The abundance of unusually available VIP cards that started to circulate a few weeks before the Armory week foreshadowed what was to come: a slow fair with dealers putting the best face, few red dots in sight —now with the pretext that they are not anymore in vogue—and a rather enjoyable Armory vernissage on Wednesday night where art could be seen at a more leisurely pace. Only that the art on view turned was rather safe and unchallenging, in the best cases tending to small works by major artists — a good compromise between maintaining quality and affordability. Dealers appear to hang in there, many more accessible and nicer to customers than usual, trying not to compromise their prices, although the word out there was that all price tags were negotiable.
I thought about the early years of decline of the Thomas Blackman Art Chicago fair in the late 90s, where major galleries started pulling out, the over-commercial quality bar started to descend, and modernist works and even furniture started to appear. Only that, as we well know, what we are seeing this week in New York is the symptom of something much larger. It has hit the art world so hard that we are still trying to come to grasps with it while remaining in autopilot. This past December in Miami there was still a sense of denial and a series of jovial comments of the kind of “well, the market was so unreal and out of control, now we have come back to reality”. But now that the Dow went under 7,000 and reality is much worse than previously thought, it is much harder to remain upbeat. Perhaps sales may turn out to be better than expected, but right now the current system of multiple fairs feels incongruous. The crowds may be still there, but without sales, an art fair booth becomes little more than an expensive, overblown ad.
One cant help looking for positive signs of recovery. I thought I was when a collector confided to me this week: “you know, I have lost so much money that now I realize that I may as well spend a million today in art than losing it tomorrow in stocks.” Which may be music to the ears of dealers. Yet as resources diminish, collectors will be thinking much more seriously as to where to direct their resources, and impulse shopping at an art fair doesn’t quite seem to be the right place to do it.
Amidst all this, the most stoic amongst us try to take the high road and say: if the market is short, art is still long. One of the most commented about works at the Armory —and, it appears, the only interactive piece — was Christine Hill’s fully functioning apothecary operation at Ronald Feldman made in her signature “olde-tyme” aesthetic. Hill stood behind a counter with a red apron, listening to each customer’s metaphysical ailments, and proceeding to prescribe artist-editioned items that could be purchased for $25. It was the only thing, aside to the drinks at the bar, that I saw actually being sold at the fair. Hill’s metaphor was spot-on: money, whether we have it or not, has long lost meaning, but art may still comfort us in small ways. But can we be content with that?
I am curious to hear the diagnosis of the other fairs by you all.