance his reputation on the European market, whilst expanding his network of collectors. His presence at the fair is therefore, balanced between both financial and promotional value.



A gallery from Naples (who wished to stay anonymous) was attending the fair for the first time. During the interview, they reported that not only are fairs a great way for them to boost their financial performance - given that the Italian market has been a little show recently - but also that they're 'testing the water', whilst gaining an understanding of the Dutch market. Cultural differences are an important aspect of fairs when galleries are operating on an international level in terms of the audience’ behaviour and reaction to works on show.

An Art Rotterdam regular Roger Katwijk Galerie, also discussed the types of relationships that galleries maintain with each other. In Katwijk’s view, since this is a market and at the end of the day everyone is here, of course, to promote their artists and fulfill their cultural mission, there is inevitably a degree of competition. But overall, a sense of collaboration is what rules the gallery's relationships. Roger Katwijk emphasised the fact that art world is rather small, everyone knows each other, and most other gallerists are his friends. 



An established fair such as Art Rotterdam celebrating its 18th edition this year is now seen as a reliable point of reference for collectors, gallerists and artists.  According to the closing report of the 2016 fair, no less than 26,500 art enthusiasts participated in the 17th edition of Art Rotterdam last year. From a gallery perspective, the director of Copperfield Gallery London, William Lunn shared his enthusiasm for Art Rotterdam by confessing that, “It’s the highest sales figure I have had in the last eight international fairs.” 

From the artists’ perspective, it's not unusual to question the role of institutions, and artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Michael Asher, Yves Klein or Andrea Fraser have done so. In 2016 this critique took the form of an art fair, when two Danish artists Elmgreen and Dragset transformed the Center for Contemporary Art of Ullens (UCCA) in Beijing into a fictional art fair. With the Well Fair exhibition, the duo of artists shed light on the hysteria, tension and exhaustion that often characterise many of today’s art fairs with the dependence of galleries and artists seeking to reach an international audience. Their show also demonstrated, with subtlety, the role 'power' occupies and the hierarchy existing across the contemporary art world. 



Undoubtedly, art fairs are vital rituals across the contemporary art world, within which all those involved come together to buy and sell in a temporary ecosystem. Even if digital innovation has altered many aspects of how we approach art, we can be grateful that fairs continue to prove that simple face-to-face interaction remain essential in this complex interplay where both commercial and social exchanges take place.

Written by Maulde Cuerel, a Contributor to Arteviste.