The fair during its opening today, February 27 (courtesy of ARCO Madrid)

Madrid, Spain — A ruling handed down last November by a magistrate in Madrid mandates transparency for publicly-funded cultural organization ARCO Madrid, shedding new light on the selection process in one of Europe’s largest art fairs.

The suit was brought by a Madrid-based gallery, My Name’s Lolita Art, who submitted an application to participate in the fair this year, and was rejected. The suit alleges that ARCO’s selection process is opaque, calling for the fair to put in place measures by which the selection process can be accessed by the public and interested galleries.

A report published this week by the Spanish daily El Paìs notes the ruling of a lower-court magistrate, which cites evidence that the fair’s selection process was not fair to exhibitors. “It is evident that [ARCO Madrid] did not obey the ‘principle of transparency in selection’ that it must govern a public organization like Ifema [ARCO’s parent company] (whose majority control is in the hands of the Community and the City Council of Madrid).”

In response, ARCO said that the ruling did not accurately convey their “impeccable” selection process. Ifema released a statement that “expressly rejects” the ruling put forth by the lower court, saying:

In our opinion, the selection process respects all the principles and values of this institution. If we detect that the protection of such principles can be further increased, we are open to incorporating new additional elements that reinforce them; in any case, the selection process for 2019 was already carried out at the moment in which we were notified of the judgment.

In the statement sent to El País this week, Ramón García Alcaraz, of My Name’s Lolita Art, asked for clarity and feedback concerning his gallery’s rejection from the fair. Having participated in ARCO Madrid from 1990 until 2007, García Alcaraz says in his lawsuit that ARCO’s “arbitrary and discriminatory” unfairly exposes smaller, local galleries, to the whims of an opaque selection process.

In an email sent to ARTnews, García Alcaraz elaborated on his reasoning for suing the fair. He said that his interests were not financial, simply that he wanted to understand how the fair’s metrics relate and can be understood by galleries who apply. “My intention was instead to provoke a change toward transparency and fairness in the selection process for the fair so that the best of Spanish artists can be exhibited in the most important art fair of their country,” he said.

This case can be seen in relation to another lawsuit brought forth by artist Robert Cenedella last year in New York, which said that a conspiracy existed between New York’s top museums and galleries “to celebrate the Warhols of the world at the expense of the Anti-Warhols.” Cenedella’s lawsuit claimed that a select few museums were in violation of anti-trust laws by conspiring with galleries including Gagosian, Pace, David Zwirner, Marian Goodman, and Hauser & Wirth to inflate the prices of certain artists at the expense of all the others. Though Cenedella’s case was ultimately dismissed by a judge in December of last year, it nevertheless brought to the fore the issue of transparency and the selection process of elite art museums and galleries, shining light in an area of the art market that is notoriously closed-off.

ARCO Madrid 2019 opening (courtesy of ARCO Madrid)

Similarly, at ARCO Madrid, which opened today, February 27, a bevy of well-known galleries from all over the world are gathering to take part, begging the question: how and under what circumstances do elite fairs like ARCO serve as the de facto gatekeepers of art? What is the selection process of these elite fairs? And to whom are they responsible in matters of transparency?

In the ruling handed down last November, the Spanish judge cited a similar decision in 2001 against the 1999 edition of ARCO, writing that: “with the scant information given to the applicant, it is impossible for them to know if their project has been judged fairly.” The judge went on to state that there is a discrepancy between large international exhibitors and local galleries, citing the fact that many international galleries are uniformly accepted without having to go through the same selection process as local, Spanish galleries.

With the eyes of the art world on ARCO this week, the question of transparency and dubious selection processes are once again being thrust into the limelight. With large art fairs like ARCO taking up an increasingly more prevalent role in the overall art market, inclusion in them can be make or break for galleries struggling to survive and connect with collectors. Questions with respect to their inclusion policies, at ARCO and elsewhere, are thus unlikely to dissipate any time soon.

ARCO Madrid takes places from February 27 — March 3 at the International  Contemporary Art Fair.

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Dorian Batycka

Dorian Batycka is an independent curator, art critic, and DJ currently based Berlin. Previously, he was curator of contemporary art at Bait Muzna for Art Film (Muscat, Oman), assistant curator for the...