Lee Cavaliere Explains How VOLTA Is Breaking the Art Fair Mold

The fair's new director is taking the upcoming New York edition in a fresh direction.

Man in white shirt stands behind red door and white marble wall
Lee Cavaliere. Photo Oscar May/Courtesy VOLTA Art Fair

The idea of the town square, a public gathering space that traditionally hosted markets, entertainment and debate, has been around for as long as we’ve had towns. For Lee Cavaliere, the newly appointed director of the VOLTA Art Fairs, that centuries-old concept is a key aspect of how his art fair is evolving with an eye on the future.

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At the 2024 edition of VOLTA New York, Cavaliere will introduce a central “town square” space with an open and collaborative layout. “I don’t think it’s really appropriate to just have a grid-like format where everything’s uniform; New York required something a bit more interesting,” he tells Observer. “We don’t have to stick to the same model year-on-year.”

This isn’t the only new initiative pioneered by Cavaliere as he oversees his first editions of VOLTA, which emphasizes young, emerging and innovative galleries in its annual art fairs in Basel and New York. A curator and contemporary art specialist, he previously worked with Tate and served as head of sales at the London Art Fair, in addition to putting on contemporary exhibitions at Max Wigram Gallery and founding VOMA, the world’s first online art museum. Shortly after coming on as artistic director of VOLTA last summer, Cavaliere made the decision to move its New York edition from the spring art fair season to the fall and to hold it at Manhattan’s Chelsea Industrial.

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He also brought on an international board of advisors to help locate galleries outside major art world capitals. The committee includes figures like Pamela Hraoui, a designer and art director from Beirut; Sheila Arora, vice-chair of the Europe-Asia Center; and American-Ukrainian contemporary artists Ola and Maya Rondiak. At VOLTA New York’s upcoming edition, the art fair’s emphasis on shining a spotlight on marginalized voices and regions will manifest in initiatives like a Ukrainian pavilion showcasing galleries still operating in the country. “Part of it was to do with really making friends with cities and getting to know them from the inside,” says Cavaliere, “and to help us penetrate these less accessible spaces that I think are really vital to see.”

Observer recently spoke with Cavaliere to discuss how he’s shaking up VOLTA and stepping further outside traditional art fair models. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you first came on as director last year, what was your vision for VOLTA and what aspects did you want to change?

VOLTA has always been about discovery and finding new things. That’s how I’ve always enjoyed it as a visitor, and that’s why I kind of came on board, because I’m interested in highlighting things you might not have seen before. For me, a lot of it has to do with working out why people don’t have access to the art market and looking at why certain voices or geographies have been marginalized, perhaps, in the mainstream. I think the art world can be a bit repetitive, particularly art fairs. One of the first things I did was gather together a board of advisors that are on the ground in different areas that I don’t have so much access to, like in the Middle East and North Africa and, of course, around Basel and New York because I don’t live in either of those locations.

In terms of practical stuff, the first thing I wanted to do with New York was move it. There were various reasons for that—one is I just don’t think the timing in May was very conducive for the galleries that we’re working with, we don’t really share much of an audience with Frieze New York. And that meant also moving the location. I didn’t particularly like the previous location, because it was split over two floors and that introduces ideas of hierarchy, which I don’t really think are appropriate for VOLTA. We’ve got this central area that I’m calling quite pretentiously the “town square.” The idea is it’s a much more egalitarian space, with very large booths next to very small booths and very established galleries next to brand-new galleries. There’s the opportunity for galleries to collaborate and look at new ways of approaching an art fair.

When you say galleries can collaborate, what does that look like?

Instead of having your standard grid format or corridor format, it’s a different plan. There’s more visitor flow—you can walk from one booth through to another through to another, and some of the galleries that we’re talking to, they’ve got new ideas or new ways of approaching it, and I want to give them the opportunity to do that. We’ve got a couple of galleries from South America, for instance, who are coming together, and they want to do a group show between the two galleries, which I’m really excited about. And then you’ve got galleries sharing artists with other galleries because it’s an international affair.

It just gives you the opportunity to think a bit differently about what an art fair is and what it’s for. And for me, it is about that kind of community-building internationally. In Basel, we have forty-seven galleries from I think twenty-five different countries, so it’s an enormous international mix. And I know that from my time standing on many, many art fair booths in my past, this is how you meet your community is by standing there and getting to know your neighbors and getting to know the rest of the galleries and sharing artists, sharing ideas, sharing visions. I want to celebrate that. It’s going to be very much about art’s power to cross cultural boundaries, geographic boundaries, linguistic boundaries and economic boundaries so everyone can come together and have a conversation in that old town square model.

When it comes to finding galleries outside of traditional art hubs, do you proactively search within those regions or do they come to you?

It’s a bit of both. I’m quite cognizant of the fact that I have a particular background, upbringing, geography and accent. I’m English and Western-educated, so there are certain things that I don’t really have access to or that I don’t know about. And I think that’s a good thing to recognize. I like not knowing stuff because it means I can go and ask other people questions. Partly, it’s coming through people in our network.

Some of it is me going there and approaching people, and I have been traveling a lot. In Taiwan, for instance, we’re having conversations with Indigenous art groups and it’s beautiful, this stuff. You have to go there and engage and just talk and listen and spend time. And we as a company have a really good network, as well, because VOLTA is owned by Ramsay Fairs. We have teams who have been doing art fairs on the ground all over the world.

You were in Khiv recently; can you talk about your experiences there and how art communities are doing?

My real takeaway is that everyone has had to shift because obviously the market has kind of gone. They can’t really travel. I mean, Voloshyn Gallery has spaces outside of Ukraine, so they can still do art fairs and things like that. But for the galleries on the ground in Ukraine and Kharkiv and places that are under constant attack, it’s impossible for them to do what they were doing before. But they’re finding different ways. Maybe they’re pivoting to more nonprofit or they’re working more closely with local artists, and a lot of the artists’ attention has shifted, and their subject matter has changed.

It’s a really powerful moment because it shows you that if you’re going through something, the first port of call is the arts. It always is. You see people turning to the arts, to culture, theater and music. People want to create, to work through what they’re going through, and people want to visit art to find solace and understand. It’s enormously heartening to see the power of art in a situation like that; you see it’s what people naturally turn to.

On a practical level, with travel restrictions and everything going on, how will having a Ukrainian Pavilion at an art fair work?

I don’t think anyone’s ever tried this at an art fair. We are kind of laying the track as we go. But we’ve got a really good network and a lot of support within and outside of Ukraine. Razom Foundation has called on their patrons to help pay for this because my idea is to have the whole thing completely funded so they don’t pay for the booth, the shipping, the flights, the hotels or anything. We might not get there, but at the moment, it’s already heavily subsidized.

In terms of travel restrictions, we are going to have some issues because a couple of the galleries have male directors who are of fighting age. I can write them an invitation letter, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be granted permission to leave the country. There’s a collaborative element to that, as well, because they might use people on the ground in New York to man the booth because they’re already here. There is a big Ukrainian community in New York, so we’re getting a lot of local support. In short, it takes a village, but it’s worth it.

Can you tell me a little bit about the fellowship program you’re introducing?

That’s what the Ukraine pavilion is all about. What I want to do is—I don’t know if we’re going to get to it this year—but it’s essentially the same idea, to enable smaller galleries or ones from more economically deprived backgrounds who don’t have easy access to this kind of global market. Because you’ve got to remember that New York and Basel are two of the most expensive cities in the world. If you’re talking to emerging galleries, you’ve got to look at the practicalities from the outset. And the fact is, they don’t have the money to do it. So, how do you do that? How do you help them in and give them a leg up? The idea would be to find a sponsor or a partner to pay for a percentage, hopefully a large percentage, of their booths for the first year. And then in the second year, it would reduce a bit, because once they’re in the room, these galleries are amazing, they just need the people to see what they’re doing, and they will find the support.

We’re doing something similar at VOLTA Basel. We’ve got a section called ‘Firsts,’ which we were able to do with a deal with a partner so we could get them reduced booth fees. It’s a lower barrier for entering, and it’s amazing. We’ve got galleries from Mexico… Hong Kong… Beirut. It’s going to be a really exciting section and these galleries wouldn’t have been able to do it if it weren’t for that little bit of help.

You have a lot of experience with digital platforms and services in the art world. Is that something you want to bring to VOLTA?

In Basel, we’re working with Vortic to create a virtual gallery; it’s basically a curated virtual exhibition of work from the galleries taking part in VOLTA. I don’t really like online viewing rooms. I went through so many online viewing rooms during COVID that I have a real aversion to them. But the reason for VOMA was to give people access that otherwise wouldn’t have access to galleries or museums. People in the art world have this mistaken conception that everyone goes to museums and galleries all the time, which isn’t true. VOMA was there to give a museum experience to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to a museum, wouldn’t feel comfortable going into a museum or don’t have access. For VOLTA, the commercial benefit is great because we’ve got a lot of new galleries—they’re going to be new to Basel, new to the fair, new to art fairs in general and certainly new to our audience. Having an opportunity to introduce the work and the galleries before the fair is great because it gives people a chance to, at their leisure, check out the galleries and check out the artists.

We’ll see how that goes and what the response is. If it goes really well, we’ll expand that program into New York. I was thinking about creating a completely virtual art fair: VOLTA Virtual. We’re testing out some ideas at the moment, but I’m open to doing more.

Is there anything you’ve noticed happening in the art fair world that you’re particularly excited about?

People are realizing that you don’t just have to do the standard “booth, booth, booth” setup. People are getting a bit more adventurous. You’re seeing a bit of frustration bubbling out; you’re getting galleries starting their own fairs. VOLTA was founded by galleries and art dealers and friends, and it has evolved into what it is now over time. One thing I like about VOLTA is it maintains that kind of creative energy. That’s embedded in its DNA to be creative, fun and conversational. I think generally people want to break out of that kind of mold of the bigger art fairs that seem impersonal, repetitive and a bit too exclusive for our current moment.

Lee Cavaliere Explains How VOLTA Is Breaking the Art Fair Mold