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Hunt, Ritual, Sacrifice: |
The Art Fair as an American Icon
|   || Climbing from Garden
Club fundraisers to the elite heights of New York society, the Art Fair appears
in multiple incarnations across the girth of the nation. Only recently validated
by the authoritative establishments of art, the importance of the Art Fair
has been felt by more humble American communities for decades. Vendors promoting
each year’s artistic achievements pop their tents in parks, streets, hotels,
and convention halls to produce this event driven exchange. The Art Fair presents
an occasion full of options and competition for both buyer and seller. It
possesses a temporary landscape that provides a place to see and to be seen
-- a stage for players and witnesses to converge.
There are as many Art Fairs as there are definitions of art. Each manifestation appeals to its buyers in relation to their aesthetic interests or social influences. This is a highly segregated phenomenon. One may encounter chainsaw art at The North Georgia Mountain Art Fair but don’t expect to find it at the Angola Prison Rodeo and Art Fair; this event, which shares its location with the recent Hollywood movie, “Dead Man Walking”, features art from Death Row! The Body Art Fair in Costa Mesa California showcases live piercing and tattoo art. The Outsider Art Fair in New York City benefits the American Folk Art Museum. The ~scope contemporary art fair strikes seasonally around the world and at last it is possible to attend a virtual art fair without leaving home via www.internetartfair.com. Of the features that identify the Art Fair, the consistent time and location seem to be the most imperative. Like Persephone returns annually from Hades, the activity of the Art Fair bustles into town like clockwork every year. From teenage girls buying ceramic bird feeders for Mother’s Day to important curators purchasing for their collection, attending the Art Fair has become a ritual of American life.
Art Fairs are efficient mechanisms of one-stop shopping. Virtually all of them employ committees to select exhibitors. The chosen applicants are then charged rental fees for a square footage of the fair. Temporary displays are in rows that create open corridors that allow visitors to view many exhibits at once. While the community Art Fair is free to the public, the high Art Fairs charge shoppers admission. At the neighborhood Art Fair one finds an emphasis on home and fashion products. Items are crafty, affordable, and fun. Stained glass versions of the magnetic “support our troops” car ribbons are a current rage. A shopper might purchase anything from welded nut and bolt creatures to refined Anagama pottery. Most shoppers are purchasing gifts. At the high Art Fair, money spent is considered an investment. The work in these fairs tends to be more intellectually challenging to traditional notions of beauty. The work ranges from multi-million dollar Picasso paintings to Victorian wallpaper samples painted with the blood of an emerging artist who is struggling for recognition.
The American Art Fair is just turning fifty yet it feels much older. Claiming lineage from the Victorian World’s Fair and the regional State Fair, this icon nestles itself securely in-between the bosoms of Progress and Community. There are obvious links between the Art Fair and art exhibitions at the regional fairs. The Gaspirilla Fair in Florida, for instance was born because depictions of nudes at the State Fair offended the livestock audience. The Gaspirilla Art Fair publicity materials say, “Controversy often attended the art exhibitions and some fair board members would like to have seen it dismantled altogether.” State Fairs have traditionally sacrificed the controversy of contemporary art exhibitions in favor of student art competitions. For the most part, the Art Fair has always been an independent entity.
The idea of the community Art Fair was established by entrepreneurs seeking to revitalize downtown business districts affected by the suburban flight of the 50’s. The Metris Art Fair in Minnesota is one of these. In their publicity materials, Fair organizers describe the founders as entrepreneurial pioneers. The upscale contemporary Art Fairs were likewise established by innovative capitalists in the name of economic renewal. Currently one of the largest contemporary art fairs, The Armory Show: The International Fair of New Art was organized by Manhattan dealers to jump-start the fledging New York art market in the early 1990’s. The contemporary Art Fair gains prominence as the New York gallery world declines.
Connecting itself to history is imperative to the Art Fair’s future. The Old Town Art Fair, the Old Country Art Fair, the Old Capital Art Fair are but a few of the numerous fairs presenting themselves as living history. The only relation today’s Armory show has with the influential Armory Show of 1913 is New York City. Most art aficionados are aware of this but cannot deny the name solicits an automatically validating link. The Art fair without tradition fails, even in the contemporary art world.
For publicity purposes and old time appeal, many American Art Fairs claim to be the nation’s oldest. Among these, the 57th Street Art Fair in Chicago’s Hyde Park was established in 1948 by artist/gallerist Mary Louise Wormer as a means for artist networking. The Fair was open to all artists until 1963 when a group of critics, collectors, curators, and artists began selecting exhibitors. Today, the vast majority of the Art Fairs are similarly juried events in which the participants are selected by panels of art officials.
Despite obscure claims to be in the benefit of struggling artists, virtually all of today’s Art Fairs are business ventures whose purpose is raising capital for its organizers. While the fashionable artist unloads this year’s inventory, the artist who is not commercially successful is losing money, confidence, and a place in next year’s show. Rain or shine, the Fair makes money on exhibitor entrance fees, sales commissions and equipment rentals. Even Uncle Walt recognizes the money making potential of organizing an Art Fair. On the Disney Family Fun web pages there are simple instructions to gain capital by asking artists “to sell their work and donate the proceeds” (www.disney.com). A few nonprofit Art Fairs, including Womer’s 57th Street Fair, are committed to serving the community with fair revenue. Most Art Fairs, however, cannot be considered philanthropic efforts.
This year, the Armory packed 500+ of the world’s most exclusive contemporary art dealers neatly inside two New York City convention halls. Selected galleries paid from twenty thousand to a half million for the weekend’s booth rental. The cost of the private preview party was $1000 a head. Visitor admission was $20. The Armory Fair is annually sandwiched between commercial boat and ideal home shows. Come October, the Affordable Art Fair moves into the same hall. Exhibitors rent booths for thousands less, the private preview party is a mere $100, and general admission is reduced to $12. The Art Fair is separate but available to shoppers of diverse economic backgrounds.
The Armory Fair began when the contemporary art dealers Pat Hearn, Colin McLand, Paul Morris and Matthew Marks invited select galleries to showcase work in the rooms of Gramercy Park Hotel (Haden-Guest 42). The success of this original incarnation the Armory Fair co-mingles with the jewelry world’s “trunk shows” to spawn the present generation of Contemporary events such as ~scope and DIVA: Digital and Video Art Fair. Both of these contemporary art fairs transform swanky hotel rooms into makeshift galleries. Distant and perverse relations to the neighborhood Art Fair, these exclusive events strew emerging artists across crisp double beds where traveling collectors negotiate a price.
Back home in middle America, the Cherokee Triangle Art Fair is an outdoor event. Although it is only advertised in more affluent areas, it takes place on neighborhood streets and is ostensibly open to the public. The sun shines through the trees and it is a beautiful day at the fair. It is mostly Caucasian yet there is a feeling that the entire community is participating. This relaxed and festive occasion is the celebration of a society shopping! Clowns and popcorn and kids: Besides art, this fair offers music, games, regional foods and the obligatory police on horses. There is an uncommon sense of well-being. Everyone is cheerful and swollen with community pride.
Whether they are elite New York events or popular street festivals, it is obvious that Art Fairs are dealing in more than art. The Art Fair annually provides a hunt for something new within the security of the familiar. At each year’s Art Fair, one never knows who or what will be discovered. Romance and mystery fill the air and everyone is on the prowl. It’s interesting to note that writer Peter Hill has produced a novel called The Art Fair Murders. Twelve murders occur in twelve cities around the world. The novel, like the Art Fair itself, links international artists, gallery dealers, art critics, and collectors. In fiction and reality, the Art Fair is an island of treasure that provides the landscape between the searching killer and the hunted victim.
At the Art Fair the hunt is on but the danger has been eliminated. The panel of jurors may be intimidating to some artists and the event may be overwhelming, but the underlying intention of the event is to promote a fertile hunting ground that promises not to be threatening. Today’s Art Fairs are carefully choreographed labyrinths of community shopping adventures occurring within the consumer comfort zone. The excited rummaging that takes place at every Art Fair confirms that the need for a new possession is accompanied by an excited frenzy not unlike the primal hunger for food.
The victors of the Art Fair are those who discover and claim the new. Here, everyone dreams of having the best taste, being the best shopper. The discovery of the “in” product is exciting. Smart shopping is rewarded heroically and remembered mythically. The buyer distinctly carries his purchase like a badge of some brave act. Participating in the ritual makes the individual proud. Conversely, refusing to participate in the Art Fair exchange is plagued by a sensation of guilt. Buying nothing at the Art Fair is not only rude towards the artist, selfish toward one’s family, and disrespectful to the community, it is ultimately sacrilegious.
Recently in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Jerry Lyndrup, the co-chair of the Cherokee Triangle Art Fair, referred to visitors enacting “their rite of spring” (Hall B3). Similarly, New York Times arts reporter Carol Vogel spoke of “serious American collectors, dealers, auction house experts and museum curators attending an annual pilgrimage to Maastricht (art fair)” (Vogel B7). From local newspapers to quarterly art journals, the Art Fair is so idealized that it is spoken of in religious terms. Like Football Sundays or fireworks at the Fourth of July, the days at the Art Fair provide the community with an occasion to hang memories upon.
This year’s Fair makes last year’s purchases old and it is time to shop again. Americans understand that a new possession brings a certain satisfaction. They also expect this satisfaction will mutate into disappointment. Sooner or later the novel item works its way out of the Art Fair and namelessly rolls over onto the shelves of superstores and yard sales. Eventually the new becomes articulated so many times that it becomes old and the demand for the Art Fair is regenerated. Americans look forward to the annual return of the Art Fair because it promises bring them up-to-date.
It is this locomotive spirit of consumer lust that the Contemporary art dealers have recently learned to appreciate. Although several high Art Fairs have existed in America for decades, their raging popularity began with the appearance of Art Miami in 2002. The most elusive galleries in the world are now paying less attention to their physical homes and concentrating upon their presentation at the annual fairs. A gallerist may participate in as many as eleven shows annually! According to New Criterion editor James Panero, “Contemporary galleries now earn upwards of 50 percent of their sales from fairs where it once was 10” (42). Art Fair specific staff has been added to gallery payrolls and artists are constantly pushed for trendy, portable work.
The immense popularity of the Art Fair within the contemporary art world raises obvious questions about the future of the gallery and eventually about the longevity of art. The cold, white gallery space may have dug its own grave via pretentious secretaries and stuffy parties, yet it consistently offered space for quiet aesthetic contemplation. The Art Fair is a boisterous, interactive event whose aim is to make art purchasing easy. Museums, on the other hand, are out to win respect of their viewing public by curating a masterful collection of art. In a museum, the same painting may cover the same piece of wall for months or even decades. The museum provides the work with the time and space to be seen. At an Art Fair works must compete to be noticed. As a result, much of the work is flashy and shocking. One notable example was “Fuck Leg”, a lifelike gorilla leg severed with a meat cleaver that appeared on the floor of the 2005 Armory Show. In an Art Fair, as artwork sells it is removed and replaced with a new piece. The most highly coveted artworks at the Fair may not even reach the viewing walls but are secretly traded many times back stage. Museum politics and Art Fair politics pit capitalism against aestheticism.
Most museum curators dislike Art Fairs, but visit them regardless. Many deals shake down and they too want to be part of the action. Dealers, on the other hand, are attending a sleep away camp where like-minded camaraderie prevails. During the fair every gallery in town puts on its best show of the season and there may be 100 private viewings on the same night. There will be untold parties, private dinners, photo oops and late night debauching. Sexiness, glamour and randomness turn themselves into mini-marathons as the Art Fair ritual unfolds.
At the Los Angeles Art Fair one painting by Pop artist Andy Warhol sold 5 times to 5 different galleries. The price went up each time it sold. In a culture that places money as its premium, the Art Fair proves itself to be a highly efficient way to make exchanges. These events become increasingly central to the financial and social mechanisms of the international art world and the local economies that harbor them.
The Art Fair places exhibitors back to back in aesthetic competition. The Art Fair offers one stop shopping where buyers can easily compare products and prices. At the fair, art patrons act more like mall shoppers rummaging through products, buying impulsively and keeping up with the Joneses. Art at the Fair must be dramatic and flashy enough to capture the overwhelmed eye. It must be “buzzy and fun” (1) according to New York Observer reporter Choire Sicha. Limited by booth size, necessary portability and continuous demand for supply, the Art Fair presently dictates the direction of contemporary American arts. As the mobile Art Fair popularizes, the more art representatives are pushing their artists to make compact, marketable art at an ever-increasing rate. The Art Fair is an experiential shopping event that may eventually take precedence over the artist’s creative impulse.
As the Art Fair gains prominence it continues to raise questions about the buying and selling of art. How much are the demands of the fair determining the shape of contemporary art? Will the commercial world produce artists or will the artist create an intangible context? At this year’s fairs, dealers have proven their business savvy by including such non-objective forms such Performance Art, Installation Art, and Cyber Art within their inventory. If a work itself cannot be purchased, the artist’s time can. The submission of art to the demands of the Art Fair means contemporary aesthetics are determined by supply and demand. When dealer and collector benefit from the convience of shopping, the intentions of the creator are easily sacrificed. Inspiration, devotion, and expression are replaced by marketability.
Artist members of the American Association of Painters and Sculptors created and managed all aspects at the 1913 Armory Show. At the most recent Armory Show, very few artists were present. Many were discouraged from attending, as gallery representatives orchestrated the entire event. In one rare instance the artist was present but encased within a hollow wall. As a performance piece she revealed only her arm through a hole for buyers to see. A light bulb was clenched in her hand. At first glance, the arm appeared to be a cast object, at second glance, one began to realize that the arm was real. An American flag, colors inverted, was suspended just over the arm. One could assume this art act was a play on the Statue of Liberty and was questioning the idea of patriotism. Regardless of intention, this piece attested to the invisibility of artists at such a fair.
In contrast to the inaccessibility of the artists at the high Art Fair, creators at community Art Fairs are visibly managing their own displays. They are creating work at their booths and are openly interacting with the public. Excluded from this opportunity are creative artists who often feel dismissed by selection committees in favor of commercially driven craftsmen. As a response, recent years have seen the emergence of non-juried alternative events such as The St. James Art UNFAIR in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Art Fair can adjust its tempo to the momentum of American culture and reinvent itself to suit all interests and economic groups. There are even Art Fairs for those who despise Art Fairs. Art Fairs stand as community timekeepers. Year after year Americans return to their ceremonial marketplace. They hunt fashion and like-mindedness as they participate in the consumer celebration. The wealth, time, and taste necessary to enjoy the fair attests to the prosperity of the nation. The Art Fair is an icon of social progress and individual achievement. Inside and outdoors, from high art to death row, in exclusive society or on the Internet, the Art Fair is a unifying ritual that perpetuates the survival of a capitalist culture.
The Armory Show :
The International Fair of New Art
Cherokee Triangle Art Fair
~scope art fair