Resistance Is Futile

John Haber
in New York City

The Art Fairs: An Irresistible Force?

Independent Projects

"Art Fairs: An Irresistible Force in the Art World?" With a title like that, a panel discussion could easily save itself ninety minutes and a great deal of breath. Surely the answer is yes, and everyone can go straight home (or to the reception).

Of course, the implicit questions are much harder: who gains from that force, who loses, and how should each respond? At Sotheby's Institute of Art, two of the finest and most articulate dealers anywhere joined two attorneys in a search for answers. Contrary to expectations, the attorneys raised the greatest ethical challenges. Mel Bochner's Going Out of Business (private collection, 2012)The takeaway is that not everyone benefits equally, and some of the most valuable artists and their dealers may lose the freedom to do their best work. Their trust in one another may not even survive—but a postscript looks at one panelist's efforts to restore trust in art fairs, with Independent Projects.

Fair game

Ed Winkleman and Elizabeth Dee have felt the challenges of big money in art. Both are midlevel Chelsea dealers, the kind hardest hit by changes to the art scene, fairs included. The unlimited cash cows can weather greater shocks and appeal more readily to roving international collectors and art advisors. Startups and others in the outer boroughs or on the margins can more easily take a DIY approach to the whole business. That leaves those in the middle to struggle, even those with consistent sales and strong bonds with artists. They may even wonder whether fairs have rendered them irrelevant and whether galleries have a future. They may also feel pressed for an alternative.

In past conversations for his blog, Winkleman and Dee have already questioned the relevance of a traditional model, centered on the gallery. They point to an event-driven arts scene, including pop-ups, off-site exhibitions, and museums like MoMA for which a constant flow of new exhibitions takes over space and attention from the permanent collection. Surely fairs are events if anything is. Both dealers have also responded—by helping to create events. He cofounded Moving Image and she the Independent, two class acts among the March art fairs in New York. Still, are alternatives like these enough, or might they even add to the feeding frenzy of art fairs? The lawyers, Richard Lehun and Nicholas O'Donnell, did not have comforting answers.

Winkleman opened the panel with solid evidence for that irresistible force, based on interviews with dealers and fair directors for a forthcoming book about the art business. After his earlier How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery, one can see the new book as an extension or a course correction. He noted first the sheer growth in the number of fairs—by his count, now well over two hundred for contemporary art alone. The growth rate took off after the success of NADA in Miami and then New York, and it has only accelerated ever since. Fairs also contribute a growing percentage of a typical gallery's sales each year, although estimates are hard to pin down. The only certainty is that the largest percentages and the biggest gains fall to superstars.

Winkleman also asked why. In a report on the May 2014 art fairs, I, too, have speculated on the factors behind the seemingly perpetual art fairs, most obviously the growth in audiences and artists. There and in a report on the March 2015 art fairs, as in past years, as in past years, I have also pointed to the costs. Winkleman, though, added an easily overlooked reason that power has shifted in favor of the fairs. To keep from deluging targets with multiple free passes, which they would then pass on to friends, galleries now must share their VIP lists with major fairs, who then send out the invitations. In effect, the fairs get to play the ultimate insiders.

Dee took a more relaxed approach, but she, too, opened with the pressures. Did you know the enormity of application fees—or that large fairs receive many more applications than they have room? And that is before such expenses as the booth, shipping, insurance, hotels, meals, marketing, and time away from the gallery, where someone still has to cover the front desk. Yet as a result, Dee suspects, fairs might not be so irresistible after all. As costs rise, some are bound to sit things out. As it is, sales for local dealers are best in Miami, since they already have a presence in New York.

Both dealers raised serious concerns, only starting with the high costs and unequal gains. They spoke of a corporate culture that discourages risk taking, as well as demands on artists to produce something new and spectacular. Collectors, Winkleman notes, can easily complain if they have seen all this art before. I would add that fairs alter the kind of art being made. They feed into the same hype and spectacle that fill galleries with oversized installations, and conversely they encourage art easy to display in a modest booth and easily noticed from across the aisle. That has to mean work in two-dimensional media like painting and photography, the bigger the better.

The triumph of the art world

Neither dealer has relinquished optimism, but that, too, may come at a cost. In fact, after their presentations, they seemed to back away from their own objections. I asked about the shift from the old gallery model, based on building client relationships over time, to a kind of retail model, with a potential larger client base but also one in motion. Why, Dee replied, should they be mutually exclusive? Winkleman added that he, too, sees a fair contact as only the first step in a long process. Still, one has to wonder, given the anonymity of the crowds and, increasingly, inexperienced buyers cruising to make a deal and move on.

Winkleman backed away further in his deservedly popular blog. The point, he insists, is not to abolish fairs (as if one could), but to design better fairs. Still, one again has to wonder. Like any critic, I have used much of my past reports to compare fairs. A clear profile, the quality of the galleries, affordable booths for newcomers, ample but flexible spaces, an emphasis on single-artist displays, labels and boundaries that make crystal clear who is on display, appropriate use of open spaces for site-specific work—all these can make a difference. But would Winkleman, Dee, or you have the same list as mine, and can one really design one's way out of the pressures?

Mark Flood's Career Suicide (Zach Feuer, 2014)The third and fourth speakers think not. Lehun founded a consulting firm, New York Stropheus, to help others cope with the ethical quandaries. He describes a traditional dealer as a fiduciary—someone entrusted with the property of others for their benefit. In turn, he sees the growth of fairs as eroding that fiduciary relationship. As loyalties dissolve, an artist or dealer can well become a pawn in someone else's game. Lehun's terminology neatly sums up the issues in long-term relationships, event-driven exhibitions, and market-driven art.

O'Donnell, who has represented dealers accused of profiting from work looted by the Nazis, takes a legal rather than financial perspective. People can promise to buy and not deliver, while dealers can misrepresent the origins, authenticity, or value of a work. This is old news, I fear, and it applies to traditional galleries as well (and has now sunk one of the most famous, Knoedler). O'Donnell, though, sees an additional obstacle to seeking restitution in jurisdictional issues: when a dealer is from one country, a buyer from a second, and a fair held in a third, whose laws apply, and who has standing or patience to sue? Unfortunately, he did not attempt an answer.

Perhaps one needs all these perspectives, much as Winkleman and Dee have learned from living on both sides of the street. Lehun has worked as an artist himself, in photography and film. Alternatively, perhaps no one has a proper perspective, because everyone is caught up in the dilemmas. Whether as fair-goers or as fair creators, Winkleman and Dee are still stakeholders, and one can wait a long time to find someone who is not. Would they accept as competitors fairs that amount to little more than yet another open-studio weekend or unfocused group show? Can even these provide a true alternative rather than another, shoddier tent in the same circus?

Perhaps, too, the key term in the title is not fairs, force, or irresistible: it could be the art world. Not long ago, that term was a philosopher's invention, owing to Arthur C. Danto, to explain how such objects as pretend Brillo Boxes by Andy Warhol become art. At worst, it has contributed to the problem, by pretending that there is a single institution, apart from real life. Art has many worlds, with the concerns of one genre or public not always relevant to others—and with all the talk of auction prices and celebrity artists hardly relevant to almost all. The worst of the fairs may be to make the art world a reality, from which it is difficult to escape.

Another month, another fair

As a postscript, yes, fairs are a burden. No one can keep up. Worse, no one can afford not to, least of all galleries strapped for sales, publicity, and cash. Now Independent Projects has a solution—another art fair. Timed for the week of fairs devoted to print and artist books, it builds on one of the best in March, while eschewing both the hush of the ADAA and the desperate pleas for attention from its many competitors. And don't say Elizabeth Dee didn't warn you.

On that panel the lamenting pressures, Dee argued (seriously) for better ones. Again, she is also a founder of Independent the weekend of the Armory Show. Artists admire it for not trying ever so hard to please, with work that often escapes the walls or even the confines of a booth. Independent Projects goes it one better in 2014, with single-artist displays that stake out half an aisle or more in the former Dia:Chelsea. A white box by Yves Klein (for Dominique Lévy) dares one to slip in ones hand, as an environment within a project. Fifty-two years after his death, it still gets people talking.

David Medalla (for Venus over Manhattan) spews out soap bubbles like giant wisps of cotton candy, a video by Joan Jonas (for Gavin Brown) lurks beyond a graveyard of white cones, and Haroon Mirza (for Lisson) has a sound studio of driving beats and flashing window frames, driven by the presence of viewers. If they look good, they share wide-open spaces linked by diagonal partitions, like three floors of the ultimate group show. After opening weekend, the dealers depart but the art remains, for this is about more than sales. Attendance is free. It may also be relatively affordable to exhibitors, judging from a mix of international dealers, blue chips like Gagosian (with Piotr Uklanski), and smaller galleries from Williamsburg to Chelsea. The project format also helps respond to objections like mine that the Independent values cool over art, by making it impossible to know who did what.

If they look good, too, they mostly are. They run to well-known but edgy artists often with older work and at their most visually welcoming. Raymond Pettibon (for David Zwirner) muses on everything from baseball to Popeye, while Mike Kelley (for Skarstedt) contributes not brutality but tapestries—right next to paintings by John Tweddle (for Kayne Griffin Corcoran) inspired by fabric. Even that sound room has appealingly speckled soundproofing and an old-fashioned tabletop radio. Piled slats from Virginia Overton (for Mitchell-Innes & Nash) somehow add up to a triangular pyramid, both site specific and wide open. And that leaves plain old abstract painting from Marcia Hafif (for Fergus McCaffrey) and Robert Moskowitz (for Kerry Schuss).

Of course, transgression plus elegance can add up to business as usual. Stefan Brüggemann's marvelous graffiti wall (for Parra & Romero) quotes all very serious people, and Thornton Dial (for Andrew Edlin) looks downright monumental. One might almost be seeing a single artist or an international style. Is this art as office furniture? Allora & Calzadilla (for Barbara Gladstone) even silkscreen water coolers. They are a watery blue.

Fair design contributes to the sense of uniformity. Amid the diagonals, it is not so easy after all to identify the art, especially after the dealers are gone. It is up to the galleries to decide whether to add labels, and it is up to you to connect them. In the end, the real issue remains: can another fair and another month design the pressures away? Or will they only add more?

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"Art Fairs: An Irresistible Force in the Art World?" took place on May 27, 2014, sponsored by the entertainment arts and sports law section of the New York State Bar Association and moderated by Judith B. Prowda of Sotheby's Institute of Art. Independent Projects for that year opened November 13. Related reviews take up Sotheby's 2015 panel on art advisors and Christie's Education's 2016 panel on the future of the gallery—and of course the 2017 art fairs.


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