Too rich, too thin
Fairs are a particularly tricky topic for artworld analysis. There are so many different parties involved – hundreds of dealers, thousands of collectors, tens of thousands of “tourists” – that there’s an intense Rashomon effect. And when it comes to sales data, the true results of a fair are both obscured by dealer posturing and totally unknown until months later, when it becomes clear which “strong interest” from collectors has turned into actual sales – and conversely which “sales” fell through. That being said, here are my impressions from talking to people throughout last weekend’s Armory Show madness in New York:
Sales were inconsistent. Some dealers claimed to have done very well (and their rehung booths backed up that claim), while others were complaining that they never felt a “feeding frenzy” build as it does at Art Basel, Frieze, or Art Basel Miami Beach. Such frenzies bring about two things that dealers love: a “buy it or lose it” sense of urgency and a momentary disregard for any notion of relative value. To be judged commercially successful , then, does today’s fair needs to function like a pitched auction-room battle?
Crowds were inconsistent. Or rather, quantity and quality of crowd were out of sync. There were moments during the weekend when there was a two-hour wait to enter (even for some hapless VIPs) and sardine-can conditions inside. At the same time, the dealers I talked to felt like many major non-NYC collectors had not made the trip, confirming my suspicion from the pre-fair survey I conducted among my artworld friends and associates (i.e. asking, “See you at the Armory?”). I also wonder whether the tiered-entry ticket scheme for the VIP opening ($1,000 to get in at 11.30am, $500 for 4pm, $250 for 6pm) does not have a dually negative effect by 1) making core artworld folk feel like anyone can buy their way into artworld-VIP status (an echo of my night-club metaphor thoughts after ABMB...) and 2) putting off collectors who are unwilling to pony up a grand to get in early, yet feel that their competitors who did so will snap up all the good stuff. Any thoughts on this?
Quality was “thin.” Although, frankly, I’m starting to wonder about how easily that term gets tossed around in the artworld. Essentially, it’s shorthand for: “Not as many great works as I had expected.” The explanations people offer for this perceived “thinness” are myriad, most often including the 2007 Armory Show’s coming three weeks sooner after Art Basel Miami Beach than last year. More broadly, there’s no question that the trend of ever-more contemporary works coming to auction is constricting the flow of secondary pieces going to fairs (via the artist’s gallery). At the primary level, many artists are resisting dealer demands for fair-destined artworks. Not to mention that long waiting lists mean much art is “sold” before it’s even created in the studio.
Already last year several dealers at the Armory confessed to me that they had borrowed works back from collectors for their booths, to make a more respectable showing. When I mentioned this to a Miami megacollector after we ran into each other at L & M Arts, he said, “Don’t forget also that a lot of European galleries are just shipping work over now that they sold six months ago to Americans.” (I think there’s a tax ploy here, but that’s not my forte.) So in that sense, the fair was even thinner than it looked to the naked eye.
In fairness to the Armory, I’ve heard people make the same complaints at virtually every fair for the last few years. So it seems that the buying/viewing public is consistently underestimating the difficulties dealers currently face in amassing material for fairs.
In a mature world, the public would recalibrate our expectations. In the artworld, dealers need to figure out a workaround, which is why we’re seeing many more galleries using fairs as platforms to promote their younger artists rather than as a way of moving merchandise from their stars. Pulling back for a little perspective, I’d love to hear some other people’s thoughts on the “thinness” of fairs, both from a historical perspective and on the question of whether we’re walking into these events with absurdly high, doomed-to-be-dashed, expectations. Or am I being too easy on dealers?
Photo: Simon Evans, from White Columns.