An Interview with TEFAF Head of Fairs Will Korner

A shot of a busy art fair
TEFAF Maastricht 2023. Courtesy TEFAF

This week marks the opening of TEFAF Maastricht, the flagship high-end spring art fair that caters to collectors of both art and historical objects of cultural significance. Walking around a TEFAF fair is always a delight because you’re assaulted with oysters and have the chance to stumble upon something previously owned by King Tut. This year, TEFAF Maastricht has launched two new initiatives: TEFAF Focus, for narrow presentations of a single artist or body of work, and the first TEFAF Summit, which will focus on critical issues in cultural heritage and be produced in association with the Netherlands Commission to UNESCO, Cultural Emergency Response and several other agencies.

A man in a suit and glasses looks at the viewer in a black and white photo
Will Korner. Courtesy TEFAF

We caught up with Will Korner, TEFAF’s head of fairs, to hear more about everything happening this week in Maastricht.

It’s TEFAF week in Maastricht. For those who haven’t been, what’s that like? Are there any parts of the week that you enjoy above others?

Maastricht is one of the most beautiful cities in the Netherlands and certainly a place I look forward to spending two to three weeks each year. When you open the doors of TEFAF, you are greeted with a spectacular floral installation (now fully embraced for the obligatory Instagram post at TEFAF) and then ushered into the enormous space of the MECC in Maastricht. And that’s when it really starts: the sheer breadth of the fair in terms of disciplines, medium, and history. The exhibitors go to such lengths to design and build stands from an 18th-century chateau, a 19th-century ship, or a cutting-edge 21st-century art and design collector. I used to work at fifteen different fairs a year. Still, there was nothing like TEFAF. My highlight is, whenever I get the opportunity, to wander and discover artworks from the most famous artists—Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Basquiat, Kandinsky, Dali, Rodin, Monet and so on—set alongside works from incredible furniture-makers, to artisans and workshops in silver, glass, jewelry and design, to name just a few. The foremost experts in their fields guide that journey of discovery through the 20,000 objects on display.

The New York Times has called TEFAF Maastricht “the art fair curators love.” Why do you think you have that reputation?

The fair allows curators to see so many works at once to source (in both the literal acquisition and in discovering and sharing knowledge of others) and gain insight into the current art market. Not only that, but TEFAF is a gathering of friends in the art world. It is an excellent place for curators to make personal connections with the various dealers and galleries that lead to longstanding partnerships. We have furthered that relationship and exchange through the new TEFAF Curator Course, which hosts ten curators from institutions worldwide and reflects our core values as an arts foundation.

In addition, but no less importantly, TEFAF’s valued reputation among curators speaks to the trust in our vetting. As one of the main pillars of TEFAF’s success and legacy, the vetting process creates the optimal environment for curators to acquire the highest quality works from treasured antiquities through groundbreaking contemporary art. As evidence of that, the fair draws attendance from and significant sales to leading international museums. The TEFAF fair provides curators with a unique opportunity to view a vast collection of artwork in one place, allowing them to source new works and gain knowledge about the current art market. It is also great for creating personal connections with dealers and galleries, leading to long-lasting partnerships. The TEFAF Curator Course is a new initiative that aims to foster this relationship and exchange by hosting ten curators from institutions worldwide who align with the foundation’s core values.

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Furthermore, TEFAF’s reputation among curators reflects the trust in our vetting process. As one of the main pillars of TEFAF’s success and legacy, our rigorous vetting process ensures that only the highest quality works, from treasured antiquities to groundbreaking contemporary art, are displayed at the fair. This trust is evident in the attendance and significant sales from leading international museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Louvre Musée, The National Gallery, Rijksmuseum, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and Museum of Fine Arts Houston to name just a few.

Can you take us behind the scenes of your vetting process? What makes a TEFAF booth?

TEFAF is a significant operation that involves more than just displaying artwork. It brings independent experts from around the world to meticulously review every artwork on display. What sets TEFAF apart is its dedication to upholding a standard of excellence. The vetting process is thorough and takes two full days to complete. All exhibitors leave the building during this time to let the 31 different vetting committees carry out their attentive work. Any objects that do not pass this process are removed from display and sale. Yes, it is a significant operation, bringing more than a museum and independent experts from around the world to review every artwork on display. TEFAF sets itself apart in the thoroughness of its vetting and dedication to upholding a standard of excellence. Two full days are reserved at the fair to complete this process, with all exhibitors leaving the building to let the thirty-one different vetting committees carry out their attentive work. Any objects that do not pass this process are removed from display and sale.

What are the unique challenges of showing cultural artifacts alongside contemporary artwork? 

It’s not just a challenge but a benefit, providing numerous opportunities. One such opportunity is the effort exhibitors put into curating and constructing their booths at TEFAF Maastricht. Contemporary art galleries and collectors can use this to showcase their art. For instance, Sean Kelly and Charles Ede are collaborating on a presentation in the new FOCUS section of TEFAF. This presentation features a group of rare ancient Greek vases from the 6th to 4th Centuries BC, along with new paintings by Scottish contemporary artist Callum Innes. This collaboration highlights the ability of different types of art to interact and inform each other. It also reflects the spirit of the TEFAF Maastricht fair, which celebrates all art and brings 7,000 years of art history under one roof.

What was the impetus behind the creation of TEFAF Focus? Are there any booths in this inaugural version of the section not to miss?

We developed TEFAF Focus to bring pioneering artists of different mediums and periods under one banner to provide thought-provoking connections. Each of the ten spaces was also conceived to highlight the insight of TEFAF exhibitors on individual artists or concepts. For example, you have the direct dialogue between ancient and contemporary in Sean Kelly and Charles Ede’s shared booth, while Bowman Sculpture’s unparalleled expertise on Auguste Rodin is on display, and Galerie Mitterrand showing Francois François-Xavier Lalanne & Claude Lalanne. It was also a brilliant opportunity to highlight an Old Master – not possible at any other fair offering a similar single-artist section – with every work on Altomani & Sons Focus stand from the Italian Baroque 17th-century artist Sass Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato.

This year also marks the first edition of the TEFAF Summit. What made TEFAF want to bring cultural heritage into the fair?

Cultural heritage has always been at the heart of TEFAF as a foundation—we are, after all, The European Fine Art Foundation (not the common misnomer “Fair”). The inaugural TEFAF Summit will delve into the importance of our shared heritage and arts and bring together distinguished experts and influential public and private stakeholders. It will explore cultural heritage and its challenges in the cultural world between heritage aid for conflicts, climate change, tourism, and other economic factors. We wanted to develop a platform for meaningful discourse and collaboration, which we believe takes an essential step toward raising awareness and promoting actionable solutions for safeguarding our world’s invaluable cultural treasures.

Many people thought that COVID might have been the death knell for art fairs, but it seems to have had the opposite effect. What do you make of the continued proliferation of fairs around the world?

The past few years have been transformative, but it’s great to see art fairs thriving. During the pandemic, we realized how much we miss experiencing art up close at fairs. Digital tools may amplify dealers’ activities and knowledge, but they cannot replicate the experience of being at a fair. Art fairs provide visitors with a comprehensive view of trending genres and mediums, thriving galleries and artists, and overall what’s happening in the art world. Nothing compares to this experience when it comes to collecting, curation, and knowledge exchange. This brings us back to the first question about the week in Maastricht: being here together at the fair in this beautiful, medieval city is essential to our community.


TEFAF Head of Fairs Will Korner On the Fair’s Evolution and What’s Not Changing

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