With over 15 years experience in producing art shows for some of the most well-known art fairs in the USA, it’s safe to say Katelijne De Backer knows her stuff about putting on a well curated exhibition. The Belgian native was responsible for transforming the now-iconic Armory Show from a relatively small bohemian affair, into one of the most important art shows on the calendar. She also has experience curating independent galleries and even produced alternative music shows for MTV Europe before becoming an art director. With so much experience and know-how, we couldn’t pass up on the chance to ask her a couple of questions about the challenges of organizing an art fair on such a scale, her favorite places to browse art in her free time, and what advice she would give her younger self.
The PULSE contemporary art fair takes place at Indian Beach Park on Miami Beach. Why was Miami the perfect place for PULSE? How has Miami become a global center for contemporary art?
The first PULSE took place in Miami in 2005 as one of the satellite fairs to Art Basel Miami Beach. To present our internationally recognized galleries as well as the emerging galleries next to Art Basel was very important to us. It is because of the many art fairs, as well as auxiliary events in museums, galleries and other venues happening each year in early December, that Miami has become a global center for contemporary art.
Can you tell us about the culture around the festival? What was the creative vision behind the festival? How is PULSE unique to other art fairs around the world?
PULSE Contemporary Art Fair is an established part of the annual art calendar and is recognized for providing its international community of emerging and established galleries with a dynamic platform for connecting with a global audience. PULSE offers visitors an engaging environment in which to discover and collect the most compelling contemporary art being produced today.
How have you achieved this ‘engaging environment’ for visitors to discover new contemporary art in? Can you tell us about the different curated sections in the fair?
PULSE prides itself on not only exhibiting internationally recognized galleries but also, championing the discovery of emerging galleries and artists. We have a number of curated sections: in SOLO, exhibitors present works from one of their represented artists. Each of these artists is nominated for the PULSE PRIZE, a jury-awarded cash grant presented directly to the artist. CONVERSATIONS offers a special focus for exhibitors to explore new visual and conceptual dialogues between two artists. POINTS is a dedicated section of the fair for alternative models and non-profits. And PLAY is a dedicated showcase for video and new media, serving as a platform to encourage discovery within the digital realm. Through each of these sections, we can guarantee that not only are we showing a range of artists, but also mediums like video and installation that can be difficult for galleries to exhibit in a commercial setting.
Tell us more about yourself and your career?
I have been producing art fairs for the past 15 years, the longest being The Armory Show where I started in 1999 when it was still a very bohemian-style fair of 75 galleries. Over the next 12 years, the fair transformed into one of the most important events on the international art market’s calendar. After The Armory Show I was the Managing Director for Lehmann Maupin. Before entering the art world, I worked for MTV Europe where I produced the alternative music shows “120 Minutes” and “Alternative Nation”. I have been with PULSE for only a short time, but taking this well-respected boutique art fair to the next level and introducing new people to the fair is my priority, and I hope this will be apparent when you visit in December.
What are the biggest challenges of organizing an art fair on the scale of PULSE?
My team and I have been organizing art fairs for a very long time, and I dare to say that we have it down to a science. But there are always challenges, and to me the biggest ones are events and situations you cannot control: a heavy rainfall, a storm, and anything else unexpected.
What is the one thing most people don’t realize about the art world?
That it is for everyone to enjoy! You do not need to be a rich collector, a famous museum director, or a notorious curator to enjoy and be part of the art world. You can just be an art lover and visit Miami during art week and enjoy access to galleries and artists from around the world.
You have over 20 years’ experience in the art world. What one piece of advice would you give to your younger self when you were first starting out in the business?
I would definitely say, follow your gut feeling! Keep following your passion and look for open doors. You might have to start with a “boring” job as an intern or trainee. But keep at it, and at some point you will notice someone and say, “I want a job similar to that person’s job”. Then make sure to become that person’s assistant, and learn from it. But play it fair! You have to have patience and navigate your way towards where you eventually want to be. Don’t just keep a job or position for the sake of it, when you know that it’s making you unhappy. It’s a journey, you should enjoy it!
Other than the engaging spaces at PULSE, which gallery or art fair do you admire / enjoy the most?
I love the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection. It’s an excellent place to learn about contemporary art from Latin America and beyond. It is a must visit when in Miami! I am also inspired, surprised and in awe each time I visit the Margulies Collection. And I would be remiss to exclude the National YoungArts Foundation. If you have never been to see an exhibition at the Jewel Box on their campus, you are missing out!
Why is art important and how do you think it (can potentially) influences people’s lives?
That is a very big question! Art is important because it is part of life and society. It is intertwined with everything you do everyday. And when you come to PULSE and all the other art fairs in Miami, you will see it in its purest form.
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