“I want to make Vienna the new hub in Europe for contemporary art.”
Introducing Artistic Director Francesca Gavin
A familiar name to many in the art world, Francesca Gavin brings a remarkable blend of energy, good humor, curiosity, and a deep expertise in contemporary art. Now, she’s turning her attention to promoting Vienna’s significant potential on the international art stage. Meet Francesca Gavin – writer, curator, and, as of this month, the Artistic Director of viennacontemporary.
Welcome on board, we are delighted to have you. Let’s start at the beginning of your impressive CV. What made you interested in art in the first place?
I grew up in a creative family. My mother went to art school; my sister is an artist. I was surrounded by art books growing up, and when I was about nine, I inherited my mother’s art postcard collection. By that period, I already had an encyclopedic knowledge of art history, which I ended up studying at university, and I never expected to use it. But here I am. I originally began as a journalist, mostly working in editorial on culture and art in a wider sense. I got more focused on art, and at the same time began to be asked to do curation. So, writing about art and curating exhibitions came hand in hand for me.
What do you like about curating?
It is incredibly fun. You get to interact with artists and galleries, which I love doing, and you learn different ways of thinking and original ideas about the world. I love coming up with thematic ideas that link different artists as much as working on solo shows, but I’m probably more known for doing group shows. I describe myself as a journalistic curator, in the sense that the ideas behind putting together a book are the same as in an exhibition, just that one is three-dimensional, and the other one is in print form. I always look at art first. I love the moment when the works arrive, and you unpack. This installation process is my favorite part because you’re seeing how works you’ve seen separately fit together.
In 2016, you co-curated the Manifesta 11 in Zurich, Switzerland. How was this process for you and in what way may there be similarities with an art fair?
Someone said, working for Manifesta 11 is a bit like working for the EU because there’s a lot of compromise. I loved working with a multiplicity of vested interests, incredible institutions, great galleries, and a variety of estates and artists. At viennacontemporary, we will also have to balance a variety of different voices and different aesthetics and work collaboratively with galleries. At Manifesta 11, I curated The Historical Exhibition, where I positioned contemporary art alongside the historical, which is something I’ll be doing at viennacontemporary too.
You are a master in multitasking – Editor-in-Chief of the art magazine EPOCH, a monthly radio show, and many more projects. How do you manage it all?
I think anyone who’s met me is aware that I have a lot of energy. I’m fast and I’m very curious about people. I’ve never done just one thing. I’m used to juggling a lot of hats.
Any main theme that drives you?
I’m fueled by curiosity. I enjoy throwing myself into learning new aspects of the contemporary art world. And artists are always at the center of my work and bringing attention to what they do. That’s something that also the galleries care about, to promote, and thereby truly support an artist’s practice. I feel like I’m extending that relationship, in a much wider way. And I’m really excited to have a role where I get to work on that from a different angle.
You have been very active in the Austrian art scene already for many years. How did this connection to Vienna come about?
When I co-curated Manifesta, I became friends with Gelitin, who were doing a performance at the opening. The following year they asked me to become a visiting lecturer in Linz, so I started getting to know Vienna a bit in 2017. During the pandemic in 2020, I moved here for two and a half years, and was totally inspired by the huge number of amazing emerging galleries and established ones, the incredible art schools. The city has more project spaces than even Berlin, where I’d spent a lot of time beforehand. I really felt there was so much possibility here. I’ve done projects with different galleries here. I’ve written and reviewed a lot of shows here for different publications. You could say that I’m a big supporter of the region’s art scene.
You curated last year’s ZONE1, the emerging section of the fair. How was the process for you?
I was really excited about curating ZONE1 for multiple reasons. Three of the artists were not represented by galleries, and they developed relationships with spaces as a result of the fair. I was also excited that a lot of people treated their booths like exhibition spaces or installations. It was not only about ‘product’, but also about positioning and creating something ephemeral. I find that the experiential is another valuable part of what fairs can do. It is a way of developing an audience and positioning artists. There is a great number of institutions, acquisition committees, and prize juries that come to see the works. I find that really exciting and had a really good response from the artists and galleries who took part.
How does the local art scene compare to your hometown, London?
Vienna isn’t as large a capital as New York, London, or Paris – there lies its strength. It brings a lot of benefits to artists who can afford to live here, study, and have the space to work. Increasingly you’re seeing publications, galleries, and museums outside of Vienna taking advantage of not only Austrian talents, but also of the whole region. I feel that the city is not getting the attention it deserves –I am personally very excited by the art coming out of Vienna.
What aspects make art fairs important, in your opinion?
Art fairs are incredibly valuable spaces to invite people in to discover new works and show the breadth of experimentation that’s happening in contemporary art. They are safe and familiar; visiting a trade show can be a little less intimidating than entering a gallery, even for collectors. Art fairs also have an incredible role in helping transform cities, to bring attention to the creativity in the region. I’m always looking for new art there, be it rediscovered artists or emerging ones, or seeing the new work coming out of a very established artist.
What can we expect for viennacontemporary 2024?
My aim is to create a fair that is incredibly clear, simple, and accessible for collectors, professionals, and the public alike. I want a fair that highlights how exciting the work is that is coming out of Austria, Eastern Europe, and the regions around it, such as Germany and Italy. I want to show how the emerging work being made today is coming out of a context. We’re looking at the redefinition of the canon of what art history is by creating a new section of rediscovered work, especially of the late 20th century, presenting people that have been overlooked often in the past, such as female artists. I want to make Vienna a new hub in Europe for contemporary art.
How will the fair’s focus on art from Central and Eastern Europe help in reaching this goal?
We’re looking to do something original. There are all these historically young, contemporary, great emerging galleries and incredible work coming out of the Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Georgian, and Romanian regions. Integrating them alongside art from northern Italy and southern Germany will create a fair that you don’t see anywhere else. And I think that’s what collectors want – a sense of discovery. To be seeing work that’s not the same artists you get at every blue-chip gallery.
It will be the first fair in Halle D of Messe Wien.
Francesca Gavin: It’s an incredible building. It’s got this kind of modernist neoclassicism with a very high ceiling and concrete pillars. It’s a great space for my vision of a really clear, accessible, well-appointed art fair.
For the skeptics amongst us, why does one need to come to visit viennacontemporary 24?
Francesca Gavin: Vienna in September is art heaven. The city sparkles, and we’ve got so many great initiatives that happen at the same time, such as Curated by, where all these incredible international curators come in and do group shows at the top galleries within the city. Hopefully, people will be inspired by how I’ve expanded the fair and the new galleries I’m bringing in. It’s this combination of it being the best time of art within this city, but also a perfect time to visit an incredible location.