The BVDG, under its new chairman, Gerhard F. Reinz, took over Internationaler Kunstmarkt Köln from the Verein progressiver deutscher Kunsthändler in 1984, rebranding it 'ART COLOGNE'. The 18th edition of the Fair was held in November with 160 exhibitors from 10 countries. Rudolf Zwirner curated a widely-praised contemporary show titled Kunstszene New York. The special museum show showcased works from the collection of the Kunstmuseum Bern. Attendance figures reached 50,000, making ART COLOGNE the focus of the art boom in the Rhineland and the world's most successful art fair in 1984. This market upsurge confirmed the city of Cologne's status as a world art-market centre.
The 1985 edition of ART COLOGNE had an enthusiastic reception from the press with a West German art critic, in a glowing review, noting: 'It is probably the finest art fair of them all'. Documenta had been called a Museum der 100 Tage and echoing this, ART COLOGNE was dubbed a Museum der 7 Tage. Visitor figures of 55,000 were registered and 165 galleries exhibited. They included the Staatlicher Kunsthandel der DDR, the East German state gallery. An exhibition titled Der Schein des Objektiven was a first for photography specialist Klaus Honnef. In 1986, the outstanding show of modern Canadian art titled Focus gave an overview of artistic developments in Canada in the period 1960 to 1985. This fine exhibition reconfirmed the Fair's reputation as a stronghold of quality.
In 1987, ART COLOGNE celebrated its 20th anniversary. The Fair had clearly established itself internationally as the leading platform for contemporary art as the Rhineland art boom reached its peak. The Berlin Kupferstichkabinett staged a special exhibition titled Grafik des 20. Jahrhunderts and this helped to support a revival in the market for original prints. A new prize for artists was introduced – the Defet Prize, sponsored by Marianne and Hansfried Defet of the da Vinci Künstlerpinselfabrik, Nuremberg. Rainer Barzen was the winner.
In 1988, kölnmesse and the BVDG reinstated the prize set up in 1973, and last awarded in 1979, by the Verein progressiver deutscher Kunsthändler. It was renamed the ‘ART COLOGNE Prize’. The first prizewinner was Ileana Sonnabend. A magnificent exhibition showcased her career achievements. The sculptor Yuji Takeoka was the winner of the Defet Prize. In the same year, kölnmesse and the BVDG launched a gala fundraising event at ART COLOGNE and called it the 'Benefiz-Eröffnung'. The sum of DM 120,000 was raised. It was donated to the Museum Ludwig's acquisition fund.
1989 saw the fall of the Berlin wall. Prior to 1989, the exhibitor list had been restricted to 165 galleries. It was now increased to 189, partly as a result of the launch of a project titled 'Sonderprogramm junge Galerien' showcasing young galleries. The Cologne gallerist Monika Sprüth and her colleagues Max Hetzler and Jörg Johnen oversaw the project. It enabled 31 emerging galleries specializing in cutting-edge contemporary art to exhibit at subsidized rates. The programme made an important contribution to the new image of the Fair and to new awareness of artistic trends and developments. The museum exhibition, designed by Erwin Heerich, showcased works from the collection of the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg. To mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of photography, a photography show was organized by eight galleries specializing in the field. By 1989, photography had emerged as a major sector in the art market. The 1989 ART COLOGNE Prize went to the curator and expert Harald Szeemann. In its second year, the 'Benefiz-Eröffnung' raised funds for the purchase of Sigmar Polke’s six-part Biennale-Zyklus by the Städtisches Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach. The Zyklus had been awarded the Golden Lion at the 42nd Venice Biennale.
1990 saw ART COLOGNE expand dramatically in terms of floor space. Prior to 1989, the Fair had occupied the ground floor and part of the upper level of the Rheinhallen (Halls 1-3) at the Cologne Trade Fair Centre. In 1990, exhibition space was extended to include Hall 5 which adjoined Halls 1-3. The number of exhibitors was increased to 268. As befitted the year of German reunification, the special museum exhibition was drawn from the collection of the Kupferstichkabinett in Dresden. Titled Verdecktes Sammeln, it showcased the difficulties of museum management in East Germany The 'Benefiz-Eröffnung' raised DM 205,000 for the acquisition programme of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. The ART COLOGNE Prize went to Katharina Schmidt, Director of the Städtisches Kunstmuseum in Bonn.
ART COLOGNE demonstrated its resilience in 1991, the year of the international economic crisis in which Japan was hardest hit. Anniversary celebrations were staged for Hein Stünke, the 1991 ART COLOGNE prizewinner who had first put pen to paper twenty-five years earlier to draft his ‘Proposal for a COLOGNE MODERN ART FAIR’. In his acceptance speech, Stünke announced that he would be donating his gallery archives to the BVDG. The BVDG, at a general meeting on 14 November 1991 – the opening day of ART COLOGNE – decided to adopt a proposal made by its chairman, Gerhard F. Reinz, and set up what is now known as the Zentralarchiv des Internationalen Kunsthandels ZADIK [central archive of the international art trade]. A special exhibition titled Positionen provided a historical review of the 'Förderprogramm für junge Künstler' with its sponsored stands for young artists (now titled 'New Positions'). The 'Benefiz-Eröffnung' raised DM 200,000 towards the Schloss Friedenstein sculpture project organized by the city of Gotha.
In 1992, three Cologne gallerists – Tanja Grunert, Christian Nagel and Michael Jansen – staged their own event. They titled it 'Unfair' and it ran in parallel with ART COLOGNE. They were joined by the artist Heike Kempken. The fair was dedicated exclusively to young galleries. It was to have an important influence on the planning of future editions of ART COLOGNE. Denise René, the distinguished Paris dealer and publisher, was the winner of the ART COLOGNE Prize. The sculpture project organized by the city of Gotha was the focus of the museum exhibition. Member galleries of the BVDG joined forces to fund the gift of an important body of 150 original works on paper, dating from the period 1945 to 1975, to the Busch-Reisinger Museum in Harvard. By 1993 attendance had reached 70,000. The exhibitor list ran to 283 galleries. A spectacular supporting exhibition titled Young British Artists der Londoner Sammlung Saatchi included ground-breaking pieces like Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death (Shark). The ART COLOGNE Prizewinner was also from Britain – the famous London dealer Annely Juda. In 1994, the exhibitor list was enlarged to a record number of 323 galleries. This increase was due in part to the integration of the international galleries on the 'Unfair' exhibitor list. ART COLOGNE Prizewinner was Maria de Corral, the Madrid museum director and curator.
In 1995, ART COLOGNE, Europe's biggest art fair, was in every way a fair of superlatives – in terms of the number of exhibitors, attendance figures and the length of its run. Earlier editions had runs of between five and eight days. The 1995 edition was lengthened to nine days. In the same year, the Repentance Day public holiday was abolished and the Fair's organizers saw a need to add an extra weekend. The two non-working days of the additional weekend were designed to compensate for the loss of a mid-week non-working day. Applications streamed in from galleries wanting to exhibit. In the face of strong competition, 349 galleries were accepted and 110 saw their applications rejected. Attendance figures surged to 81,000, 27,000 artworks were on show and exhibition space now ran to 42,000 square metres. The ART COLOGNE Prize went to Rudolf Springer, a doyen of the post-war gallery scene in West Germany and a founding father of ART COLOGNE in its original format as Kunstmarkt Köln ’67. Criticism of the length of the exhibitor list was growing and the nine-day run was felt by many to be too long. This impacted on the planning of the 1996 Fair. It was cut to eight days and the exhibitor list reduced to 279 galleries. The Fair hosted two supporting exhibitions. SK Stiftung Kultur der Stadtsparkasse Köln staged an exhibition of 80 photographs from the August Sander Archives. Three rooms in Hall 5 showcased Robert Wilson's installation titled The Waterjug Boy. Professor Peter Littmann, Chairman of the Executive Board of Hugo Boss AG, was awarded the ART COLOGNE Prize.
The year 1997 marked ART COLOGNE's 30th anniversary. It was a year of change. Dietmar Löhrl was now chairman of the BVDG, having replaced Gerhard F. Reinz. There had been a steady drip of criticism that the BVDG was monopolizing the Fair and this criticism had been in circulation since the founding of the Fair. The BVDG was also exposed to legal action on the part of applicants who had been rejected and this had caused the association considerable expense. The BVDG signed an agreement transferring organization of the Fair to kölnmesse and acted from then on in a sponsorship capacity only. The new independent admission committee chaired by the gallerist Karsten Greve reduced the number of exhibitors further, to 243 galleries. Attendance in 1997 was 71,000. The Photographische Sammlung staged a supporting exhibition of photographs by Albert Renger-Patzsch. A first at ART COLOGNE was an exhibition designed to provide a platform for the Cologne Kunsthochschule für Medien. It was curated by the media artist and filmmaker Valie Export. The ART COLOGNE prize was awarded jointly to two gallery owners – Charlotte Zander, Munich, and Dina Vierny, Paris. Just two weeks before ART COLOGNE opened its doors came the surprise announcement of a new competitor – art forum in Berlin.
The 1998 edition of ART COLOGNE saw exhibition space focussed on the original two levels of Halls 1-3 of the Rheinhallen. Hall 5 was now excluded. A wholly new sponsorship scheme to promote young galleries was launched and it was initially planned with a two-fair run, to run in parallel with the sponsorship scheme for young artists. The new 'Young Galleries' scheme – supported by SK Stiftung Kultur der Stadtsparkasse Köln – showcased 23 emerging galleries, each with a 30 square-metre stand priced at fifty per cent of the normal cost. The Photographische Sammlung der SK Stiftung Kultur staged a photography exhibition and the Kunsthochschule für Medien its own special show. A ground-breaking step was the introduction of a new section focussing on sculpture. It was titled 'KölnSkulptur' and hosted 36 galleries showcasing an impressive range of sculptures and installations. ART COLOGNE Prizewinner was Gerhard F. Reinz, the Honorary President of the BVDG. Both the 1998 and the 1999 editions of the Fair attracted 70,000 visitors. Turnover continued to grow and hit a new high. The second edition of the 'Young Galleries' scheme was a major success. Both the 'Young Galleries' scheme and 'KölnSkulptur' were to become permanent features of ART COLOGNE. The exhibitions staged by the Photographische Sammlung der SK Stiftung Kultur and the Kunsthochschule für Medien were to be consistent features of ART COLOGNE right up to 2009. The art dealer Otto van de Loo, one of the original 'progressive German gallerists' and founders of Kunstmarkt Köln '67 was awarded the ART COLOGNE Prize. ART COLOGNE 2000 was unaffected by the collapse of the dotcom bubble in March 2000. On the contrary, for many exhibitors it was 'the best Fair in years'. Winner of the ART COLOGNE Prize was Johannes Cladders, director of the Städtisches Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach. A number of changes were planned to carry the Fair into the new millennium. They included a shorter run and an exhibitor rotation system to keep the list manageable but also ensure as few applicants as possible were turned away. Very regular exhibitors were to be restricted to signing up only every second year.