Armory sales solid as New York defies financial markets

But the adventurous works were to be found at Volta, rather than the main fair

NEW YORK. The collapse of Bear Stearns—considered by many New Yorkers as one of the safest of their financial institutions—just ten days before the 10th edition of the Armory Show (27-30 March), augured ill for this fair devoted to primary market works by living artists. Some dealers admitted that they were nervous, as they set up on the windswept Pier 94, although most remained tight-lipped,

surveying the thin trickle of collectors on the preview day. “If I had to apply two weeks ago, instead of a year ago, I wouldn’t have come,” said Andreas Brändström of Stockholm’s Brändström & Stene.

But the Armory’s new owners, Merchandise Mart Properties (MMP) were having none of it: not only had they invested in the exhibition, which looked smarter and more professionally organised than before, they launched a New York edition of the Volta satellite fair focused on major installations by less well-known artists. Chris Kennedy, MMP’s president and son of the late Robert Kennedy, told The Art Newspaper, that while it was “probable” that the US banking crisis would affect the art fair business, “we are not in it for this year, we are in it for the long term.” Katelijne de Backer, executive director of the fair, said: “To have MMP was a huge help. They specialise in trade shows, freeing us up to spend more time working on improving the show. Our exhibitors have told us

that it [the change] was evident this year.”

Inside the fair, however, it was caution that was evident—there were few of the massive, museum-sized installations that were so noticeable at Art Basel/Miami Beach in Dec­ember—and plenty of medium-sized canvases and attractive, but less expensive, photographic editions. Despite considerable interest, Thomas Hirschhorn’s large-scale, mannequin-limbed sculpture Tool Table, 2007, priced at $180,000 and which dominated Arndt & Partner’s stand, did not sell.

The most costly pieces at the fair hovered around the $1m mark. On Matthew Marks’ stand, a Gursky diptych, Pyongyang II, Diptychon, 2007, was one of the highest priced works, at $1.2m, to sell early. “There is nothing mind-bogglingly new and shocking here. There are a lot of solid pieces and mid-range prices,” said White Cube’s Graham Steele. Nevertheless, the much-dreaded crash was not in evidence: Ms de Backer says the fair’s own survey of dealers’ results puts levels “around the same as last year” while several dealers produced solid lists of sales.

If the Armory generally played safe, the big surprise was Volta, also bought by MMP last year. Showing 52 international galleries, who were only allowed single artist stands with the artist’s name (not the gallery’s) prominently displayed, even the co-organiser Amanda Coulson admitted “several dealers originally expressed scepticism” at her idea.

It seems, however, that the plan—which both Ms de Backer and Ms Coulson acknowledge as providing an equivalent of Art Basel’s Statements section—worked. Major collectors and curators loved the artist-focused concept and sales seemed better than expected, although this may reflect the lower price range, of $5,000 to $100,000. Still, David Ersser’s installation The Ideal Home Show, 2008 ($85,000), found a New York collector, while Kenny Schachter, who had two stands devoted to Muir Vidler and William Pope L, had also sold seven pieces within minutes of opening.

Jane Morris

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