In June 2018, Art Basel presented a panel discussion that brought together directors of independent art spaces from around the world to discuss the topic of ‘global or local’.

Leaders of art spaces and an artist from London, Istanbul, São Paulo and Harare discussed their missions: local versus globalised focus of art spaces. Art Radar presents a report on the topics raised by the discussion.

Art Basel Conversations 2018. Art World Talk: “Global or Local – For Whom?”. Image courtesy Art Basel.

Institutions often look to serve the needs of their local audience while also participating in an international dialogue. “Global or Local: For Whom?”, a panel discussion held at Art Basel in June 2018, asked: is it more important for art spaces to put all of their resources behind local artists and local art community needs, or are cross-cultural dialogues and international discourse more valuable to artists and their growth? Is it possible to do both well?

On the other side, does an art space need to be globalised to make a significant impact or to be a competitive fundraiser? Who gains and who suffers?

The panel consisted of Fernanda Brenner, Artistic Director of Pivô, an independent art space in São Paulo, Brazil; Mari Spirito, Founding Director, Protocinema, an itinerant programme of exhibitions based between Istanbul and New York; and Dana Whabira, artist and founder of Njelele Art Station in Harare, Zimbabwe. It was moderated by Alessio Antoniolli, Director of Gasworks, a studio residency and exhibition space in London that supports UK and international emerging artists by commissioning their first body of work, or by supporting research.

Antoniolli is also the director of the Triangle Network, an artist and visual arts organisational network that was founded in the 1980s. The Triangle Network offers professional development for artists often through residencies and workshops, as well as a support system for its partner organisations, two of which were also sitting on the panel – Njelele Art Station in Zimbabwe and Pivô in Brazil. The members of the Triangle Network are grassroots organisations or non-institutional spaces, and so the network acts to faciliate a way of working together that makes a difference both intellectually and practically.

After introducing himself and his work with Gasworks and Triangle, Antoniolli opened the panel by elaborating on the work of his colleagues. As he noted, with such a topic – the relativity of the global and the local – it is especially important to have an understanding of and a grounding in from where they are speaking.

Art Basel 2018. Image courtesy Art Basel © Art Basel and Creative Time.

Mari Spirito is the founding director of Protocinema (and also organises the programme of talks at Art Basel), an itinerant arts organisation that realises site-aware exhibitions in different spaces and places. Established in 2011, Protocinema produces context-specific projects of the highest quality that are accessible to everyone. Based in both New York and Istanbul, through its programme, it promotes empathy to difference across regions. What is really special about the organisation, as Spirito says, is that it is “free from bricks and mortar”. That is, a peripatetic model of producing exhibitions, it is free from the constraints and considerations of a physical space – such as the utilities, heating, plumbing, etc. What is important in the context of this discussion, as Anotoniolli notes, is how Protocinema varies in its movements in space and time, in order to respond both to global concerns but also conditions on the ground.

Dana Whabira is the founder of Njelele Art Station in Harare, Zimbabwe, and is also an artist. A recurrent theme to a discussion about such grassroots organisations is that a lot are set up by artists themselves. Njelele Art Station is an urban laboratory that focuses on contemporary experiments and public art practices that intervene in the city itself. Whabira initially trained in architecture then studied art and design at Central St Martins in London. Among her many exhibitions and projects, she represented Zimbabwe at 57th Venice Biennale and also currently has a work in the Biennale of Contemporary African Art, DAK’ART 2018 in Senegal.

Fernanda Brenner is a curator and writer based in São Paulo. In 2012, she opened Pivô, an independent not for profit dedicated to contemporary art, which puts on exhibitions and lectures and hosts artist residencies. Housed in São Paulo’s iconic Oscar Niemeyer building Edifício Copan, it draws on the model of European Kunsthalle and artist-run spaces in New York City. Brenner founded one of the city’s most innovative art platforms in response to its preponderance of commercial galleries and its lack of alternative spaces, and is continually examining the role of Pivô in relation to that gap.

Art Basel 2018. Image courtesy Art Basel © Art Basel.

Asking, “Global or Local?” is such a huge question that Antoniolli is cautious about how to approach it, not least of all from the perspective of trying to define its terms: what happens when a work of art travels, does it become international, or does it stay local? Is it the references that make a work international? How are we as people either international or local? The best approach, perhaps, is to answer with more questions, rather than attempting to provide any simplistic and unsatisfactory answer.

In terms of the context of the discussion, Art Basel is one of the most global art fairs, not only in its different editions in various locations, but in that it combines galleries and artists from around the world. To the question, “global or local?” the answer is probably both, and Art Basel is one of the places that encapsulates this double position, at once ambivalent and productive. Of course, the global and the local look different depending on from where you are looking, at which point the panelists had the opportunity to discuss their particular positions and practices in more detail.

Galeria Juana de Aizpuru at Art Basel 2018. Image courtesy Art Basel © Art Basel.

As Antoniolli asks Brenner,

What is useful about the international and how do you feel it relates to what you are doing on a local level?

Pivô has a very peculiar approach to being both local and international. It is an institution that is site-specific, and its institutional thinking is grounded in its location – the iconic Oscar Niemeyer building Edifício Copan, where Brenner found a 35,000-square-metre space that had been abandoned for almost 20 years. For her, this is an example of how São Paulo as a city treats its heritage and architectural history. The entire institution has been shaped around how to reclaim the space as something important to the city and give back to it a functional art space. As Brenner notes, they are still figuring it out – how to make a sustainable model out of a mess of a space and in a country that does not support these kinds of initiatives, as non-profit in Brazil means no budget, no funding and no cultural policy that supports public culture.

São Paulo may be a wealthy city, with a functional, big art market, but few institutions focus on contemporary art – there is nothing really in between the market and the more established museums. For a city of 12 million people, there are no Kunsthalle-type exhibition spaces, no residency programmes, and very few artist-run spaces. In taking over the venue, Pivô set out to create a situation where there can be encounters and exchange between the many agents of the art scene, to create a place to meet and to gather in a huge and often hard to navigate city. In a response to the need for consistent and ongoing international dialogue, Pivô brings artists together through its residencies and exhibition programmes, and as Brenner puts it, “the nicest way to work is by putting artists together with sense of hospitality.”

In this sense Pivô is producing a cultural value as opposed to commercial value, by looking at its community and how art is filtered through that framework. By working with artists over a long time, the spaces seeks ways to create an environment where they can build on their practice in ways that commercial galleries and museums cannot. Brenner’s ‘utopia’ is to have the time, a decent budget, an interesting space and ongoing exchange, and whilst she always tries to give some of these things to the artists they work with, it is often difficult to negotiate these aspects and the competing demands of stakeholders, in a country with failed cultural infrastructure like Brazil.

Jan Mott Gallery at Art Basel 2018. Image courtesy Art Basel © Art Basel.

Dana Whabira is both a practicing artist and the founder of Njelele Art Station in Harare, Zimbabwe. At the time of the panel discussion, she was undertaking a residency at Maisons Daura, an international laboratory for creation based in the village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, France. Her envisaged project moved between her family home in Harare, designed by a Swiss architect who was himself inspired by Le Courbousier, and the group of abstract painters in Paris in the 1930s who went by the name ‘Cercle et Carré’ (Circle and Square), which consisted of, among others, artists including Hans Arps, Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky.

Whabira’s family home, the so-called Round House, derives its form from a circle and a square – and in her terms, this project is indicative of the work she does at Njelele Art Station. By bringing urbanism in Zimbabwe into relation with a space in France, Whabira’s investigations re-root the global through the urban imaginary of Harare. Njelele then forms a nodal point that is just one of the ways global is reframed through local, and one of a constellation of cultural and spatial institutions in Zimbabwe that are informed by radical traditions in other disciplines such as architecture or music. For Whabira, the global and the local are inextricable, and are both part of a web that is always shifting and changing.

Click here to watch “Global or Local” at Art Basel 2018 on YouTube

Antoniolli then asks Mari Spirito,

You work from a slightly different perspective, Protocinema is not held back by bricks and mortar – how does your itinerant way of working inform or support your understanding of the international, the local and the global?

Protocinema is itinerant, creating site responsive exhibitions in different locations. Spirito had already been working in galleries for 20 years – working with artists over a long period and coming to know a space well. Inspired by Artangel in London, Spirito wanted to work with a different model as she herself became itinerant, based between Istanbul and New York. There are certain obligations to renting and maintaining a space that often a constant programme comes at the cost of in depth research and planning. When starting out, she approached artists in Istanbul, and asked them: “if there was a new institution, what would you want?” Whilst the answers might seem obvious – support for their work – financial, intellectual, emotional, to see artists from different places exhibiting, and opportunities to travel, Protocinema stems from Spirito’s understanding that perhaps it is not enough to just do one or the other, and that it made most sense to do both – and to be both global and local.

This brings up the issue of infrastructure in that the work that Protocinema is doing is adding to pre-existing arts infrastructure, but also their programming activates unused spaces and brings its own community with it, further rooting the projects within their various locations. Not only does Protocinema work to ground local communities within their projects, but to work with other organisations, their existing networks and support systems. In Spirito’s view, her role is to be the best possible guest – often working with a local arts space as a type of “translator”, allowing her to learn more about a culture by working there than would have been possible by simply visiting.

Art Basel 2018. Image courtesy Art Basel © Art Basel.

Antoniolli asks:

Small non-profits don’t have the same infrastructure or access to resources as big organisations (such as Art Basel). Do you feel that you are having to make a choice – to be local or global, or is the question answered for you with the specifics of the projects you are trying to realise?

At Gasworks, which is based in London, working internationally is a way not to navel gaze, to understand that London is not the start and the end, and also to address the local audience, many of whom are not from London. The international focus of the programme is something that happens (almost organically) when you look at the fabric that makes up the city.

Brenner responds:

In São Paulo, everyone in art world thinks we have to work internationally – and how far that mindset goes. It’s an almost religious belief that places need an art scene.  Whilst São Paulo might need an art scene, does everywhere? In terms of London, it is interesting that Antoniolli frames London and Gasworks in terms of its ambivalence to global and local – as it is made up of people from all over the world.

São Paulo is a big city but it is the opposite of London, it’s not international. For example, its market is self-sustaining as a relationship between artists, commercial galleries and collectors who are all Brazilian. There is a need for exchange and dialogue that independent art spaces like Pivô are trying to provide. We need to both bring people in and send them out, how we can be a good host and provide a level of hospitality but not expect productive results or conclusions – how we can work together in a more horizontal way.

In this sense, it is important to embrace contradictions – to inhabit questions and make things more complex, rather than harmonise everything that is art. The independent art spaces represented by the panel are thinking about how to deal with both the confluence and conflicts of working internationally.

Art Basel 2018. Image courtesy Art Basel © Art Basel.

In Harare, as Whabira notes, it is essential to think about the need, or not, for the international. Njele uses the various projects that she is involved in, in both Europe and Africa, to form networks that can shift the notion of the global or local:

My view is that artists inhabit different cultures and move between worlds, then would this reflect on the space, and yes to some extent it does.

Of course, all the panelists speak from a privileged position, they can move, travel, visit and facilitate these global exchanges, but are using this position to ensure their impact on local audiences. The Triangle Network was set up from and continues to be based on personal relationships – articulating what these can give to its members, artists and curators. Small, independent art spaces such as those represented by the panel, which might have ambitions to go deeper at a local level, need the expertise, support and friendship that the network provides.

Lacking extensive infrastructure and systems, it is through passion and commitment to give something back to the wider community that these types of projects develop. Being small-scale, they can often take the risks that bigger institutions cannot, and hold an essential space within the arts ecosystem that brings together artists, curators and audiences within a framework of dialogue and exchange, and with communality and friendship at their core. To return to the metaphor of hospitality used extensively throughout the discussions, these spaces are both guests and hosts.

Jessica Clifford


“Global or Local – For Whom?” took place at Art Basel in Basel on 16 June 2018.

Related topics: Videoslectures and talksbusiness of artsocialfairsinterviews

Related posts:

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *