Taking global concepts to the grassroots

Kamiar Maleki, art fair director at VOLTA, tells ArtScoops what’s in the pipeline for Basel and beyond, with NFTs set to make a first-time appearance

What approach did you decide to adopt at VOLTA when the Covid-19 pandemic arrived? 

The early lockdown came just after we’d held our VOLTA New York Art Fair (March 2020), which was a great success, providing visitors with an unforgettable, immersive experience and bringing together 53 galleries in the intimate setting of Metropolitan West. With the event wrapped up and the arrival of lockdowns worldwide, we decided that rather than moving planned fairs into the digital realm, we’d focus instead on our core strategy. Our belief was that the imposed pause had provided us with a timely opportunity to take an in-depth look at our branding and plans for the next phase of VOLTA’s expansion and development. 

We’ve been really keen to continue extending the reach of our fairs and make them a source of discovery for as broad a range of people as possible, ensuring we’re accessible at a grassroots level and not just to the top 10% of collectors. To help us achieve these objectives, we’ve adopted the philosophy “act global, think local”, which involves engaging with and inspiring communities through a variety of art initiatives, and we’re always looking at ways to build on these ideas. During lockdown we also added to our website by introducing VOLTA Voices – entertaining and informative blogs by key industry players – and monthly updates so people can see what we’ve been doing and follow our plans for the future.  We’re now preparing to host our next series of fairs and are really excited about what’s in the pipeline.

What can you tell us about your plans for the coming months?

We have three VOLTA fairs scheduled, which will be taking place in Basel (September 20-26, 2021), Miami (November 30 - December 5, 2021) and New York (May 2022). After the imposed break and with a huge correction having taken place across the global art market, these events will provide an excellent opportunity to reaffirm our philosophy of creating affordable and exciting art fairs in a relaxing setting, starting with a sellout event for Basel, which is being held at Elsässerstrasse 215, and will run concurrently with Art Basel in Basel Week. We have a fantastic lineup of 70 participants, ranging from established galleries to younger ones showcasing new discoveries, with some thrilling attractions, such as three first-time exhibitors from Iran and the first galleries to show NFTS at a European fair. I’m confident that we will achieve our aim of regenerating the fair and taking it to a new level.

You were part of a collaborative non-fungible token (NFT)-inspired art residency in June. How did you set about making a digital concept a reality?

The idea for an NFT residency has its roots in the show I curated six years ago at the Ronchini Gallery in London titled ‘Hashtag Abstract’, which broke new ground by exploring the topic of how to research and buy art on Instagram. I always planned to do a ‘Hashtag 2.0’, but wasn’t sure what format it would take. I’d begun researching NFTs and then, seven months ago, everything seemed to fall into place when I was approached to work on a project in June with the rap musician Tinie Tempah, Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar, an Iranian-French multi-disciplinary artist, and the UK digital artist Vector Meldrew. The residency, titled ‘Present The Future’, was a groundbreaking collaboration that brought together the mediums of traditional art, digital art and music. When we first arrived at the location in the south of France, the main challenge was to figure out how to work together to relay our individual messages in a single project, delivering the results we all wanted. We discussed everything in full, from the concept of digital art – how the past, present and future relate to each other and what we could do to get that across – to how to bring the ideas, imagery and music together. Eventually we decided to focus on paintings with traditional subjects – flowers, for example – and then take them into a digital vortex, against a backdrop of striations aligned with musical beats, before having them re-emerge. The residency finished with an incredible live painting performance against a backdrop of Tinie Tempah rapping, with the resulting limited edition NFTs sold at auction in what I regard as a landmark moment for the industry.

What part do you see NFTs playing in the art industry of the future?

NFTs are undoubtedly here to stay, but I believe they’ll add a new dimension to the art scene rather than replace other genres or take anything away from it. At VOLTA, we’re great believers in making art more accessible and NFTs can be key in introducing new audiences to art, whether they’re tech fans who’ve never previously taken an interest in art or enthusiasts who’ve felt intimidated about going to physical galleries or auctions. NFTs also put artists and creators in the driving seat, since they receive 10% of a resale. We see them as an exciting and very welcome next step for the art world and are delighted that our Basel event will feature galleries selling NFTs at a fair for the first time. We’re also planning to announce a new series of NFT art residences so watch this space!

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