Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Build the Fairs Around the Art

One of the final questions during the Q&A of last night's panel on art fairs* that I was on with Judith Prowda, Richard Lehun, Nicholas O'Donnell, and Elizabeth Dee, came from the multitalented and almost impossibly knowledgeable András Szántó who noted that the overall tone of the discussion had been somewhat negative and asked whether we didn't attribute a big part of the increase in the overall contemporary art market to the rise of the fairs? As I am prone to do in Q&A situations, in my response I over-thought the question and tried to rope in recent findings about just how global the contemporary market truly is and other factors, with a final analysis that it was impossible to say with any certainty. What became apparent as soon as I shut my mouth, though, was that the essence of András' question was, isn't it true that art fairs have a huge upside...that they're not all bad, as the panel might have led some to believe?

Had I realized this before answering, I would have offered a response more like the one I had just days before on Facebook (or over drinks in a bar somewhere...I can't exactly recall, but...):

For me, it's far too simplistic to say "fairs are not the ideal place to view art" as if that settled the matter (implying to many, either that they shouldn't exist or they shouldn't consume so much of the focus that dealers, collectors, and press put into them). The fact is, for dealers, there is no more efficient way to have thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people see the art our artists make than to bring it to an art fair. So it's not a matter of whether fairs are good, per se. For audience reasons alone, I strongly believe they are. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't regularly be subjected to constructive criticism. There's no fair in the world that couldn't stand a good deal of improvement, including ours. 

When critiquing the ways fairs fail to stack up to the viewing experience in most white cube galleries, what many people leave out of the equation is just how far from perfect the gallery experience itself is. I recall the legendary filmmaker Jonas Mekas saying on a panel at the last Moving Image art fair in New York that no gallery or even museum had ever been able to present his work to his total satisfaction. Every context could stand to continually strive to do better. 

And that's my basic position on the viewing experience at art fairs. Rather than assert they're "bad" or "not ideal" as if that's all that needs to be said about it, I strongly believe the dialog should center on ways to improve the viewing experience at art fairs. They work on so many levels...let's encourage experimentation and efforts to continually improve where they don't work so well.

One key to that, in my opinion, is to continually work to build the fairs around the art, and not install the art around the cookie cutter structure we find at most fairs. No one succeeds at building the fair around the art as well as the folks at the fair Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook co-founded, Independent. Not only do they carefully build a strong program (a lot of top fairs do that), but Independent's architect and team build the
entire design for the layout of the fair AFTER reviewing the exhibition plans from each gallery. They avoid standard boxy designs and consider how each visitor will move through the space. If you've ever been to Independent, you know what a huge difference that makes in the viewing experience. 

Another huge leap forward in the viewing experience at fairs is Art Basel's new Unlimited section, a "platform for projects that transcend the limitations of a classical art-show stand." It's not only the scale of the projects that impresses you when visiting Unlimited, but the space allotted to each work, the vast openness of it, and the carefully considered placements. 2013's rendition of Unlimited was much better than many biennials I've been to.

Of course, such approaches take more time and money than building white rabbit warrens from temporary walls, and despite what many people think, from conversations I'm having with many fair directors, as well as from our own fair producing experience, I can tell you that few fairs see that large of a profit as it is. Costs to produce fairs (especially real estate prices) are skyrocketing along with everything else. Even if it can't happen overnight, though, all fairs (yes, my fellow fair director and friend, I'm talking to you) should do what they can incrementally to make more and more of the thousands of decisions that must be made via a commitment to putting the art that will be showcased there first. 

New fairs are being created almost monthly. One we're particularly excited to go see opens this weekend in Bushwick. The inaugural edition of Newd Art Show was conceived as a way to put the needs of emerging artists and curators working with them ahead of other considerations. Like any fair in the world, I'm sure Newd too will benefit from some experimentation of their own and carefully considered feedback from its visitors. But all indications are that fairs are not going anywhere anytime soon (nor should they, in my opinion), but that doesn't mean we can't insist they get better at presenting the art there on its own terms. (And yes, for our fair, we discuss this almost continually and are committed to improving edition by edition.)

Sponsored by the Fine Arts Committee of the Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Section of the New York State Bar Association and hosted by Sotheby’s Institute of Art.


Blogger Sally Fraser said...

Art Fairs: successful show. Is it successful because of the amount of people attending and the artists signed up to support the event,or is it successful because of the amount of sales from the artists? From an artists point of view it should be the sales., otherwise it is only profitable for the event organizer, with food,artists application, etc. I think this is the way of what is happening now.

5/29/2014 09:03:00 PM  

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