Interview with Selen Sarıoğlu

We spoke with Art Basel Turkey VIP relations representative Selen Sarıoğlu about her impressions about Art Basel 2016, the fair’s approach to VIP programmes and its plans for the future.


Özge İnal: You’ve worked as the Turkey VIP relations representative since 2014. Can you tell me about your experiences within the scope of this assignment?

Selen Sarıoğlu: The foremost aim of regional VIP representation is to provide VIPs with better service and a more productive fair experience. There are many parallel events and it’s quite difficult to keep track of them all. Regional representatives come into the picture in organizing the participation of collectors from different countries to these different events. This system of representatives exists to help reach collectors worldwide. Since there is special emphasis on Turkey, the idea to find a representative specifically for Turkey came up and that’s how I was contacted. We have a team comprised of more than 20 regional representatives from Europe, USA, South America and Asia. The exclusive programme prepared for the VIPs includes a slew of events such as gallery openings and curator talks in the city, events organized by sponsoring institutions, and tours of collectors’ homes.

Though the role is referred to as VIP representation, its scope indicates regional representation. When Art Basel has any business with or questions regarding the region we represent, they consult us. Aside from that, I also provide assistance when one of Art Basel’s important collectors visits Turkey. That’s how I had the opportunity to meet the Rubell’s, the prominent collectors from Miami. In such situations I act as the fair’s branch in the region and naturally do my best to make a positive impression with our country.


Öİ: It appears your role as representative doesn’t only last the duration of the fair. You actually organize all of Basel’s connections here throughout the year.

SS: Yes, aside from the fair we have a yearlong role as consultants. We keep in touch throughout the year because the traffic continues. Art Basel has many sponsors including UBS and Davidoff. We also provide services regarding invitation lists and general organization when these sponsors organize an invitation in our area. Aside from that, though there is a separate committee regarding the selection of galleries, the fair consults us also. They can consult us for any information they need regarding the region. This year, only two galleries from Turkey were featured in Hong Kong. I sincerely hope that the three upcoming fairs will also feature galleries from Turkey.


Öİ: Do all these events serve the purpose of creating a global network by bringing together collectors, institutions and art professionals?

SS:Yes, the main purpose is creating different opportunities for the art community to come together and to provide people who come from all over the world for the fair with complementary events. Of these, Unlimited at Basel is an art event in its own right that attracts at least as much attention as the fair itself. Featuring works too large to be shown in the stands at the fair, this section has its own curator. A special selection is made out of the artworks presented by the participating galleries. Though most of these works are for sale, the number of collectors that can buy such massive artworks is limited. So the real purpose is to present a museum-quality exhibition. Similarly there is the Parcours event in which artworks by various artists are installed in various squares and buildings throughout the city under the direction of a curator. All of these events aim to present different areas of experience in the name of art and contribute art activities to the respective cities throughout the duration of the fairs.

Öİ: What are your impressions regarding Art Basel 2016? Did you observe any changes compared to recent cities regarding collector attendance and sales?

SS:Whether the decline in economy reflected on sales is one of the questions we have been receiving most frequently this year. As far as we have observed and heard, the gallerists at the fair were quite satisfied with sales despite the uncertainty in global economy. The New York Times and Artnet also published many news items conceding this point. We also received many positive comments from visitors that the selection was outstanding and that the fair in Basel was as always very distinguished in comparison to other fairs.

Aside from that, new security measures had to be taken in Basel this year due to the endemic terror attacks. For instance, bag searches at the entrances were carried out for the first time in the fair’s history. This naturally created operational difficulties. The 11:00 AM VIP entrance on opening day, especially, is very important to us. The most prominent collectors enter the fair for the first time then and one of the aims of the fair is to reduce the queue. Due to security the queue was quite long this year and hundreds of people were forced to wait outside in the rain. Sadly this is the new state of affairs in the world; the threat of terrorism is everywhere and the fair was forced to heighten inspection to lower the risk. We are hoping that in succeeding years the circumstances are regained so as not to necessitate such measures.


Öİ: Was there a decline in the number of foreign collectors visiting Turkey due to security reasons?

SS: Of course, there was a considerable decline. My wish is that the situation in Turkey will return to normal at least before the biennial next year. I’m sure that the biennial curated by Elmgreen & Dragset will be an extremely notable one. It would be a pity if the art world outside of Turkey didn’t get to see it. Curators, museum representatives, gallerists and collectors of utmost prominence in the global art world attended the last biennial’s opening. This interaction is of indisputable importance for the progress of Turkey’s art and the consolidation of its place in the world. If we cannot be a stable and secure country, we will always remain a piquant yet unvisitable country. This would pose a problem for both our economy and our art. So we’re hoping for positive political developments from this point on.


Öİ: There has been talk of a decline in the number of upcoming fairs as a reflection of economical ambiguity. What is your opinion on that?

SS:Such news is quite widespread. The fluctuation is examined in the wake of every auction. This is related to the market and Art Basel prefers not to be concerned with the market. Since it’s a fair, it’s only natural that transactions are made, but the main aim especially in Basel is to exhibit the most outstanding art. Sales are made when the best galleries meet with the most enthusiastic buyers. Since collectors know that they can’t come across work of this quality anywhere else, even if they reduce their annual acquisitions they exclude the fair from that reduction. Of course that’s not to say that the current agenda and economy don’t reflect on the fair at all. For example this year the Brexit referendum was to be held just after Art Basel. We heard from several gallerists that some buyers were asking if they could make their payments after the referendum or not. Such effects of the economy unavoidably reflect on the fair but we cannot say that there is a decline in enthusiasm for acquisition.

Öİ:Is it possible to say that Miami Beach, Hong Kong and Basel fairs all have different VIP audiences?

SS:It is possible to roughly separate these fairs from one another by their general features. Since Basel is the first and main fair founded in 1970, it is the most prominent fair with the most academic selection. All galleries reserve their most important works for Basel and the galleries at Basel are the most meticulously selected. This all means that the audience there is a distinguished one comprised more generally of curators, museum representatives and institutional buyers. Since Miami is in the USA, it appeals more to American and Latin American buyers, as well as being the most entertaining fair due to its location. Hong Kong is the newest in the Art Basel trio. Its main aim is to reach Asian art and collectors and it is mostly favored by Asian buyers. Each fair has a different focus and flavor and quite a few of our collectors attend at least one of these fairs every year.


Öİ: What is the ratio of collectors from Turkey that attend the Miami and Hong Kong fairs?

SS: Basel is naturally the fair most frequently preferred by art enthusiasts and especially serious collectors. Since Miami is a location favored by Turks as a vacation spot and the Miami fair coincides with the beginning of winter, there’s a lot of demand there as well. The attendance from Turkey to Hong Kong falls behind majorly compared to the other two. It’s mostly got to do with habit. We are quite accustomed to traveling to the USA and Europe, but perceive Asia as being “far away” even though the distance is the same as to the USA.


Öİ: What strategy will you follow for the VIP programme of the fair in the following years?

SS: I can speak for Turkey concerning the upcoming years. Both Miami and Basel went extremely well this year. My hope for the next year is to be able to take a group to Hong Kong as well. I think the best way to get to know a city is by proxy of an art event. Especially within the extent of a VIP event, you are able to see many places worth seeing in accompaniment with a meticulously planned art event. You get to attend fantastic programmes and experience the city at the same time. I think it’s a great opportunity. I hope that starting with the fair next March, attendance from Turkey to Art Basel Hong Kong will also increase.


Çeviri: Zeynep Beler