2022 October-November Analysis

Tbilisi Art Fair: curating Georgia’s image as a regional art hub

Collectors, critics, curators, and art lovers from all around the world descended on ExpoGeorgia from September 22-25 for the third edition of the Tbilisi Art Fair – which offered a glimpse into the emerging contemporary art scenes of the Caucasus and Central and Eastern Europe. Investor.ge takes a look at this year’s lineup and four local galleries being showcased at the event.

Spilling over onto pavements outside galleries across Tbilisi, for days in September crowds of local and international art connoisseurs viewed the best of the region’s artists. Art seems to be achieving an ambition of so many sectors in Georgia – it has established a regional hub that is actually working well. The epicenter of the 2022 international Tbilisi Art Fair (TAF) was the ExpoGeorgia Exhibition (ExpoGeorgia) halls on Didube’s Tsereteli Avenue, but the event spread to multiple venues in the Art Week of which it was part. The artists and art professionals who have been thronging the events are not only from across the Caucasus and nearby, but truly international – from Europe, the U.S., the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Tbilisi Art Fair, focusing on contemporary art with a large proportion by young artists, is putting Georgia on the map of the global art market. While Tbilisi’s many gallerists work hard to make international links, traveling often to present Georgia’s artists in galleries and art festivals of the richer and larger cities of Europe and the U.S., TAF reinforces their work with its scale, the number of new artists on view, and by flying the flag for Georgia.

to support the Tbilisi Art Fair, gallery openings launched simultaneously all over Tbilisi, augmenting the central exhibitions at ExpoGeorgia. TAF 2022 follows two successful pre-Covid fairs in 2018 and 2019. Hosting and organizing TAF is ExpoGeorgia, whose owners are also the creators and main sponsors. the last art fair, in 2019, attracted 12,000 visitors, 78 artists, and 29 galleries to present in the spacious halls of ExpoGeorgia’s sylvan setting. The figures for this year’s event – from September 22 to 25 – are likely to have been not far behind, despite the depredations caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the tailwinds of Covid, and soaring travel costs.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili attends TAF 2022. Photo credit: TAF
Tbilisi Art Fair’s main geographic focus is the area bounded by the Black, Caspian, and Baltic seas – countries offering “rich and vibrant emerging art scenes, under-represented in art fairs,” says its founder, Kaha Gvelesiani, the businessman who is chairman of ExpoGeorgia’s supervisory board and its chief executive. “TAF is the place for collectors, curators, journalists, and art professionals to discover under one roof selected artists and galleries from Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Turkey, Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Romania, Belarus, and the world.” The roll call of the arts professionals, dealers, and commentators comes from even further afield.

TAF 2022 offered its visitors, among other presentations, a glimpse of the young French art scene, a wide range of different media from Azerbaijan, Spanish photography, art from the Balkans and a large collection of Ukrainian photography, as well as Georgian artists.

How did this happen? Visual attractions Georgia may have many, but, says Kaha, it is short of high-end international cultural events. Since such events are major attractions for well-off international tourists who currently come in only tiny numbers to Georgia, the Tbilisi Art Fair could be a game changer for tourism as well as the arts.

It came about like this: when in conversation with Kaha, one of the east’s major contemporary arts event organizers, Sandy Angus of Angus Montgomery Arts (which has created exhibitions across Asia) suggested that Tbilisi was an ideal location for an international contemporary arts fair. Kaha saw the possibilities and lost no time in launching one. Bringing in French arts consultant Eric Schlosser as art director, he set up a team to work with galleries and artists in Georgia and abroad to draw them into Tbilisi.

The attraction of the fair is that it not only covers the spectrum of artists from the established to the yet-to-be-discovered, but it also presents works in a variety of media and with a wide price range. The fair has been attracting a good number of buyers for the art on display, although it is not itself yet a major money spinner. ExpoGeorgia is currently supporting it and bringing in a diverse group of sponsors including the American and French Embassies, the Ministry of Culture, paint group Caparol, TBC Bank Group, and Tbilisi City Hall – among many others. However, its rate of growth and popularity with tourists as well as the art world encourage hopes for its financial future and its establishment on Tbilisi’s calendar as a regular annual event.

TAF has Tbilisi’s long arts tradition and history to draw on for its international marketing. As one of the city’s major gallerists, Sandro Mujiri (who, with his sister Vanda runs the long-established Vanda Gallery in Mtatsminda), describes: “In the beginning of the 20th century, democratic Georgia and Tbilisi became a shelter and real haven for numerous artists from Eastern Europe and Russia: painters, sculptures, poets, writers and musicians – Futurists, Avantguardists and Constructivists.”

Now, he added, “contemporary Georgian art is becoming more and more popular in the world and there are many Georgian names in high demand on the world art market. And TAF gives us the possibilities to tell the world about today’s cultural life in Georgia and, at the same time, show our crowd what is going on in other countries, and what the artists are doing abroad.”

While Vanda Gallery, like Tbilisi’s other major galleries, presents its artists at international fairs abroad – such as ArtExpo in New York, Art Basel Miami, Art Istanbul, Messe Berlin, Art Ankara, Art Manezh and so on – “it boosts market potential to be able to show them against a local Georgian setting,” says Sandro.

As part of The Tbilisi Art Fair’s strategy to help promote young artists, there is a special low-budget section called The Hive, which hosts artists or collectives which have not as yet secured backing. (The Hive’s name references the low-cost studios for young and poor artists which launched in the early 20th century.) This section is well publicized and gives artists a chance to be exhibited and find a gallery, collector, or patron. For the new virtual and pop-up galleries, it helps them gain a wider audience by offering booths at much lower prices than those in TAF’s halls.

To add to TAF’s attractions and to help build local interest and investment in art, it also offers lectures, master classes, and open forums as well as sections aimed at kids.

Interest in buying art is growing in Georgia, reflecting the increasing number of young professionals who, from banking and financial markets in particular, are joining those in business who can afford to bring art into their homes. While the most popular price range for a picture is around $10,000 – $15,000, prices of up to three or four times that are commonly paid.

Collector interest reflects the vibrant Tbilisi gallery scene, which seems to be dominated by female gallerists – they account for well over half of Tbilisi’s gallery population.

While these gallerists come from a variety of backgrounds, from business to commerce, to media and art (with even the odd London Business School MBA up a sleeve), access to family or investor money is, of course, in these days of rising costs, an essential for new galleries. It takes years to achieve net profitability. Even when housed (as a number are) in spartan conditions under the high ceilings of the beautiful but crumbling Baroque and neoclassical 18th and early 19th century mansions of the Mtatsminda historic and cultural district, costs are not small.