Art fairs are a bit like the shopping malls of the art world: With hundreds of gallery booths packed under one roof, hawking their pricey wares, they’re usually overcrowded and a pain to navigate. But art fairs have their perks; for gallerists and dealers, they’re opportunities to show and, hopefully, sell work to more visitors in one weekend than some galleries manage in six months. For spectators, fairs are one-stop shops for binge-viewing art from around the globe. And for artists — well, how do artists feel about art fairs? Are they places to size up competition while being reminded of the soul-eating machine that is the commercial art market? Or are they festive spots for catching up with old friends over $4 bags of Zapp’s chips? Do artists lose sleep while preparing for fairs, or do they not really care?
On the occasion of Frieze Week, we talked to six contemporary artists: Dustin Yellin, artist and founder of Red Hook-based nonprofit Pioneer Works; Jen Hitchings, painter and gallery manager at Pierogi Gallery; Rebecca Morgan, painter and illustrator; sculptor Patricia Cronin; Samuel Jablon, painter-poet (and sometime Hyperallergic contributor); and Natalie Frank, painter. Each shared what they love and loathe about art fairs, as well as which they’ll be checking out this week.
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Hyperallergic: What’s your favorite thing about art fairs?
Dustin Yellin: Oh, you know, I don’t really have feelings about them. They’re kinda weird. They’re like weird proms where you get to run into a bunch of friends. I like that there’s this membrane where a lot of people can go see a lot of art.
Jen Hitchings: Theoretically, I love the fact that galleries from cities all over the world — most of which I will never visit — are under one roof, presenting works that may (or may not) represent their culture. The accessibility of such diversity in one place is remarkable. However, the fact that the fairs are so cost-prohibitive clearly influences what work galleries chose to present, since they really have to sell in order to break even.
Natalie Frank: I love to see the variety of work shown at fairs — oftentimes, a fair is a great testing ground for an artist to test a new type of work. I like to walk around with a friend (and a granola bar) and discuss everything we see. It’s like walking through the pages of a book, reading, digesting and journeying through many art stories in real time. And there are the usual narratives, but there are also usually unexpected plot twists.
Hyperallergic: What’s your least favorite thing about art fairs?
DY: I don’t like the feeling of this very market-driven environment. This feeling of commerce, commerce, commerce. I don’t like art fairs. They should be free. Art should be free. We should all just give everything away. Everything should be free. Come to the African art fair [1:54]. I’ll give you anything you want.
JH: The market-driven aspect of the work presented. So few galleries take risks with their booth presentations, and I know many have artists that push boundaries. I also wish they were more affordable to attend. I don’t go to fairs that I can’t get into for free. And no, I won’t be buying an $18 flute of champagne or $4 bag of Zapp’s chips.
Rebecca Morgan: I have an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude towards art fairs and a lot of aspects of the art world in general. Art fairs are part of the landscape we exist in as artists, so I think it’s an artist’s responsibility to be aware of them and how they affect our lives both positively and negatively. Fairs can be an exhausting experience in an already exhausting art world hierarchy. But this is not a new concept to us as artists; it’s kind of how the whole thing works and how anyone gets anywhere. It’s problematic how inaccessible or expensive art fairs can be for working artists and students; as a response, I love how scrappy people can be when it comes to trading passes back and forth. (At least, that’s what I do.) The bullshit that impedes people can often bring people together.
Samuel Jablon: They are overwhelming. I find it difficult to actually look at the art.
Hyperallergic: How do art fairs affect your work flow, if at all? Do you lose sleep over them?
JH: I think that anyone who works fairs as a gallerist can attest to the fact that they require an enormous amount of time and energy, from the application to preparation, install, consecutive 8–9 hour days of standing and talking and hardly eating, de-install and packing, shipping, and re-inventoring all of the artwork. I can’t imagine what it would be like to do three, four, five fairs a year (and many galleries do).
NF: I look at fairs as a way to expose my work to a wide audience. I enjoy thinking about how my work might interact with a diverse group of people. Showing work at a fair is very different in intention from putting together work for a show. You can make one-offs, experiments, play with context in a way that is unique.
RM: I feel like I am always losing sleep over making work whether it is for a fair or not!
Patricia Cronin: Currently, I don’t have gallery representation and don’t participate. But I can’t imagine stopping my research and art production to make an object for a trade show.
Hyperallergic: What Frieze Week fairs will you be checking out this week?
DY: The African art fair at Pioneer Works is amazing. It’s more like a well-curated exhibition, it doesn’t even feel like an art fair. There’s William Kentridge, Mickalene Thomas, a lot of great people featured. But you’re talking to the wrong guy for this. You’re talking to a monkey man who lives by the seaside who has too much fur. People don’t know what to do, people just drag him by the ear. I don’t believe in art fairs, I don’t believe in the world, I don’t believe in the art world, I just believe in the world. It’s all just totally weird and I just wanna sit and play guitar to my goldfish. I wanna wear a red sweater and green shoes. I don’t know about Christmas but Jesus is my friend. We go way back — 6,000 years. We’re friends.
JH: Honestly, I’m more interested in the late nights and special events happening in New York during Frieze week than the fairs. SEVEN-ish, Seriously Funny at The Boiler in Williamsburg is a fantastic and hilarious show, which is on view during Frieze. A lot of galleries in Bushwick will also be open late on Friday night (May 6). The New Museum is opening a Nicole Eisenmann survey this week which I’m really looking forward to. 1:54 at Pioneer Works sounds fantastic.
PC: My favorite fair is Frieze Masters. I’m truly inspired by anachronistic art parings.
RM: I really love NADA; a lot of my favorite artists and galleries show there. I love the location — it’s so great to hang out by the water and have drinks. Last year I went to Frieze for the first time, but I think my favorite part about it was the ferry ride!
Hyperallergic: What would you rather be doing instead of go to art fairs this week?
DY: Oh my lord. I’d rather be — I like to sit on the rocks on the Hudson and watch the rocks in the water. I’d like to sit in the sunshine, cause I like to stare at the sun. I like to make things — some collages. I’ll probably do that. I like to eat. I like to have sex and I like to eat. I like to play with strange virtual reality tools. And I like to read. And I like to watch a movie. And maybe go surfing and make another collage.
JH: I kind of like the idea of going to Randall’s Island next weekend, biking around the island and hanging out in the park instead of going to the fair, so if anyone wants to join me …