Most tourists who wander into the rotunda of Federal Hall on Wall Street likely won’t be there for this week’s Portal Art Fair, but the three floors of mixed-media art may cause them to linger longer in the 19th-century space. The fair’s inaugural edition, opening today in the former United States Customs House, coincides with Frieze Week, with 28 artists exhibiting below Federal Hall’s towering dome and in its Doric column-lined hall.
Portal is coordinated by the nonprofit 4heads in collaboration with the National Parks Service. Like their work with the annual Governors Island Art Fair, staged in the former military housing on the New York harbor island, Portal is highlighting the city’s historic architecture along with emerging art. Federal Hall is often overlooked in comparison to the Stock Exchange across the street, and locals may have gone there once and never returned, or just glanced at the George Washington statue on the steps outside while pushing through the crowds of tour groups and vendors.
I’m all for roving art fairs that temporarily inhabit some historic New York City spaces, but walking through Portal, I did wish that the work interacted more with the space, especially since, according to 4heads’ release, it was all “selected based on submitted proposals that responded to and engaged with the distinct architecture of Federal Hall.” Since it is a national memorial, obviously the architecture can’t be altered in any way, but most of the two-dimensional work was crammed into a few small second-floor rooms, and felt unmoored from the space. I also didn’t see much response in the sculptural pieces, just the built-in contrast between the new and the old.
There were some creative plays with the interior, mostly with the sculpture, such as Aaron Taylor Kuffner’s “Gamelatron” adding a soundtrack to the rotunda with mellow notes from robotic Indonesian instruments, and Dong Hee Lee’s “Black Egg Cell” (2011), a strange orb made from black hot glue, filling a central void in the lower level. I also liked how the lightness of Jayoung Yoon’s cubic hair art (yes, made from real human hair) contrasted with the heaviness of the columns alongside it, and how Will Kurtz’s newspaper-formed, life-size people (and raccoon) blended in with the visiting crowd when viewed from above. Along with Randy Polumbo’s “Telephone” (2016), a phone booth crammed with blown glass and LEDs, the figures made for a strange street scene.
However, I’d argue that neither Kurtz nor Polumbo are exactly emerging artists, both having exhibited extensively in prominent galleries and museums. Since Portal only includes New York-based artists, it would have been more exciting to give some truly emerging voices in local art such a stunning platform as Federal Hall, where many tourists stopping in might not have any art on their visiting schedule aside from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Huge “This Place Matters” banners are currently hanging on Federal Hall, part of the 2016 Preservation Month organized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. While the art in Portal is uneven, it’s an alternative approach to involving both locals and tourists alike to spend more time with this historically significant place. There’s so much that could be explored in contemporary art here, especially with Wall Street just outside, the very au courant Alexander Hamilton buried down the street, and the South Street Seaport steps away with its own preservation issues. If the fair continues in the future in this space, maybe that initial tentativeness to really do something radical in Federal Hall can be overcome, where the classically inspired architecture already commands, and deserves, so much attention.
The Portal Art Fair continues at the Federal Hall National Memorial (26 Wall Street, Financial District, Manhattan) through May 10.