On the penultimate day of the Armory Show, galleries were reporting sold out booths, sales pushed from in-house inventory, new connections and clients discovered, and not one bit of weariness. And no, they didn’t all know I’m press as I approached, covering my I.D., asking for prices and receiving what would be bad news for any straggling collector who was naïve enough to shop after day two: it’s sold. That artist’s work has sold out. We have one more of those but it’s on reserve. This is something that continues unchanged at the larger art fairs; most works are sold by end of day one — with many having been sold before the fair even started — by end of day two, some serial items may be left (those, and the duds and the bad deals).
This near-guaranteed income is a large part of the draw to art fair culture, along with prestige and professional meet-n-greets. Some dealers in the past have stated that they can make a whole year’s worth of sales at one fair. But it’s the prohibitive upfront costs (the booth, the transportation, the shipping, handling, and insurance) along with the exclusive application processes which have caused art market analysts to worry about the fate of the mid- to small-size galleries.
Popular wisdom has had it that ‘global’ means ‘big and exclusive,’ and that the art fair apparatus which is, in large part, the art world’s answer to global trade systems, works only for wealthy collectors and the largest galleries. But many of the galleries that took part in the new “Armory Show Presents” program would beg to differ.
Love was in the air when I spoke to a very enthusiastic Adnan Manjal, who represents Athr, a Saudi gallery which had applied a few years in a row before finally being accepted into the Armory Show as part of the “Presents” forum. He was thrilled to be in the show, and enthusiastic about “expanding Athr’s commercial presence into the U.S.” A very nearly sold out booth spoke well of his first foray into New York.
Asked if Athr would be at the Armory next year, Manjal responded without hesitation, “We really really really hope so! We did well, and we were received very well too.” What about other U.S. art fairs? Manjal throws up his hands, “Definitely. I mean, what gallery doesn’t want to make it to Basel Miami?”
The enthusiasm that these young galleries feel is due in part to the fact that the Armory has made a special effort to include them this year. Asked if “Armory Presents” is an attempt to address the growing concern (often voiced in the media) that an art fair economy is causing mid to small sized galleries to lose their ability to compete, a fair representative said yes:
“The Armory Presents section allows the Armory Show to include emerging galleries which are often over looked by the art market. We have made a special attempt to incorporate almost 20 newly established galleries into the Armory Show 2014, allowing them the opportunity to showcase cutting edge international works.”
Manjal agrees, but also adds that he takes no issue with the exclusivity of some fairs: “There are so many art fairs around, and every fair caters to a specific market. There’s room for everybody.”
Perhaps this is true. On the way to Pier 92, I walked into (Un)Fair and asked Jennifer Wallace, the fair’s director and co-founder, if the tiny fair’s title was a play on “fair” — were the art fairs “unfair” to small galleries and emerging artists? She said not at all. “The name is a play on the noun, not the adjective,” she cleverly responded. It’s a fair that’s “about art, not fashion” and includes artists of every stripe who make works that are not market-directed.
One wonders if, instead of falling apart due to an imbalance cased by monied art fairs, perhaps the art market is adjusting itself by spawning a separate art fair culture which will have, in the future, as many tiers as the current hierarchy? Other adjustments mentioned to me by smaller galleries have included strategies like juggling attendance to different fairs in different years. According to ArtVista, an online art fair database, attendance at the Armory Show has dipped slightly in the past two years; perhaps as galleries learn to switch up art fair schedules, the larger fairs will see a decrease in yearly attendance, while smaller fairs will grow.
I mulled his over as I re-visited my favorite booth. Part of the Focus on China program, Double Fly Art Center were also enjoying their first Armory show experience and exuding an infectious enthusiasm with a brilliantly colorful game-filled booth where weary travelers could win fun, if baffling, prizes. This reporter won three items, including a double-headed angry birds chew toy equipped with a ribbed condom.
If the mid and small-size galleries are happy here at the Armory Show today, so, too, are some of the big players who should, one would think, be weary of the increasingly large art fair cycle. I wondered, also, where all the “I hate art fairs” kvetching was. I had expected that blips of Weltschmerz would bleed through the Armory Show’s carefully crafted veneer. I myself had visited galleries during the year who grumbled here and there about the difficulties, both in terms of labor and in terms of fairness to the artists whose work is truncated by representation in tight fair booths.
But no one at David Zwirner’s booth seemed to mind. Though wary of my press card, and eager to deflect my questions to their press office, they did say that sales were brisk and that the four panel mixed media work, “Tensions,” by Zwirner star Oscar Murillo had long been sold. The booth, manned by vibrant black-clad young folk, resembled, in its perfunctory spirit, a tiny mall shop. Zwirner’s website lists dozens of fairs in which the power player participates and it is one of 12 galleries that are showing at both the Armory Show and the ADAA.
PPOW is another. Penny Pilkington, the PP of PPOW, was happy as a clam, sitting in her booth and watching the world go by. An old hand art the art fair business, Pilkington’s been booth-sitting since the mid-80’s. She tells me that preparing for the fairs, shipping, travel, curation, and so on are all just part of the job. And she likes what she does.
“It’s been a good year,” she tells me, “and we’ve sold to new people and clients we’ve never seen before.”
Her booth has caught the eye of many photo-snappers enjoying Timothy Horn’s Tree of Heaven series. The large, rococo works of nickel-plated bronze are named after the Ailanthus altissima plant, an invasive species known for its “notorious ability to thrive in a difficult environment.” Hmmmm. In days past, that would have come off as ironic. Now, well, it could be a mirror held up to a surprisingly stalwart art market.
The 2014 Armory Art Fair (Twelfth Avenue at 55th Street, Westside, Manhattan) took place March 6–9.