New York

New York's lack of a standout art fair

New York is a city with the space and the traction to make introducing a fair of Art Basel's scale a lucrative prospect. So why are locals dragging their feet?


This month the international art crowd pitches up in New York for a week of art fairs. A slew of events are on offer, headed by three frontrunners: the Armory Show on the Piers at 12th Avenue, the Art Dealers Association of America’s (ADAA) The Art Show in the Park Avenue Armory, and last year’s hit, Independent, in the former Dia building at West 22nd Street. And circling around them are at least nine satellite fairs, from Volta and Scope to more minor events such as the six-dealer Salon Zürcher (see What’s On for listings, p84).

Each of the above three has a different flavour: the Armory Show used to be only for the primary market but has spliced on a modern section; The Art Show is for American dealers in the secondary and blue-chip contemporary markets; while Independent shows newer, edgy art.

Other cities—Paris, Basel or Miami Beach, say—have just one fair that brings together these various strands. So why doesn’t New York, at the heart of the art market, have just one blockbuster fair, such as Art Basel?

To start with the obvious: location is a major issue in New York. The Park Avenue Armory, is beautifully located and offers the huge, unobstructed drill hall, but is simply too small: ADAA can only offer booths to 70 of its 175 members. The Piers, where the Armory Show is held, are big, but as a location it suffers from inbuilt resistance from New Yorkers, who consider the West Side highway a psychological barrier, “outside” the city. And they love kvetching about the facilities. “It’s shabby, but not even ‘cool’ shabby,” says one insider. There is no close public transport. “It’s a long walk in an often freezing March,” comments another, and taxis are rare. When I objected that art buyers probably have chauffeurs, he added: “The Armory Show doesn’t necessarily attract the very wealthy, and in any case there’s a saying, ‘you learn to save from the rich’, look at the Rubells, they don’t do extravagant at all.” As for the parks, while Frieze is rumoured to be eyeing Bryant Park (the organisers sigh and repeat that they have no firm plans) but in any case it is small. There is one obvious huge space: the Great Lawn at Central Park. But apart from its lack of easy access, New Yorkers are fiercely protective of this, and it is doubtful residents would agree to a tent there, as there is in London’s Regent’s Park, for Frieze.

“The really big blockbuster fairs mainly happen in towns without an indigenous art scene,” says Darren Flook, organiser of Independent, citing Basel and Miami Beach. His words are echoed by Sam Keller, former director of Art Basel, and now director of the Beyeler Foundation. “Look at Kassel, Maastricht, Venice, Basel: there are few other distractions, the focus is on the event,” he says, adding another reason: “And there is no competition from the auction houses there either.” Marc Spiegler, current Art Basel co-director, says, “The choice of Miami Beach links the strongest market in the world—North America—with access to one with the strongest growth, Latin America.”

Anyway, “New York is an ongoing art fair!” says dealer Edward Tyler Nahem, who is nevertheless exhibiting at the Armory Show. Other Chelsea dealers, with their magnificent, museum-like spaces, have an ambivalent attitude to any art fair. Marianne Boesky is exhibiting at both ADAA and the Armory Show, and she says: “New York is our city and we should support it, but…it’s hard to be paying so much to exhibit in our own bailiwick.”

And with booths costing some $40,000 for 50 sq. metres at the Armory Show, some dealers have been making choices, particularly as there is strong competition elsewhere. This year’s edition sees 72 dealers—including heavyweights such as Zwirner, Pace and Sikkema Jenkins—not returning to the Piers. But Flook, as he unveils this year’s Independent fair, makes a prediction: “Things are changing in New York, and I think something on a big scale could happen in 2012,” he says. So maybe the Great Lawn won’t remain inviolate, after all.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Why is NYC not Basel?'


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