By James Kalm
Not so long ago the mere mention of the words “art fair” could induce palpitations, hyperventilation, and uncontrollable twitching in some quarters. Everyone in and out of the art world had an opinion, some good, most bad, but as the momentum of this juggernaut continued to grow, they all agreed, this was a new paradigm, a brutal Darwinian restructuring of the art market.
I’ve seen close up the magic that can only happen at an art fair. In the not too distant past, Gabrielle Bryers, my dealer at the time, presented a booth of my work at the pre-Miami version of Basel. Within the first few hours of the opening every painting had sold, fulfilling any artist’s fantasy, leaving her with walls full of red dots but no inventory.
I popped in for the first Gramercy Art Fair in 1994, when it was held on two floors at the then-shabby but storied Gramercy Hotel. Wandering among the rooms and installations I saw Tony Shafrazi giggling as he trotted down the hall, a buttonholed collector in tow, rushing to view projection pieces by Tony Oursler, a new discovery at the time. I recall being fixated on Pat Hearn’s eyebrows, and wondering what exotic libation her visitors were indulging in as she, like an outer space beatnik, presided over the ceremonies. From these humble and intoxicated beginnings, in a little more than 15 years, an upstart enterprise like the Armory Show has grown into a behemoth, its latest iteration attracting over 60,000 visitors and, though exact figures are impossible to pin down, generating something approaching $100 million in sales.
Any cultural shift of this magnitude is bound to provoke an artistic response created specifically to address the phenomenon. Much of these genera are cynically ingenious critiques of the commercial demands and the aesthetic constraints placed on visitors and exhibitors. Some of it can be likened to groveling for an invitation to the rich kid’s party, spending six months’ allowance to “dress to impress,” and then sitting around all night ragging on the host because the party is full of overdressed phonies. Other works are intentional denials of expectations, a flaunting of “exclusivity” or, in the case of William Powhida and Jade Townsend, an epic skewering of the event and its art world attendees
Regardless, for the art market, this is where the rubber hits the road. Even I, in the Brooklyn Rail as far back as February 2007 (www.brooklynrail.org/2007/02/artseen/art-basel) was questioning just how far the unconstrained proliferation of art fairs could go before its inevitable implosion. Well, the boom went bust, and after three lean years, knock on wood, the art market, and the fairs, are beginning a period of consolidation and modest growth.
Brooklyn Art Now
The above is prelude to what, as this story unfolds, might illustrate the Clare Boothe Luce quote, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
In early January of this year, I began receiving queries from Michael Workman regarding a gig as a juror for an open call exhibition that would be part of the upcoming Verge Art Brooklyn fair. I’d met Michael years ago at the “Fountain” while he was organizing his first foray, the Bridge Art Fair, and given my reputation as a local art writer and scene historian, it was logical to consider me as a potential candidate. I looked at the initial fair proposal and realized its potential, but also noted that it would be located in DUMBO and, from my reading, have little contact with the greater Brooklyn arts community. To facilitate some exchange, I started forwarding the Verge emails to friends in the Williamsburg Gallery Association and to other activists in Bushwick. As the emails spread, a wave of resentment and anger began to roil the community. How dare this interloper fair insert itself in the borough, benefiting from its hard-won name recognition, and not pay tribute to the folks who’d made it all possible? Especially during the one time of the year that deep-pocketed “whales” from around the world visit Brooklyn galleries? People were pissed off.
Later in January, a meeting was held in an attempt to smooth out the differences. In attendance, besides Edouard Steinhauer (Workman’s partner in Verge), were representatives from the Borough President’s Office, Brooklyn’s Office of Tourism, the Brooklyn Arts Council, members and supporters of the Williamsburg Gallery Association, and local activists.
To ameliorate chaffed sensibilities, Alun Williams of Parker’s Box suggested that Verge sponsor a curated exhibition open exclusively to Brooklyn galleries, allowing them to submit three candidates each, free of charge. With over 75 eligible galleries, several districts, and thousands of potential artists, it was acknowledged that this would be a near-impossible task, with few people fluent enough in the broad overview of the borough to organize it. It was during the discussion of who would be gullible enough to undertake such a gargantuan and thankless project, with little time and zero budget, that my name was proposed.
Being out of town due to a previous engagement, I missed the meeting, but returned to find an email nominating me to curate what was being called “Brooklyn Art Now.” At first I balked, knowing what a headache organizing an exhibition of this scale would be. But I’ve always preached the importance of being an active part of the art community and of doing whatever you can, despite personal sacrifices, to promote the interests of the “tribe.”
Immediately I began receiving warnings and hearing anecdotes about Verge’s checkered past. As noted above, over the years I’ve been involved in enough fairs to know none of them are perfect and that there are always at least two sides to every story. And besides, no one else was proposing a Brooklyn art fair. I weighed the pluses and minuses and decided: it was a go.
For the next six weeks I would put my studio work, video reporting, and even writing for the Brooklyn Rail on hold, and dedicate myself to the punishing task of reading artist’s statements, answering endless emails and phone calls, and diplomatically trying to explain how “Brooklyn Art Now” was not “Verge Art Brooklyn.”
To avoid boring you with details, I’ll just say that after many long and late hours of grueling work, with the help of a wonderful group of local supporters, especially Robert Human who curated the video section of the show, “Brooklyn Art Now” came off pretty well, presenting major works from about 65 artists, garnering a stack of good reviews and enjoying a decent turnout. “Verge Art Brooklyn” was another story. Despite its goal of establishing a Brooklyn fair with a DIY spirit and grass roots authenticity, it was the target of harsh criticism from many paying exhibitors regarding support, publicity, and foot traffic. Even Tony Fitzpatrick, the well-known artist/activist and, like Workman, Chicago resident, whose Firecat Project was participating, had some misgivings, which he voiced in an article appearing at artnet.com (www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/fitzpatrick/tony-fitzpatrick-verge-art-brooklyn-3-4-11.asp).
The three days of fair craziness passed. The circus folded its tents, and headed out of town. Nothing is left behind but elephant manure and confetti. A week and a half later I’m invited to an evaluation meeting at the offices of the Brooklyn Arts Council with many of the same suspects who originally helped organize the local side of the fair.
The Fun Part
The meeting opens with the question: What would your “blue sky” version of a Brooklyn art fair be?
Here’s a short list of some recommendations and suggestions:
Because there’s no way a Brooklyn affair can compete with the larger Manhattan events, schedule it at another time of year to avoid a conflict with the Armory Show weekend. Stage it in a readily accessible, “neutral” location, like an armory or ship terminal, to avoid the appearance of favoring any particular neighborhood.
Have the Brooklyn galleries invite their national and international partners to engage a worldwide constituency.
Embrace Brooklyn’s aesthetic of high-tech online, social media savvy, and highlight it like the DIY spirit that’s been so influential in Brooklyn’s creation of a cutting-edge scene.
Work with local organizers and promoters, people who will still be around after the fair and will want to continue doing business with you.
Later that day I posed the same question to some Williamsburg art activists at a WAGMAG benefit committee meeting. One surprising suggestion was that the whole idea of a Brooklyn art fair was wrong-headed from the get-go. Instead, local authorities should be enlisted to help stage some fantastic art “Happening” or event that would attract visitors (thousands of naked people photographed on the Brooklyn Bridge), who would then be encouraged to spend some portion of the day touring the various nabes. Another was to schedule a fair to coincide with previously established festivals or events, like the Bushwick Open Studios.
However much I might wish for a Brooklyn art fair that reflects a new, more artist-driven concept, I have to accept that these are trade expositions, commercial enterprises that, to be successful, have to sell products and generate profits. Messe Schweiz, the Swiss firm that owns the Basel and Basel Miami Art Fairs, has invested millions over the decades to distinguish their brand, and the Chicago-based Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc., which recently acquired both Art Chicago and New York’s Armory Show, has also invested heavily in the development of those fairs. Would a winning formula for a Brooklyn shindig end up as a mere takeover candidate for some corporate conglomerate?
The old empires are collapsing. The Internet is changing the world. Over the past twenty years many of the standard practices of the art establishment have been rewritten, not out of pure creative zeal, but mostly out of a grubby, desperate necessity. Brooklyn may not have originated many of these ideas, but it has been a testing ground for their implementation. If there’s a better, more inclusive and efficient way of presenting an art fair, why shouldn’t Brooklyn be the place where it could happen? If it fails, shit, we’re not afraid; after all, this is Brooklyn.
If you have any ideas, comments or suggestions on creating the “perfect art fair” please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.