Too rich, too thin

BuyMe.jpgFairs 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.

8 thoughts on “Too rich, too thin

  1. Charging people varied prices for tiered entry is a very New York thing to do. Some people will pay and not care because the ticket price is irrelevant within their bracket. Other people will pay because they want to be seen to be paying so they appear as if they are in the first bracket. But there will be people who resent the notion of paying to be able to buy, and they will simply wait. Will it put some people off from going at all because they feel the best works will be gone by the time they go in? Maybe. But it is more likely that the works that go will be those works that those buyers who pay for early entry can afford. Rather than the works that the latecomers will buy. So I don’t think it is material. And in any case, as with most fairs in most markets, for a major purchase you go to a fair to complete a (mostly) pre-agreed sale, rather than make the whole impulse decision at the one time. The fair is as much about the announcement of a sale, as an actual sale process.

    The interesting question to me, and the one that probably more affects the mood of the event, is the tiering of fairs implicit in Marc’s reference to Art Basel, Art Basel Miami and Frieze. These are parties as much as Art fairs. Maybe the Armory is just a less cool party in these heady days? As Marc implies, all the real action is now happening at the über-fairs and the auctions.

  2. Given all the sold (and/or borrowed) work displayed at the fairs, I wonder if certain dealers depend on the fairs partly for branding instead of sales?

    I am among the viewers who remarked on the proverbial “thinness” of quality goods. This made me appreciate all the more the dealers who approached their displays with some creativity. They include photography dealer Hans P. Kraus, Jr. who mounted a thoughtful thematic show. Also at the Art Show, Garth Clark’s ceramic artworks looked fresh and appealing in a fair so dominated by paintings.

  3. Along those branding lines, there’s also the frequent use of fairs as a way to show off the gallery’s newest star recruits. I’ve commonly had the experience of surprisedly spotting an artist’s work in a booth, wracking my memory and then finally asking “How long have you shown him?” then being told, “Well, we haven’t done any shows yet – but we just started representing him.” This happened again last weekend, but I can’t remember the booth or the artist (I blame Beatrice for the memory gap) – so the example I’ll cite is an $800,000 Chris Ofili being placed front and center on the aisle by David Zwirner (at Frieze 05, if memory serves correctly) after Ofili defected from Gavin Brown’s Enterprise.

  4. Along these lines, I am amazed by all the jumping around on the part of artists who appear as avaricious as Wall Street bankers who defect the moment their annual bonuses have cleared.

    Or how about the fly-by-night nature of certain galleries who have lured over artists only to shutter their doors. The Baer Faxt reported today that the Bortolami-Dayan gallery owners are already going their separate ways.

  5. Too easy on dealers? Yikes! I’d hate to see you go all out then. :-)

    While there are galleries doing extremely well in this boom, a good number of the younger ones, despite their press, can still barely keep up with their ever-rising expenses. Whereas a booth in the first NADA fair, for example, cost less then $3000, there are reports that booths in fairs less well known will be charging 15K and up for booths in Miami later this year. That means younger galleries, many of whom rely on art fairs to survive, must sell 30K of art to just break even, let alone get ahead, which is why many are so desperate to do the fairs in the first place. Add in shipping, flights, hotels, entertaining collectors, etc. and you’ll see that even after 100K in sales, galleries are hardly raking it in.

    “Don’t forget also that a lot of European galleries are just shipping work over now that they sold six months ago to Americans.”

    And vice versa. This, with borrowing work back for a good showing, is to my mind (I could be wrong, we’re not doing too much of this) more an indication of too many fairs than too much being sold (and I’m not sure how this might work as a tax ploy [if you bring it to Europe, you're paying taxes upon entry and the money stays there unless you bring the work back, usually, no?], but if you figure it out, let me know).

  6. Let me suggest, in response to Lindsay and Edward, that the overhead squeeze now playing out in the fairs is a replication of a slower process that has played out over and over again in the migrating geography of art neighborhoods — and that, by extension, it is a good thing. Why? Because while the fencing off of prime real estate for those who can pay for it is Darwinian and in certain respects unfair, it also gives rise to fertile progressive art enclaves off the trodden path. SoHo begat East Village begat Williamsburg. Along the same lines, the blue chip fairs are now spawning their youthful low-rent counterparts. These are the tributaries of fresh creative energy for the whole system. The reports from last week appear fairly unanimous that the smaller fairs, with their lower barriers of entry, were more exciting than the Armory juggernaut. What next? Maybe someone has a great idea for an alternative to fair hegemony. I know! How about galleries, in real neighborhoods?

  7. Evidence would suggest that galleries in “real” neighborhoods (by which I take Andras to mean “not places that have 300+ galleries per mile squared, like Chelsea”) don’t work so well these days. Because apparently too many of today’s artworld public seem to have little time for hitting the high-density gallery areas, much less tromping around elsewhere.

    In London, Hoxton’s heyday has passed. Likewise for Holzmarktstrasse in Berlin and Avenue Louise Weiss in Paris. And I’d say Williamsburg lost steam when so many of its best young dealers decamped to Chelsea, e.g. Bellwether, Schroeder Romero, Roebling Hall and, of course, Winkleman/Plus Ultra.

  8. Thanks for the plug, Marc. ;-)

    No neighborhood could be more “real” than the ones left by the four former W’brug galleries you cite, but the scene had lost steam before the migrations. Essentially it began to lose steam right after 9/11. Before then, Chelsea galleries were talking about relocating in Williamsburg, and Deitch had actually opened a satellite there. But it was heartbreaking to do exhibitions that you knew were better than half the exhibitions in Chelsea that got only 1/20th of the traffic they got.

    Of course, all those spaces did well enough to move across the East River, but like us, I’m sure all would confirm they only were able to do so because of sales they made at art fairs.

    Traffic was the number one reason we relocated.

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