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Frank Talks

Kamiar Maleki – Director of the VOLTA art fair (Basel/New York)

Kamiar Maleki by Kenneth Nars
Kamiar Maleki by Kenneth Nars

Kamiar Maleki is the Director of the VOLTA art fair (Basel/New York). Beyond his role as director, Maleki is a collector, curator, patron, and philanthropist with over 15 years of experience in collecting, curating, and managing art projects and fairs. He was Fair Director of Contemporary Istanbul from 2016–to 2018. Fluent in English, German and French, Spanish, and conversational in Farsi. He is also Co-Founder of the Agha Khan Museum UK Patrons Chapter, and Founder of ICA Young Patrons for the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London.

What was the most important thing you learned at your first job in the Arts? 

I have been lucky to have assumed a few roles in the arts as curator and collector — and now more prominently as fair director. For the latter, I believe that having a vision you stand by and are determined to protect is vital in achieving any of your goals. Determination, dedication and discipline  — with a touch of organization — will allow you to face any counterpunches in what is a very competitive industry. 

It is curiosity, however, as you’ll see below, that fuels a constant drive to discover and makes what we do so exciting. Thinking outside the box and coming up with new engaging ways that the public can discover art is also vital.

Where are you from and what is the arts community like there? How has your upbringing shaped what you do in the arts today?

Originally, I am from Iran, however, I grew up between Europe and the United States. There is a very vibrant scene in Iran; I’ve always said that creativity is at its highest in places of conflict. The community is tight-knit and led by several pioneering galleries, many of which have collaborated with VOLTA in the past, including Dastan Basement, Ab Anbar (Contemporary Istanbul), Mohsen Gallery, Bavan Gallery, and Saradipour Art Gallery. 

My parents have been collecting art for over 40 years, which has certainly informed my path in the art world today. I was exposed from an early age to the experience of studio visits with artists and relationships with gallerists and institutional professionals. For me, witnessing and learning from those early conversations has been a critical part of my education in this industry. I am also proud to speak five languages — it is amazing the ease with which one fosters new relationships when spoken in someone’s mother tongue. 

How do your own collecting habits inform your role as Director of VOLTA Art Fair?   

Foremost, I think it allows me to lead with curiosity. Our cornerstones at VOLTA are Discover. Connect. Collect.  These principles don’t simply serve as guiding principles for the fair, but also echo my approach to collecting. As such, I seek to foster an environment with VOLTA that inspires collectors to approach the fair with a sense of curiosity and discovery; to seek to dialogue, connect, and learn from the artists and their gallerists present at the fair; and finally to feel confident in acquiring the works for their own collections.  VOLTA seeks to address both the seasoned collector, one who has the vocabulary and confidence to collect, and also the aspiring art-lover.  As a gallery that promotes new talent, you’re sure to find merit in the works our exhibitors present. 

As the art fair schedule has shifted significantly, May is now an art fair destination for New York City. How do you see the upcoming VOLTA New York fitting into the art fair nexus?

We consider ourselves a much-needed middle-market counterpoint. Whereas some of the fairs taking place during the May art month are operating at the emerging level or the blue-chip/established level, we seek to fill the gap and present galleries that have either a few years of successful dealing experience under their belt or are new but nevertheless represent artists who have a bit more of an established market. We are that forum where you can come and make an early discovery before these artists matriculate to the higher levels of the market.

What is your long-term vision for VOLTA New York?

We hope that VOLTA will become a consistent platform both for more established middle-market galleries, and also the blue-chip galleries that may be seeking a platform to present their younger artists or more experimental presentations.  Our hope is to solidify VOLTA as this international hub for cutting-edge presentations that appeal to both seasoned collectors and newcomers alike. 

What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?

Irrespective of your position, role, or status in this industry, one must always work hard, be polite and courteous, remain open-minded, and ultimately be generous with your time. It is critical to be an open listener, to allow people the time to ask for your insights and pose questions, but also to be inquisitive yourself and stay curious. This is a profession in which we are constantly learning, questioning, and evolving. 

What are you most excited about this year at your company or in the art world as a whole?

This is the first year since the onset of the pandemic that our Basel and New York fairs will be operational in full force.  This year marks an incredible opportunity for the fair to reintroduce itself in both markets.  In New York, we are delighted to welcome back many of our returning exhibitors from years past, creating an intriguing and refreshed dialogue considering newcomers to the New York fair. With a new space in Chelsea timed to Frieze New York, we are energized by a refreshed environment for our fair.  In Basel, we’re quite pleased to relay that the fair has representation from 26 countries — and yet 6 of the galleries are local to Switzerland.  It is exciting to see this strength of the Swiss market and we know our community will be energized by this too. 

How do you think the art world can become more transparent?

We have seen that during the pandemic with the help of the online viewing rooms Galleries and art fairs have become more transparent with pricing and whether pieces have sold or not. Being an early fan of apps like Magnus we see that this can and will make art more accessible. 

I am a huge proponent of the NFT and crypto market.  This market is actually doing well to promote transparency, and decentralization, and let the artists become drivers of their own markets. Though “transparency” can take on many forms in the art world, I am a proponent of allowing artists the opportunity to have a hand in their market. I think the web3 explosion has yielded quite a bit of opportunity for artists seeking more agency both in the development of their work, and also the pricing and promotion of it. 

What is the best exhibition you have seen recently? 

Francis Bacon at the Royal Academy

If you could own work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection? 

William Turner, Rothko, Fontana, Soulages, Armitage

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