Art Fair

The Restoration and Revival of Art Cologne

Daniel Hug Catrin Moritz Laif
Daniel Hug could use one after his efforts at Art Cologne.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Art Cologne is the oldest art exhibition of its kind in the world but was losing luster until Daniel Hug became director. The new-and-improved art fair opens its doors this week.

  • Facts


    • The origins of today’s Art Cologne as a trade fair and exhibition for classic modern art, post-war art and contemporary art date to 1967.
    • Artist and former art dealer Daniel Hug became director in 2008.
    • The show in Cologne runs through Sunday.
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Daniel Hug is conducing a daring experiment. For the first time, the director of the annual Art Cologne is spreading the fair over three floors of the Cologne exhibition hall, according to era. It’s nothing short of a minor revolution for the oldest art exhibition of its kind in the world.

When the Swiss-American started his job in 2008, Art Cologne was a mess and its demise almost a given. Berlin had replaced Cologne as Germany’s first city of art.

But Mr. Hug has brought back the good times. He has restored Art Cologne as Germany’s most important art exhibition. The event, organized for commercial dealers to exhibit and sell art, started this year with a preview Wednesday and runs Thursday through Sunday April 19.

The director has made sweeping changes. He started by chopping the number of dealer exhibits and ensuring a more balanced mix between local and international art. Then he signed up some high-profile art dealers, like David Zwirner from New York, son of the exhibition’s co-founder, Rudolf Zwirner.

This week, he will visit every single stand at Art Cologne, collecting feedback from the dealers. “As director of the exhibition I have to take the same care of all exhibitors, especially of course when somebody is unhappy,” he said.

Mr. Hug also turned his attention to the catalogue, giving it a do-over that put the exhibition program front and center, rather than the advertisers, and ramping up the overall quality of the book.

“Many people thought I was mad to leave L.A. for Cologne. But it is the oldest exhibition in the world and it was clear to me that it would make a comeback. ”

Daniel Hug, Director, Art Cologne

Next came the hall layout: In the old exhibition halls, visitors had plenty of walking to do. There were three entrances, and visitors dispersed quickly. Now there is a new hall and one single entrance – a magnificent one in Mr. Hug’s opinion – to funnel the fair-goers.

The VIP program, which used to be packed and confusing, has also had an overhaul. “If there is too much on offer, people cannot decide and just stay at home,” Mr. Hug said. “But we want to bring them together, give them the opportunity for networking, to do business.”

The energetic 46-year-old is on the road for several days three to four times a month to places like Berlin, New York and Los Angeles, cities that are home to the world’s most important galleries. He knows 99 percent of exhibitors at Art Cologne personally. The rest he will meet this week.

“He has the advantage of being fundamentally rooted in the art world,” said Birgit Maria Sturm, managing director of the federal association of German galleries and art dealers. “The serenity with which he reacts to the pressure of organizing an exhibition is remarkable.”

Mr. Hug was born in Zürich in 1968 and spent most of his life in the United States. His grandfather László Moholy-Nagy was a well-known Hungarian Bauhaus artist. Mr. Hug studied painting, photography and art history in Chicago, then worked as an artist, but soon specialized as an art dealer. As a gallery owner, he had a stand at Art Cologne in 2000. He didn’t find it particularly cool.

“Many people thought I was mad to leave L.A. for Cologne,” he said. “But it is the oldest exhibition in the world and it was clear to me that it would make a comeback. It was obvious what was wrong. ”

The criticism that more art galleries would have liked to participate at Art Cologne than were allowed to doesn’t bother Mr. Hug. Four hundred applied this year, and 209 were accepted. “The mark of a good exhibition is that exhibitors and visitors alike are aware it is a selection of the best,” he said.


Claudia Panster is currently a reporter for Handelsblatt.  She studied sociology, politics and music in Düsseldorf. To contact:

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