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For 2 Bogotá Galleries, Art Basel Means Business

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Contemporary art is an export industry in Colombia. Gallerists boast of an abundant supply of homegrown artists, but bemoan a shortage of consumers willing to pay the prices that could support professional careers. If galleries want to sell at the high end of the international market, they need to build connections at global fairs like Art Basel Miami Beach.

Those fairs can be a side business for legacy dealers from Manhattan or Los Angeles, where local buyers keep the cash flowing, but they serve as crucial revenue generators for places like Casas Riegner and Instituto de Visión, Bogotá galleries that will show in Miami this year.

“Our local market is very limited, very small, and it would be very difficult for us to subsist or to depend on it,” said Paula Bossa, the Casas Riegner curator. “Hopefully, one day we can.”

The galleries have different styles. Casas Riegner is elegant and inside a mansion that once served as the Portuguese Embassy in the Quinta Camacho neighborhood. Instituto de Visión is more of an upstart and makes its home in a rehabbed, one-level storefront in the city’s gentrifying San Felipe arts district.

But they describe similar, dual missions of resurrecting the careers of 20th-century Colombian artists whose work has been undervalued in their own country, while widely promoting emerging regional artists whose work they fear will be overlooked by the rest of the world.

This strategy of catching up while catching on is rooted in nationalism, and the time may be right for it. Internally, Colombia is reconciling itself after recent peace agreements that ended a half-century-long civil war. Externally, it is finally shedding its reputation as a center of drug cartel violence which, in reality, has largely been under control for more than a decade.

But it is also about moving product. At one point, Casas Riegner was doing as many as eight art fairs a year in the United States and Europe. Instituto de Visión built its entire business model around fairs when it opened five years ago.

“I think that the minimum number was nine each year, and sometimes it was 11. Of course, it’s a big risk and investment, but we felt that Colombia didn’t have enough presence in international fairs,” said Karen Abreu, who runs Instituto de Visión.

In a sense, the galleries are mixing their own brands with the brand of their country, and when sales prosper, both entities benefit, they say. Income brought in through newer artists helps fund efforts to raise the profiles of contemporary art pioneers.

A good example is Casas Riegner’s recent endeavor to prop up the reputation of María Teresa Hincapié, who died in 2008 after a long career producing lengthy performance and video pieces that advocated for equal status for middle- and lower-class women, a notion that was ahead of its time a few decades ago.

The gallery’s roster also includes stalwarts such as Antonio Caro, Luis Roldán and Feliza Bursztyn, and importantly, Beatriz González, one of Colombia’s best-known contemporary artists.

For its part, Instituto de Visión rounds out a lineup of ascending and established artists with the formal program “Visionaries,” which includes trailblazers such as Miguel-Ángel Cárdenas, an experimenter with electronic media, and current names including the multimedia artist Sandra Llano and María Evelia Marmolejo, a pioneer of Colombian radical and feminist art. Ms. Marmolejo, now active in New York, is known for “11 de marzo,” a ritualistic, 1981 performance piece honoring menstruation.

Both galleries promote their representation of female artists, and both are owned by women. Ms. Abreu operates Instituto de Visión with Beatriz López and Omayra Alvarado-Jensen. Casas Riegner was first opened in Miami in 2001 by Catalina Casas, who moved the gallery, and its publishing arm, to Bogotá in 2005.

They also see opportunity in propping up the visual art market in Bogotá, which they acknowledge is a challenge. No one suggests that Colombia lacks an interest in world-class culture — Gabriel García Márquez was Colombian, after all; and there is Shakira — but no one has previously succeeded in educating the Colombian public about the value of contemporary art or creating demand for the particular type of objects they sell.

It does not help that Bogotá has relatively few museums for a city of seven million people.

“A lot of Colombians are really excited about art when they go abroad, visiting a lot of museums,” Ms. Bossa said. “But sometimes I feel that a lot of museums here are not visited.”

There may be some hope in recent developments in San Felipe. Even a decade ago, the area of low-rise housing, light industrial workshops and small grocery stores did not exist at all as an arts district. But it has caught on, and 30 fledgling galleries have moved in, along with some midsize condo developments and design-forward restaurants, and coffee shops.

The area is trendy, and a quarterly open house called Noche San Felipe has become a popular draw for people in their 20s and 30s. The galleries vary in ambition, and none are quite as upscale as Casas Riegner and Instituto de Visión, but some appear to be on the rise and figuring out how to make a go as businesses in a city where simply selling art will not cover costs.

One spot, Estudio 74, is a bustling labyrinth of art galleries and workshops, a hybrid co-working space that serves the studio and exposition needs of local artists. It is patronized by young professionals who come for the openings of shows by innovative Bogotá artists like Johnny López, who recently exhibited new 3-D sculptures that are molded into the forms of pre-Columbian statues but fabricated in the sort of high-gloss plastics that might be used to make automobile fenders.

Mr. López, who sold many objects from his show, said San Felipe was moving the scene forward by creating excitement that inspires a new generation of collectors.

“I believe this is true because you can find a lot of galleries that support emerging artists — and young people,” he said.

Apsny News English

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