I’d say I was brought in at a critical transitional moment for the fair. Frieze had just announced that they would be opening in New York and the impact of this was atop everybody’s radar. But beyond this, the Armory had been around since the mid-1990s, and in the twenty-odd years since, the art fair landscape had entirely transformed, with the launch of Basel Miami in 2002, followed by scores of other regional and niche fairs, to a point in which there are now in excess of 200 art fairs internationally.
When I joined the team, the mission was to bring energy back to the fair and really enhance the depth of programming as well as the quality of our exhibitors and their presentations on site. New York is a “noisy” art market, and it is often said that doing an art fair of any kind in the city is challenging, since there is essentially an art fair happening here 365 days a year. The Armory had also seemingly grown too big for its own good when I stepped in. For example, there were about 280 to 290 galleries when I got there in 2011 – it was larger than Art Basel Miami that year, and the venue of course is not nearly as large.
Yet despite some of these variables, there seemed to be a huge opportunity to do something interesting within this, and the fair has incredibly solid fundamentals. The Armory has long been known as being a very strong commercial fair – a selling fair – with longstanding support from the New York and wider American collector base. The time of year it happens in is also great – it is the first major international event after Miami and kicks off what is becoming a busier and busier spring season. The fair itself is located in midtown Manhattan which makes it a five-day fair, with people come through for the entire run of show, so it is accessible in that way and there are just so many more levels of mediation that take place in the fair space.
So with this as a backdrop, we felt that if we could tighten up the fair, give it more polish and a more substantive, critical backbone, and at the same time improve its look and feel and the overall fair-going experience, then we could really get back to where we wanted to be – where, I think, a fair of the Armory’s stature deserves to be.
Well, if you look at the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and this rise of the first generation of globe-trotting curators and these traveling conceptually-driven shows that mutate over time, as opposed to the more conventional roll-out of blockbuster shows, I think you begin to see the foundations of our current moment. After the collapse of the ‘80s art market bubble, which was heavily driven by speculation around Impressionist paintings, the art world that emerged in the ‘90s was a more interdisciplinary market. The 1990s was also the decade of the biennial, with these global travelling shows that worked as international get-togethers for the art world. What I think we’ve seen in the last decade is the wholesale integration of the non-commercial exhibition into the fair-driven commercial format, which borrows a lot of trappings from the biennial but essentially creates a structure in which everything has a price tag.
Our China focus initiative this year at the Armory offers a good example of how we’ve drawn these tendencies into our own orbit – bringing 17 galleries and 30-plus artists together, many of whom have never exhibited outside of Asia. The fact that we, as a fair, might act as a launching pad for the careers of artists who haven’t yet gained significant renown in the American – and in many instances, international – market is very rewarding. And by supplementing this with some exciting on-site projects and a dense symposium that brings together scholars, journalists and practitioners from the region, really shows how far fairs have come in the knowledge and context generation exercise that might formally have been relegated to museums and the academy. This wholesale shift is definitely unique to our present moment.
I think that fairs and exhibitions of all kinds are essentially symbiotic. They both have their pros and cons. For instance, though clearly fairs are constrained by spatial considerations, the sheer number of people that you can come into contact with as an exhibiting artist or gallerist, and the commercial stimulus that the fairs provide, means that they really need to be taken seriously. We’re also seeing galleries use fairs as progressive platforms to introduce artists to new markets in much more ambitious ways nowadays. Visitors to the Armory this year will see a notable rise in solo presentations and tightly curated booths and this is something that we’ve worked very diligently on with our selection committee, and in conversation with our participating galleries.
If you look back to the beginnings of art fairs, with Art Cologne and Art Basel, those were essentially dealer-driven formats produced to create a market in a growing but, at the same time, somewhat stagnant market environment. For many years, art fairs were receptacles for dealer’s backrooms, or were venues to clear inventory. Over the course of the ‘80s into the ‘90s, you had this progression, with Basel becoming the pre-eminent art fair of its time through a transformation that borrowed museum and institutional trappings – Unlimited or Statements, for example. These sections, aside from being commercial spaces, resemble museum programmes in every shape and form, and this approach signified a really transformational moment in the business. Then, you had Frieze Projects or its sculpture park. Everything became a branded and intellectually inspired activity.
The Armory is New York’s homegrown art fair and I think this will always distinguish it. The fair is a strong commercial platform that has long-standing relationships with the New York and international collector-base and strong ties with the city’s cultural institutions. It is also the cornerstone event of the city-wide Armory Arts Week, which for the first time this year also coincides with the Whitney Biennial. So it’s a gateway to the New York and American market in a direct way, and I think the energy and density of the fair is emblematic of the urban fabric of the city itself.
In the last couple of years, our team has gone to great ends to further emphasize these strengths, and also to build and rebuild relationship both with our galleries and the wide networks of institutions and collectors that support the fair: giving people a sense of what we are doing and giving them the confidence that this is important. We also recognize that everybody has a lot of fairs to choose from nowadays, and one can’t take for granted anymore that an international dealer that wants exposure to the New York market is necessarily just going to do the Armory, which might have been the case before. So building or rekindling these relationships with our broader community is what this fair is about – putting a human face on what can often feel like an otherwise enormous enterprise.
Sure, to speak of VIP, one thing that we learned is that essentially the unspoken secret in the art world is that a huge amount of business is done at the push of a button, site unseen, and it is something that people don’t necessarily want to admit. But the reality is that this is done everyday, all the time. It starts with very simple interactions, from me knowing you as a client for a long time, and you, as a result of that, feeling comfortable buying a work from me from a jpeg. Beyond that, another interesting discovery around the VIP fair was that the Internet is not just about e-commerce. This was the other main thing that has been massively misunderstood what we did, and also about other online art buying websites. What we found was that, despite the well-discussed technical issues of VIP, a lot of sales happened in the fair week but more importantly than that, a lot of sales happened in the aftermath. I remember going to the Armory six weeks after the VIP Art Fair and a number of dealers were enthused about it because they had been approached by and sold works to collectors they had never met before, but who had found them through the VIP fair and learned about their programmes online.
In terms of how I’ve scaled those lessons to the Armory, this is now the third year that we have collaborated with a technology partner, and though a lot of fairs are doing it I like to think we are doing it both more ambitiously and more strategically. One of the realities of all fairs is that a lot of people can’t visit them in person, so it is an amazing bonus if we can somehow give our exhibitors an intelligent, cost-free platform that that they can use to speak to a whole other demographic who doesn’t necessarily visit us on the piers. This might spur new contacts during Armory week, but just as easily it might lead to a visit to the gallery later in the year, or a conversation at another fair – it’s about using the Internet as a lead generator. And in an ideal world if these connections can be traced back to the Armory, that’s great and something that we take a lot of pride in being able to provide.
It seems that some people might just be more comfortable mediating the commercial realm online. Without passing judgment on whether this is good or bad, I think it is the inevitable reality of our current technological moment and I feel strongly that these structures will impact the art world ever more profoundly in the years to come. To this end, one has to be sensitive to the fact that, as the art world expands, there are different types of people within it, but they don't all communicate within these rigid institutionalized ways that we have become accustomed to when it comes to accessing contemporary art. I think anything we can do as a fair that might gain access to these different types of communities, even if it means taking a risk or doing something people haven’t thought about, is important.
I think that galleries will have to be more strategic as to what fairs they are doing and why, and what they want to get out of them. The mentality of following fairs for fashion is going to pass because the sheer costs are so great nowadays, that galleries large or small will be more selective. I also think we will see more gradation in fair hierarchy.