Art fairs: one artist’s viewpoint
When I was commissioned to do the art for The Armory Show 2004 catalog, I wrote an introduction that was a rhapsody about my love of art fairs. Not so many years before that, I began showing at Art Basel with Art & Public gallery, with such clear, positive results that I decided to make my largest and most risky piece, a Stations of the Cross, for a five day exhibition at Art Unlimited, with the support of Pierre Huber. This seems like ages ago, but it really isn’t, and my changing feelings about fairs are probably mostly a reflection of my own growth rather than a reflection of trends of the marketplace.
Since then, I have continued to participate in fairs in different ways, including with my own eponymously named gallery, presenting work by other artists. I see the limitations more and more clearly. I am very aware that it gave me an opportunity to develop a broad and solid international system of support for myself as an artist, and with that, secure a large degree of freedom to live wherever I want in the world. I can put my focus on getting involved deeply in local scenes that I really love, and to take much larger risks with my artwork when I want to. It has allowed me to indulge my independence without self-destructing.
As long as these fairs continue in their current popularity and with galleries as their primary clientele, they will continue to be a measure of what makes an important gallery (and also an unimportant gallery). For example, an artist can significantly raise his or her profile by signing up with a gallery that regularly gets into Frieze or Basel, and often there is only room for one or two other fairs in the world to share that top status. To me Basel holds the top spot because it always put the artworks first. But that is another discussion.
What makes the galleries important within these top fairs are the same things that have always made galleries great: priority given to the best possible presentation of an artist’s work and vision, the attention to developing an institutional following for an artist, and a program that
somehow has a strong relationship to its home base, wherever that might be. It follows with these things, that they also cultivate relationships with collections that will lead to long-term positive results. I think it is easy to tell the difference between a gallery with a clear program and vision, or at least a plan, and a gallery that is just hopping from fair to fair without ever leaving that system. One type has a reason to exist beyond, and the foundation to survive a market turndown and one type does not, just like the last time around. I really don’t think in the end that survival has anything to do with money, nor is our situation so different from what has passed before.
I can put a solo show at an art fair on my bio, but will I ever get a serious review, or will I ever have a serious conversation with a curator about where this work is going? I doubt it. And the work will likely be sold and scattered, especially as a painter, before it is given a chance to stick to anything. So here I am again; I just have to have faith that of the gabillions of people who saw it, one might remember it even two months later. I have come to believe that the best art experiences – even in such a mass-market situation – are really only meaningful to a small handful of people. It only takes one person seeing a show to make something really great happen, and in my years of showing, I know that this is much more likely to happen at a small and remote gallery than the greatest art fair in the world. For example my Stations of the Cross – 14 panels at 12 x 8 feet each, eventually was shown installed the way a “stations” would be in a church in Regensburg, Germany, the scariest exhibition of my life, that had a kind of a mass for an opening. There were maybe two or three art world people who saw it in this context because I was too afraid to tell people about it, but it was ultimately the most genuine and rewarding exhibition that I have ever done. It would never have happened without one single curator seeing it at Basel, and this is the kind of experience that I live for. It was what I expected at the fair, but did not get until two years later in a church. Who knew?
At this time, I am not represented by any gallery in New York or London. The art fairs serve as my perfect London and New York gallery for me at this moment where I don’t seem to fit any particular mold and I am not really a New York artist anymore. All of my dealers show at the major fairs, so I can keep myself in everyone’s mind with a minimal effort once a year, and then do the real work with them back at home, until I come to a new understanding of that big city context.