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Why Ed Winkleman Did #Rank at the Seven Miami Art Fair

How many of the estimated 46,000 artists, dealers, collectors, and lookyloos that checked in at Art Basel Miami Beach actually made the 35-minute car trip from the stunning South Beach to industrial Wynwood is still unclear.

Of the satellite art fairs in mainland Miami, strung up and down N. Miami Ave. — bookmarked by Scope and Art Miami near the Julia Tuttle Causeway (36 Street), and Pulse near the MacArthur Causeway (14 Street) — Seven Miami was in the middle (25 Street), the farthest from South Beach. For a relatively small upstart, comprised of only seven galleries versus the 250+ at Basel and, by my count, 90+ at NADA, Seven has received an great amount of attention, particularly online.

Seven was to Basel what Independent New York was to the Armory Show. An art fair (ok fine, temporary exhibition forum), yes, but set up as a museum-like display rather than sales booths, more concerned with theme and content than commodity object. Curatorial considerations made intelligent relationships between artists from different galleries, instead of an “art world greatest hits.” Because of the elimination of sales booths, the pressure was off. Here, dealers seemed to be interested in discussing ideas.

#Rank

Hyperallergic publisher Veken Gueyikian and artist Jesse Lambert show off the schwag bags they snagged at Greg Allen's lecture, "Relational Aesthetics for the Rich: A Brief History of the Gala as Art," at #Rank (click to enlarge)

There was constant action at #Rank, for which Winkleman Gallery cordoned off a section of the 24,000-square-foot exhibition space, a classroom-like setting with a “Hot Lips” pink chalkboard wall, two conference tables and folding chairs.

Organized by artists Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida, #Rank brought over forty artists from all over the world to Miami, many of whom would not have had the opportunity to go, much less to show, including myself.

Full disclosure: I participated in #Rank as an artist.

The goal was to identify and discuss the social sorting that happens in Miami during Basel week; how difficult it is to know, and much less accept, one’s own assigned social status, and what artists can do about it when brought face-to-face with an art world that worships wealth, celebrity, and the body beautiful.

#Rank was the brainchild of #Class (note the double-entendre in each) a similar artist-lead conference that happened at Winkleman Gallery in February 2010. Winkleman told me that he wanted to see how far Dalton (with whom he has worked with for over ten years) and Powhida “could take it” in the “symbolic center of the commercial art world.” He elaborated, “I don’t want them to ‘just get over’ [their] queasiness with it as much as use their gifts for seeing clearly to teach the rest of us how to deal with it more honestly.”

A view of Greg Allen's lecture at #Rank. (click to enlarge)

Everyone was welcome to participate that wanted to. People fluidly came and went in and out of conversations/performances. Some projects were spectacle, like Rebecca Goyette [pictured above] dressed up as a lobster, greeted, hugged, and talked to guests for an uncomfortable amount of time in “Hug It Out” — a project which has since received an undue amount of negative attention, and others were discussions, like Christopher K. Ho‘s round-table discussion about a return to “regional” art. Performances, lectures, video games, and cheese pizzas were all welcome in #Rank, and they accepted 99% of the people who applied.

There is always only a very short distance between art gathering and party (see Greg Allen’s lecture “Relational Aesthetics for the Rich: A Brief History of the Gala as Art”) And, of course, Mandie’s, Andrew Ohanesian’s closet-sized bar fueled #Rank with Budweiser. Mandie’s is architecturally shaped like a confessional, with “bartender” and “patron” sides equally-sized, approximately the size of a telephone booth, and well suited for gossip.

The question remains, are these projects actually art?

Even though it falls victim to Hal Foster’s criticisms of Relational Aesthetics, wherein “the director-curator becomes the star,” #Rank brought artists together in a meaningful way. Artists participated from across the country (like An Xiao’s “Sorry I Couldn’t Be There“) and developed longer-term connections internationally. Deborah Ainscoe participated from her home in London, which she described in “So Glad You Came.” It also began long before (see the forums dedicated to #Rank organized by J.D. Hastings) and remains long after the actual four-day long event (see the ongoing #Rank Twitter feed).

#Rank legitimized those formal and informal gatherings of artists to discuss the why and how of art. In this way, it was closer to Bruce High Quality Foundation University (2009) or Brody Condon (2010) than it was to Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (1997). Its format gives validity to action in the art community we previously took for granted, namely: brainstorming, debate, social media, blogger engagement, drinking, and other forms of serious and informal play.

Pressures of Art Basel Miami Beach

Art Basel Week in Miami: an unprecedented selling/collecting opportunity? Whatever. How about networking? It’s like gallery speed-dating! Have a quick five-minute meeting at a gallery, if that didn’t work out so hot, move onto the next booth! There is an extraordinary amount of pressure on artists, dealers, and collectors during Basel week in Miami. As such, it made the attendance at #Rank unpredictable, and distracted.

Although it somewhat disorganized, rushed, lacked downtime to foster discussion, and was exhausting for organizers and participants alike, the overall effect of #Rank was extremely powerful: after countless sales pitches, silent ironic Home Depot-sourced sculptures, and tired Helen Frankenthalers, #Rank was shocking. There was something actually happening. There was always a group of people talking, playing, drinking, watching, and/or performing. A built-in audience in place of a single salesperson. Sure it disintegrated into a party virtually everyday, but organizer Dalton describes it as, “planned chaos.”

#Rank turned the horrifying fact that 46,000 art world elites travel annually to a gay utopia for some sort of art world convention/shopping spree into something much more optimistic.  All of the forty plus participants in #Rank paid their own way — with almost no chance of making any money off it — just for the sake of participating in something that could change the art world … or at least be significant.

Questions for the Dealer

A view of Sean Naftel's Free Art Stand at #Rank. (click to enlarge)

This leads me to question the benevolence of well-respected art dealer and blogger Ed Winkleman. Why he would devote such a large amount of space to a project that he would lose money on? Art fair real estate is some of the most expensive on the planet, and galleries without unlimited funding must cover their expenses with sales. True, Seven provided ample space for Winkleman to hedge his bets with other artists, but he agrees that #Rank was a “loss leader” for the gallery. He explained:

Seven represented perhaps the only financially viable option to do [#Rank] … Also, the other Seven dealers [Postmasters, Ronald Feldman, Hales, Pierogi, BravinLee, PPOW] were the right people to ask to let us try this. They are heroes in my eyes.

Winkleman selected #Rank to draw the crowds and to secure maximum impact in the media. “[#Class] had garnered so much attention at the gallery, and we hoped a similar degree of attention would help promote Seven.” By hosting this conversation — as he did with #Class — Winkleman solidifies his position as a thought-leader in New York’s contemporary art world.  Citing Christopher K. Ho’s Happy Birthday (2008) which makes this conjecture and was shown at his own gallery, Winkleman agreed that, “[D]ealers ascribe value to a work of art through their reputation.”

While there is no doubt that he is extremely supportive of his artists and their projects, and does what he does because he loves art, Winkleman gains industry credibility by hosting the event. The take-away here is that in an attempt to do something really radical, there were some missteps and things weren’t as tight as possible. Winkleman invested in #Rank because he felt it was important, and because he was willing to take a risk — giving forty unknown artists a chance to present in Miami this year — which in itself is a huge success.

Follow-up discussion at Winkleman Gallery, 621 West 27 St., Thursday, December 30, 2010 from 6 – 9 PM. All are welcome.

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