Why satellite art fairs are recession-proof
Fairs work just like real estate, and when commercial rents go south, opportunities pop up
By Jonathan Neil. Comment, Issue 210, February 2010
Published online: 10 February 2010
It was inevitable. Once the financial quake that hit the world economy at the end of 2008 began to subside and we all began to emerge from under our kitchen tables (or from behind the walls of our fortified compounds) to survey the damage, some sort of optimism had to take hold. Yes, we now have a name for it: “The Great Recession”, and things are definitely bad (high unemployment, rising deficits). “But hey,” we thought to ourselves, “when we get to Miami,” having at this point willfully forgotten the economic bloodbath, “at least there won’t be so many satellite fairs”.
Of course, we were wrong.
In fact, December’s first weekend in Miami saw just as many satellite fairs (depending on how you count them) as in years past. Some disappeared, such as Sea Fair (oh thank god), while others debuted, such as Verge (Dan Cameron was involved in this); some switched venues—Pulse (won), Nada (lost)—while others stayed put—Art Miami (nice floor), Design Miami (nice couch).
Now we hear that when the Armory Show opens in New York in March, it will be accompanied by (at least) two new satellite fairs: one called “Independent” and another called “Critical Design New York”. And the Art Show, the ADAA’s (Art Dealers Association of America) prestigious showcase, is moving its dates to coincide with Merchandise Mart’s spectacle on the piers (we should note that the two ran together in 2007 when the Armory Show shifted its dates to February).
Where, one feels compelled to ask, do they all come from? And why, in this economy, don’t they go away?
The answers are quite simple. First, by way of clarifying what we mean by a “satellite” art fair, let’s establish what we already know: the Art Show is in no way a satellite. On the contrary, it is a centre of gravity on its own and has been for more than 20 years. Its move to coincide with the dates of the Armory Show are less a challenge to the latter’s status as New York’s “main fair” than a gesture of acknowledgement that a two-sun solar system can be beneficial to all involved—galleries, collectors and the public at large. Satellite fairs, in contrast, require heat, in the form of audience and buzz, which they cannot generate on their own.
Yet the presence of those two shows together points up just how they differ: the ADAA is a self-governing trade organisation that uses its professional network and reputation to maintain certain collectively held high standards of “curatorial excellence”, whatever that may mean; notably, the proceeds from the gala preview and admission to the show go to benefit the Henry Street Settlement, a not-for-profit social services organisation. In contrast, the Armory Show, owned by Merchandise Mart Properties, is, in essence, a real estate deal. A large property is secured, space is parcelled out, applications are considered by a selection committee (anyone who has bought property in New York City is achingly familiar with how capricious a process like this can be), leases are signed and payments made. By the time the doors open, the fair organisers-cum-event promoters are in the black (hopefully); ticket and concession sales are gravy (and with $5 espressos, it’s rich gravy indeed). In the end, the risk is the galleries own.
Most satellite fairs hew to one or other of these models, or they land somewhere in between. An enterprising promoter with access to a big enough piece of property on the right dates and with the right rolodex can put up a fair in no time at all (i.e. Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook’s “Independent” fair in Dia’s former digs in Chelsea). It doesn’t much matter how one spins the curatorial conceit—“solo shows”, “artist-run”, medium-specific—the mechanics in most cases are pretty much the same.
And we must remember that these, what we could mock-condescendingly call “art fairs for the other half”, are at bottom aspirational. Even the scrappiest, collective-run, artist-centric, market-and-so-self-loathing gallery would very likely jump at a chance for a booth at a big fair, be it the Armory, Frieze or Art Basel. In lieu of such a coveted spot, a slot at Volta or Pulse will do very nicely (one at Pool less so).
But to each his or her own: a friend and first-time fair-goer in Miami this year emailed me his interest in hitting Sculpt and Red Dot right off the bat. The point is not that he would be misguided in attending these satellite fairs, it’s that as someone whose time is otherwise engaged outside of the culture industry, and who is only just learning to survey the landscape of contemporary art, he represents the audience that will go to these fairs, potentially enjoy them, and quite possibly buy art from them. None of which, of course, is a bad thing. It’s just that these fairs depend upon both audience stratification (i.e. the naïveté of a certain collectorate) and the quietly held (but misguided) belief that the institutionalised art world—the one backed by money and museums—is simply an “insiders’ club” that has no privileged purchase on art of lasting quality. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, after all.
Finally, when the economy turns south, so does real estate. Last spring all of the talk was about the impending decimation of New York’s gallery scene. It didn’t happen. And on Manhattan’s lower east side, where commercial rents have dropped around 20%, new galleries have been popping up like mushrooms after the rains. For those aspirational real estate deals we call satellite fairs, there is no reason not to expect the same. n
The writer is a partner of Boyd Level LLC, a private curatorial firm, editor-at-large of ArtReview magazine, and executive editor at the Drawing Center, New York
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