Walter Gehlen stands in a blue suit with his arms folded, looking to the side in front of an unplastered wall.

Walter Gehlen, director of Art Düsseldorf, talks about art fairs, buying art and the Rhineland’s riverside meadows

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“The democratisation of art is a process that has been explored since the Dadaists.”

When Art Düsseldorf was launched back in 2017, it faced scepticism from the arts community. But lo and behold, the event has established itself as a firm fixture for collectors, curators, gallery owners and anyone with an interest in art. And not just from across the region. The sixth edition took place from 12 to 14 April and featured a selection of high-quality, carefully curated exhibitors. A total of 105 galleries, including 34 new participants, were showcasing their programmes. We spoke to Walter Gehlen, the art director of Art Düsseldorf, about what visitors could expect this year and how important it is to the organisers to also welcome visitors from outside the arts scene to the Areal Böhler venue.

Mr Gehlen, you’re the founder of Art Düsseldorf. What gave you the idea of launching an art fair here in the regional capital?
The Rhineland has two major arts hubs, and that has been the case for decades. I wanted to put the spotlight of the international arts scene on Düsseldorf and all its institutions and galleries. The obvious solution was to establish a new art fair, which I did with the launch of Art Düsseldorf in 2017. And despite all the doubts that were expressed at the time, I was proved right. Germany now has a range of art fairs that appears to reflect the requirements of everyone in the arts scene, and also those of the public, very well.

How did you get into art?
I applied to the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts after leaving school as I was interested in becoming an artist. When that didn’t work out, I went to Cologne to study art history. But I felt that the course lacked an economic aspect, so I completed an economics degree at the same time. Art history was something I studied more for my own enjoyment. In 2003, I realised my vision of establishing another art fair in Cologne alongside Art Cologne, and so the Artfair was born. This essentially marked the start of my career in art.

A painting by Gori Mora.
Cozy by Gori Mora. (Galería Pelaires)

You said that your art history course lacked an economic aspect. That sounds rather pragmatic. What role do you think art should play in society?
In times like these, art is a hugely important cultural element that encompasses cities, countries, even continents, if not the whole world. It allows us to enter into a dialogue without having to struggle for the right words, and I cannot imagine the world without it.

What is special about Art Düsseldorf and what distinguishes it from other established art fairs?
Every art fair is influenced by its location. As is the case in Düsseldorf, which has its very own profile with an interesting landscape of galleries, leading collections and a very particular audience. That’s what gives it its atmosphere. Then you have Art Düsseldorf’s programme and its amazing venue, Areal Böhler, which wins praise from exhibitors and the public time and again. Areal Böhler is an exceptional exhibition space; the halls of the old steel works have a very positive influence on the experience of both visitors and galleries. Working with local partners, we are also able to offer an outstanding supporting programme that includes talks and guided tours of the art fair. This positive vibe is also felt in the institutions and collections. Art Düsseldorf repeatedly wins praise for its superb exhibition programme and remarkable pieces, which arouse great public interest.

A photo collage on a black background by Anys Reimann
Penelope by Anys Reimann. (Galerie Van Horn)

Which galleries are taking part in 2024, and which exhibitors are you particularly proud of? And what were your criteria for selecting galleries?
Quality is the key criterion for us; but we also want to ensure that the overall portfolio of artists and works at the art fair is well balanced. As these aspects play an important role in the selection process, a panel of experts supports us with this task. This year, I’m particularly looking forward to the exhibits at Konrad Fischer, Galerie Thomas Schulte, and Buchmann Galerie in Berlin, as well as at Kewenig in Berlin and Mallorca.

The arts scene can be very elitist, but Art Düsseldorf takes a different approach. You are open to anyone with an interest in art, and you’re keen to engage an audience outside of the usual art circles. Why is that so important to you?
I believe that art fairs should be the primary institutions to take on the task of attracting new collectors. A fair is a great way to reach a broad audience interested in art. It’s far more difficult for a gallery to find out which target group is interested in its specific programme, and then to contact them and invite them to events. In contrast, an art fair is a major event that can address and reach more people across the board, not least via social media. Year after year, our job is to explore how we can find people who are interested in art and establish contact between these new collectors and the galleries. Buying art is a wonderful thing, and not just for the sake of personal development. Ultimately, art is also of interest as an investment. However, I would recommend speaking to a tax advisor beforehand, as there are many options in this area. Overall, buying art is a fun and exciting activity.

Does the concept behind Art Düsseldorf promote a form of democratisation of art that allows people with an interest in art to purchase it even on a small budget?
The democratisation of art is a process that has been explored since the Dadaists. And it’s true that anyone with an interest in art can indulge their passion by visiting museums. But they also have the option to buy art, such as editions, on a small budget. Acquiring art is very easy these days, and Art Düsseldorf is the ideal place to enjoy doing just that.

With this in mind, what do you think of the new Kunstpalast? Has it become a trend to make art accessible to a wide audience?
It’s great when art reaches a lot of people; this is exactly the path we should be taking. And if you can do so with a varied programme, then that’s a great achievement. There’s good reason why Kunstpalast has won praise from the media and the public.


Art:walk48

The Art:walk48 ticket offers two days’ (48 hours) access to six renowned art museums in Düsseldorf: K20, K21, Kunsthalle, Kunstpalast, NRW Forum and KIT.
(Photo: U. Otte)


What else do you appreciate about Düsseldorf, besides the Kunstpalast?
I was born in Düsseldorf but live in Cologne, so I’m someone who knows how to enjoy the benefits of both cities to the full. You can always rely on Düsseldorf to offer an outstanding arts programme, which is why I’m a member of the various ‘friends’ organisations of the galleries. I would recommend membership to anyone, as it includes great guided tours during the exhibition previews, which teaches you a lot, and you get to meet like-minded people. Düsseldorf also has some excellent places for eating out. What’s more, I grew up with the Rhine’s riverside meadows, and I still feel emotionally attached to them to the point where I keep coming back to Düsseldorf for long walks, for example from Kaiserswerth to Stockum.

Visit art-dus.de for more information.

Interview: Katja Vaders
Photos: Art Düsseldorf 2023

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