Interview with Kristin Edwards
Introduction by Charlie Pryor
With the process of image sharing made easy due to the rise of social media, it is easy to be overtaken by a feeling of wanderlust. Seeing travel photos from across the globe has increased public desire for cultural and artistic exploration, but many are intimidated by the scope of it all and are deterred. Fortunately, Kristin Edwards presents a fun and unique way for new and veteran spectators to satiate their desires. A private art advisor, Edwards runs an art-focused travel business called kpeArts, which leads small groups on international tours to major artistic locations. Her work not only offers accessibility to the world of fine arts, but also establishes a friendly foundation for cultural exchange.
In the following interview, we asked Kristin about her tour business and how she feels recent events have affected art communities abroad.
1. You just came back from an art tour in Berlin; how would you describe the art community there today?
Despite the size of Berlin—3.5 million people—the art community there is quite small, but flourishing. There is a mix of reputable galleries and new ones that continue to open. The gallery business is still booming with contemporary galleries consolidated in the Mitte neighborhood, but they are also scattered throughout the city near Potsdamer Platz, Kreuzberg and in some old film studios and workshops in the northern parts of the city. Many emerging and established artists continue to flock to Berlin. There is also the highly successful group, abc—founded in 2005—which is an association of Berlin gallerists who work to promote Berlin as an art market. They host the abc Berlin contemporary art fair in September and Berlin Gallery Weekend in May.
2. Do you think the refugee crisis has affected the art scene in Germany, considering it was one of the first European countries to open its doors to refugees?
Yes, the refugee situation has definitely influenced the art scene. In fact, Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei had a large installation of 14,000 orange refugee life vests, which covered the pillars of the city’s Konzerthaus in February. The refugee crisis has certainly been a recent subject matter for other artists and is a focus of the German Pavilion at the 15th International Architecture Biennale in Venice with the exhibition “Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country,” which relates to creating unique housing to accommodate and integrate the influx of refugees.
3. What about tourism?
I think the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels have affected tourism more than the refugee crisis. While Berlin still maintains its reputation as the safest capital city in Europe, fears of terrorism are a reality for many Americans. However, based on attendance at museums and popular tourist sites, a drop in tourism isn’t obvious. Berlin has historically kept tight security in public spaces, especially at museums and transportation hubs—and this continues to be true—we all felt very safe in every part of the city.
4. What aspect of taking people to Art Basel Miami inspired you to start this project?
Several years ago, I began taking a small group of friends who are collectors to Art Basel in Miami. I realized how much they appreciated having the structure of organized visits to galleries, museums and private collections in addition to attending Art Basel and the satellite art fairs—and access to see things they otherwise wouldn’t. They also loved having all of the meals planned at the hot restaurants. There was so much enthusiasm about having an art-focused trip that included fun dining experiences as well. From there, it evolved organically as a way to combine my three loves of art, travel and food.
5. How has your background at Cheim & Read Gallery helped your business?
It’s helped in many ways, but mostly by having connections to other galleries, artists and private collections, which give us access to exclusive visits that the average traveler would not be able to have on their own.
6. How are the tours you lead different from regular visits to museums and galleries abroad?
We always arrange for an English speaking guide to give a personalized tour at museums. Typically, museum tours are self-guided with a headset recording, but our guides offer unique insights and are available to answer individual questions. At galleries and studios, we usually have the gallery director and artists speak to the group, which gives an authentic and personal understanding about the art at hand.
7. What are the challenges to leading an art-focused tour?
It’s important to keep people engaged, so that they don’t break off into individual conversations and miss something amazing that is being shared by an artist or gallerist. It is also challenging to appease everyone. We mostly focus on contemporary art, but mix in historical works and the decorative arts. Also, viewing and understanding conceptual art can be tricky for some of my clients. There is also a fine line between having a packed itinerary and not wearing people out.
8. What have been some of your favorite places to lead these tours?
I LOVE Buenos Aires and am dying to take another group back there. Berlin has become my favorite city in Europe—especially for art. It also has a booming culinary scene.
9. Could you outline some major differences between the contemporary art scene in Europe versus that of North and South America?
The art scene in Europe is more intimate and smaller than in the states. In general though, I think contemporary art is more integrated into the daily life of your average European and South American citizen. Art and museum-going has always played an enormous part in their vie quotidien, whereas your average American is more likely to engage in spectator sports or other past-times. I feel art, especially contemporary art—beyond landscape, portraits and abstraction—is often intimidating to the average American and, therefore, they often avoid what they don’t know or understand. In Europe, and especially in South America, galleries are much more welcoming to groups. They really appreciate that you have travelled to see them and they are grateful for the international exposure. In fact, in Buenos Aires, we had several artists and galleries that offered full meals to our group as their way of being hospitable and thankful to have our visit. Also, many art museums in Europe and South America have free entry, which allows great access for the public.
10. Would you describe the travels you lead as a better way to engage in the culture of a country? Perhaps an alternative to mainstream tourism?
Absolutely! Art is often a window into a culture. Much of the art in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia is politically driven, so you are able to get a true sense of the underlying feelings of the country and their people. Also, the interaction that we provide with locals allows a much more personal and genuine view into life in each city/country. They are able to hear historical and individual anecdotes, which a regular tourist wouldn’t necessarily get to experience. Another aspect is the local cuisine. We try to plan really special culinary experiences that are unique to the culture, whether it is a traditional Argentinian steak dinner or a 7 course farm-to-table tasting menu. The restaurant choices are almost as particularly curated as the art. We also stay at new, smaller boutique hotels that often boast their art collection and a beautifully designed space.
11. What are some of the things you’ve had to learn about leading art/culture travels?
Timing has been the biggest learning curve for me. While museum tours have set times, visits to galleries or studios can vary depending on the combined interest of the group. Sometimes, we allot too much time for a gallery visit or not enough for a studio visit, when the artists completely captivate everyone. As I mentioned earlier, keeping clients focused is important.
12. How do you advertise your business?
Via email blasts, social media and word of mouth.
13. How has the art market helped your business, or has it not?
I believe that there is currently a heightened interest in contemporary art thanks to the press, record-breaking sales at auction and the trend of global art. I am also an art consultant, so my trips have helped grow that side of my business through purchases made abroad by clients and by exposing me to new artists and galleries.
14. How does one sign up for one of your tours?
15. How would you describe your typical client? Are they new to art, are they collectors or art connoisseurs?
There is usually a mix, but they all have a deep appreciation for art with the desire to have exposure to unique experiences. They are all quite well-read and have a natural curiosity. There is always a nice balance of couples, friends, and singles.
16. What is the size of the groups you lead?
Typically 8-16 people—12 is an ideal size for me.
17. Please describe what a day in one of your art tours would be like.
We tend to start the day on the early side after breakfast in the hotel. The morning might include two museum tours followed by a break for lunch. In the afternoon we will have a few gallery visits and finish with an artist studio or a private collection. We always allow for some downtime prior to cocktails and dinner. Most lunches and dinners are included in the trips, as well as a historical walking tour on the first day to acquaint the group to the city and each other. We often take a day trip to a surrounding castle or estate. Or, for example, in Buenos Aires we arranged to watch a local polo match.
18. Where to next?
Copenhagen, Denmark and back to Berlin in the fall—after I walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain. For 2017, we are thinking about Salzburg, Austria with an extension to Munich, as well as a trip to Barcelona. We also hope to get a trip to Morocco on the books soon, and to get back to Buenos Aires.