Among the sideshows of TEFAF is the crowd that builds up at the entrance to the fair on its opening days. Renowned collectors, leading curators, and museum directors over from the States gather in the foyer of the MECC in Maastricht, nattering as they wait for the doors to open and, in some cases, already plotting the swiftest route towards a particular painting or objet d’art. There is a sense of anticipation, of internationalism, and of renewed friendship that turns even this moment into an event. No other art fair, traditional or contemporary, boasts anything quite like it.
This month sees the 30th edition of the fair, the first in Maastricht since TEFAF staged its inaugural event in New York last October. That debut was widely considered to have been a triumph, having spruced up the Park Avenue Armory, attracted more visitors than had been predicted, and generated strong sales (happy exhibitors being the ultimate arbiter of any art fair’s success and sustainability). One top dealer, who wasn’t exhibiting, told me that he hadn’t seen so many exceptional works or such consistent quality at a show in New York for more than 25 years.
Besides the two New York fairs flourishing in their own right, one aspiration for them must be to draw new visitors to Maastricht itself. For all its success, like any established event the fair needs to keep refreshing its audience if it is to maintain its pre-eminence. If TEFAF can entice uninitiated collectors across the Atlantic, then so much the better. Some commentators have predicted the opposite effect, and a handful of TEFAF Maastricht exhibitors may fear it, but it is to be hoped that the optimism generated by the first New York fair will create broader interest and prove them mistaken.
It was notable that the Rijksmuseum took a stand at the New York fair to promote its Hercules Segers exhibition, which has now travelled to the Metropolitan Museum. After all, one of the great draws for new (and returning) visitors to the MECC is an opportunity to visit museums in the region, and above all to explore the innovative and ambitious museum culture of the Netherlands. ‘The Dutch museum system is one of the most beautiful in the world,’ says Gemeentemuseum director Benno Tempel in this issue, singling out not simply the volume of public collections but also their quality. This year, that institution plays a central role in the De Stijl centenary celebrations, a nationwide programme of events and exhibitions that ought to encapsulate the inventive spirit of the country.
No museum system in Europe can match the accomplishments of the Dutch system over the past five years. At the forefront have been the grand reopenings of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis in The Hague, in 2013 and 2014 respectively. But smaller institutions have also shown how determined the museum sector in this country can be, not least with last year’s Bosch anniversary exhibition at the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch.
In fact, when I think about those museums that display the most progressive attitudes to the current and future state of their collections, my mind inevitably turns first to Dutch museums: to the Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio project, for instance, which has led the way in sharing high-quality images of its collection; or the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, with its plans to open a publicly accessible storage depot for private collections. The Van Gogh Museum has led the way in showing how a museum can fortify its popular appeal while replenishing its intellectual endeavours. All of these museums have in recent years been graced with dynamic directors who have furthered the reputations of their institutions.
This enlightened culture is always the subject of much discussion at TEFAF Maastricht; it is the context in which the event takes place. This year, the Dutch general election occurs during the fair, with the very real possibility that the far-right party, led by Geert Wilders, will come out on top when the votes have been counted. Like it or not, the election will add an urgency to the sense of cultural collaboration and internationalism that has always characterised the fair. But there will be much else, including many outstanding works of art, to discuss besides. See you in the line.
From the March 2017 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.