Lee Cavaliere at VOLTA: Platforming the Unexpected

by | May 6, 2024 | Articles, Interviews

In anticipation of the upcoming VOLTA fair in Basel, Art Vista spoke to Fair Director Lee Cavaliere about what makes VOLTA special, platforming the unexpected, broadening access, and introducing "young and potentially dangerous" galleries to the Basel art scene.

In July 2023, Ramsay Fairs announced the appointment of Lee Cavaliere as Artistic Director of VOLTA art fair. Cavaliere is an arts professional with experience in both the institutional and gallery sectors. After working with the Tate Collection’s displays, Cavaliere delivered contemporary exhibitions at Max Wigram Gallery and the Fine Art Society. He spent time as the Head of Sales at the London Art Fair and is the founder of the first online art museum, VOMA. He is also the founder of the arts education charity, The Sixteen Trust. VOLTA is owned by Ramsay Fairs who also have the Affordable Art Fairs, British Art Fair and Ramsay Fairs in their portfolio. VOLTA is now in its 19th year, and will be presented in Basel from June 10-16, 2024, and in New York from September 4-8, 2024. In anticipation of the upcoming fair in Basel, Art Vista’s Kristen Knupp spoke to Lee Cavaliere about what makes VOLTA special, platforming the unexpected, broadening access through a new virtual preview, and introducing “young and potentially dangerous” galleries to the Basel art scene. 

VOLTA Art Fair, Courtesy of VOLTA. Image credit: Billy Hodgins

Kristen Knupp: What brought you to VOLTA? You seem to be really busy wearing many hats, so I was wondering how you were tempted to join the VOLTA Art Fair world?

Lee Cavaliere: I was at the Tate previously, and then was a commercial art gallery director for a good few years which was wonderful. I participated in all the art fairs from that side, so I am very familiar with the art fair world, including Armory, Frieze, etc. Then I worked with the London Art Fair for a year curating the fair because they needed a reset at that time, and I had an international audience and connections through my career up to that point. When I was first approached about the position at VOLTA it came through an agency and they said it is an art fair director job, and I thought that it sounded like a complete nightmare! But when they said it was VOLTA, I was immediately interested because I love VOLTA. It was always located next to the Armory art fair in New York, and when I was at the art gallery we always went next door to VOLTA because it was a place of intrigue, discovery, and unexpected things. I have met some of my favourite galleries through VOLTA. The fair director position also aligned with my ideology about platforming the unexpected, and providing a space for things that you don’t always see, and reaching out to the areas of the art world that are not well-covered. VOLTA has maintained that sensibility over the years. It was founded by artists so it has always had a sense of flexibility and creativity which I enjoy. 

KK: It has been around for 19 years which is really amazing!

LC: It is amazing. I was talking to one of the gallerists, Heike Strelow, and she was saying that it used to be a more scrappy, young art fair. We have all grown up a bit since then. What is wonderful is that there is a generational aspect that is part of the fair. You have galleries who have been there from the beginning, like Heike Strelow and Thomas Fuchs. Andreas Binder is coming back to the fair this year, and GSA Gallery from Stockholm is coming. These are all serious contenders in the art world. We are also showing some galleries who have never shown at an art fair or in Basel before. We will have a section just for those new galleries called Firsts. The older, more established galleries are helping to raise up the newer galleries and lifting them up onto a stage that they wouldn’t have otherwise reached. There is also a section of the fair where galleries are showing very established artists alongside emerging artists, and that is a going to become a theme moving forward because that is the way galleries and fairs progress. It is fascinating. 

KK: I remember seeing NFT’s presented at the fair by Meet Frida gallery a few years ago. What sort of technological innovations will the fair have this year?

LC: I have always been a great advocate of online art. I founded and directed VOMA which is a virtual online museum of art. It is still running and I am on the board. The idea behind it is to use technology to broaden access to the arts, and I am a strong advocate of that concept. At VOLTA, I thought it was important to celebrate the fact that post-Covid and the advent of the online viewing rooms, there is no going back. A meaningful online presence is still very important. We are working with Vortic to create a virtual supplement to the art fair. This allows galleries, especially those that are not well-known, to reach out to an audience globally in an open and easy access way. The galleries are opting to either preview what they are showing at the fair, or alternatively, showing pieces that they are not bringing but that they want to bring to the attention of potential collectors. There will be direct sales mechanisms from the online preview. Online viewing rooms immediately broaden the galleries’ audience to anyone with an iPhone. This innovation took the art world from the gallery backroom into everyone’s pocket and gave ownership to everyone, which I think is really special. It also allows the galleries to introduce themselves before the fair so that potential buyers are ready when the fair opens. It is going to open online about two weeks before the fair opens. 

VOLTA Art Fair, Courtesy of VOLTA. Image credit: Billy Hodgins

KK: I read that you want to introduce more “young and potentially dangerous” galleries to the VOLTA art fair – what do you mean by that?

LC: I think young, weird and dangerous adds something interesting to the Basel art scene which is why we want to introduce it. I think the art world is an incredibly creative place and ideas are catching. There is a tendency in the art world to rely very heavily on what we already know. We see museum shows by familiar artists and we often see repetition at art fairs. What VOLTA has always been interested in is finding artists that we don’t know about yet. This can be challenging because we are afraid of the unfamiliar until it becomes familiar. What is difficult to digest or comprehend at first glance very quickly becomes accepted and wonderful. There is a sense of discovery that is needed in the art fair world. By dangerous, I mean that there are many small galleries that will be present at VOLTA that have nothing to lose. I love their energy. They are passionate and have new ideas, and they will try it out. They are not risking the backing of a large company, they are risking their own savings and time, and will try out new things. That kind of energy level is why I am involved in this fair. I am so thrilled by the gallery list for VOLTA, it is really punching above its weight. 

KK: What does the new advisory board bring to VOLTA? Is it a more international focus? 

LC: I have been on selection committees for art fairs before and I don’t necessarily believe in their approach. I wanted the advisory board to reach into areas where I could not reach. I walk around with my background as a slightly posh English guy and I am very aware that I don’t know enough about the rest of the world. I want to tap into new networks. The advisory board is made up of a range of individuals from across industries. We have people in business in Switzerland, from cultural diplomacy, as well as government-level cultural advisory levels, for example. I was just walking around Dubai with our Middle East / North African Advisory Board member. We are fast-forwarding to a point where we are making meaningful conversations and partnerships. The Advisory Board also helps with gallery selection and have put forward some galleries that we had not heard about before. These are incredible people and their job is to connect and be enthusiastic, and they have been so generous with their time. They have helped us to raise our game in terms of our presentation, coherence and international reach. It is something I want to continue and keep growing. I will be going to Hong Kong soon to try to expand our reach there. 

VOLTA Art Fair, Courtesy of VOLTA. Image credit: Billy Hodgins

KK: How does the Basel fair differ from the New York one, and how does VOLTA make the most of those differences and celebrate them?

LC: Basel is a very specific place. We have been there for 19 years so we are very established, and have a strong fan base of smart, intelligent, connected collectors who are from Geneva, Basel, Zurich, and the nearby German-speaking countries, as well as France and northern Italy. Basel will always have at its core the German-speaking world. This year it is super-diverse; the most diverse edition we have ever done. The floor plan is very organised, of course. I love the local connections. Two of our advisory board members are from Switzerland and it is important for us to make those local connections. Basel is a small town, so it is important to get to know everyone. I go there once a month but I am not from there, and we need the local knowledge. 

New York is a very different beast. This year we are moving the fair to September. Having it in May was too close to the Basel fair in June, and also it aligns with the Armory Fair. This is very important, as we have many connections across the two fairs. New York is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, but it is about to go through six months of political turmoil. Recognising this, I wanted to create opportunities at the fair to bridge cultural divides. The floorplan will be open, flowing and encourages collaboration and cross-fertilisation between galleries. It will have a town square concept, much like ancient civilisations like Olmec and Mesopotamia. 7,000 years ago we had town squares where markets, protests, street fights, debates, and rallies were held. It was a space where we could come together and discuss. We want to encourage this idea that there is a space to meet and cross-pollinate.

VOLTA Art Fair, Courtesy of VOLTA. Image credit: Billy Hodgins

KK: Will VOLTA be adding any locations to its roster of fairs? You mentioned Hong Kong and I wonder if that is being considered?

LC: We are looking at different locations and Hong Kong is top of my list. I love Hong Kong. It did really well to come out of the Covid period in one piece. It seems to be thriving and is creatively exciting. We are also looking at other European possibilities. I do want to take us elsewhere. The fairs will still remain relatively small. The benefit of having a smaller fair is that you have the time to talk to people and you have space to be creative. There is more of a conversation going on. We are also thinking potentially about Paris, and some other locations as well. 

KK: Will you focus all your time on VOLTA now, or are you continuing to work with your other initiatives such as VOMA and The Sixteen Trust?

LC:I am still on the advisory board at VOMA and The Sixteen Trust is still going on. The idea with the Sixteen Trust is to help people from deprived and economically-challenged backgrounds to go into the art world. I don’t mean becoming an artist, because those people will become artists no matter what. I mean finding good career options for young people who would otherwise not consider the arts as being economically viable. We have mentors from across the board such as gallery directors, theatre set designers, art lawyers, etc. and they work one-to-one with young people up to the age of 16. The idea is to capture those kids who may have not done well on their GCSEs, and then find a place for them. It has been really effective. Someone said it is an old boys club for someone who doesn’t have an old boys club, in other words, creating a network for those who don’t have one. I am on the advisory committee but VOLTA is a very full-time job! My career has led me to a point where I know a lot of people, so you are not ever doing one thing, but everything is intermingled. It is a nice place to be. 

VOLTA Basel: The Art of Now is in Basel from June 10-16, 2024.