Fairs USA

Why satellite art fairs are recession-proof

Fairs work just like real estate, and when commercial rents go south, opportunities pop up

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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Comments

16 Feb 11
15:24 CET

JERRY, SPEIRS

Well written article. The important question here, is whether the very simple, but over sensationalized alternative models, that money and power seeking gallerists like Elizabeth Dee inflate over an evening of cheep wine and proposals, are doing anything more to help expose us, the collectors, to new work. If money is the problem, and gallery owners like Dee, are in effect looking for more profitable models disguised as alternative ones, then all we will see is the same art, under a different, and eventually desperate heading. From what I see this year, a few of the best participants have been excluded from Dee's capitalist venture. And her relationship to these newer younger galleries, is obviously ill advised and not well established. She knows nothing about the European collector community, much less the poor artists she will suckle a few dollars out of too. I am not surprised Darren is no longer involved.

30 Apr 10
15:11 CET

DAVID FAMULARO, FEATHERSTON NEW ZEALAND

In Wellington, New Zealand every year there is an "art fair" called the Affordable Art Show which sells hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of "art" which is better than any of the five or so "to be taken seriously" galleries in New Zealand's capital and "art capital." It works on the misguided notion that art is in eye of the beholder (when it's actually beauty). I doubt it makes any contribution at all to the evolution of art understanding and appreciation. Rather, it confuses further the general public's already confused understanding of what art is. The good news is that someone like myself who has little money can buy, for example, a beautiful mid-twentieth century Japanese hand enamelled vase for the price of a couple of movie tickets (with ice creams), or like I just did, a lovely English Edwardian tile for NZ$5.

17 Feb 10
14:56 CET

CHRISTOPHER HUDGENS, CHICAGO, IL

Interesting overview of Satellite Fair landscape but little is said about the title "Why Satellite Fairs are Recession Proof" & to that I have to whole heartily disagree. Satellite fairs are far, far from recession proof. When October of 2008 hit the economy & Wall Street it hit Satellites just as hard. Sending them into a last minute course correction before Miami & NYC that was brutal. Some didn't make Miami, Some like Red Dot didn't make NYC & Some like Bridge didn't make it long after NYC. I know that every single fair was doing smart damage control in the wake of that & times were exceedingly difficult. You just had to know where/what to look at or be part of the behind the scenes talk. Satts rebound fast yes, but the industry with one or two exceptions is composed of a handful of smart people with no institutional support & are hit twice as hard by a bad economy unless they see it coming & plan in advance. Christopher Hudgens Badatsports.com Formerly with Bridge

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