March 7th, 2010
Yesterday I went to the Armory Show. I’m not going to dwell on how vulgar Art fairs are, or whether the work was good, or any of the knee-jerk reactions people cling to when they talk about art. Let me be clear on this from the beginning: if your are going to an art fair expecting some sort of aesthetic or intellectual enlightenment, then you need more significant experiences in your life, not to mention your artistic life.
Art fairs are trade shows; plain and simple. In fact, if there is one place where all the vulgarity of the Art Market belongs in, that place is definitely art fairs. And if we concentrated all the pathetic attention seeking and thrill pursuit that sometimes annoys us to Art Fairs maybe galleries could start becoming something closer to what they pretend to be at the moment: sanctimonious places of art worship.
At the 2010 Armory Show the first thing one notices is the lack of people. To be specific, the lack of buyers. To be even more specific, the lack of Hedge Fund Managers, wife and baby in tow, walking off with pieces of art under their arms. Gallery sales staff looked bored in their seats, they were never on the phone (a sign of negotiations going on), or sending and receiving e-mail. Many were reading, or just blankly staring at the wall on the booth in front of them. The environment was not as frantic as two years ago, during what was probably the peak of Art Fairs, nor was it as earnest as it was five years ago, during the buildup to the Art Fair heyday. It really felt like the end of a party, when most people are gone and the host is left with a few neighbors just shooting the breeze. VERY weird.
I went to SVA for my MFA between 1997 and 1999, back when telling one of the box office art students at the entrance to the OLD Armory Show site that you were one of Jerry’s Kids (i.e. a student of Jerry Saltz’ seminar at SVA) was enough to get you in with a catalog and everything. Back then the Fairs really were a bit of a phenomenon, like a weird cousin of the Art World where a few budding collectors could go and feel OK sounding stupid when asking about artwork and have a sort “shopping experience” that they could relate too, like buying a car or another expensive toy. But people still kept their “collector’s” guard up. They would look for artists whose work they were following already. Tried to fetch random stray pieces from such artists, and took their time in making a decision. In 2006 I found myself working as a part-time tech consultant for Lehmann Maupin Gallery and among my many duties was helping the gallery manager render the gallery’s booth in 3-D for their fair applications. At that point the crowd at these events had changed drammatically. The shopping got really careless. All kinds of people were walking off with all kinds of works based on what they saw there and then. Like it? Cha-ching! “Hey honey look what I just found.”
This year the crowd is mostly composed of loyal art world people, not necessarily buyers. Which makes me wonder where everybody went? Is it just the money that left, or are people not flying in to NY to spend 10,000 dollars on a work of art? In any case there were still 2 floors worth of galleries in there, and like most other businesses, they are waiting out the economic downturn. (Coincidentally the part that looked like they were selling a bit more was the second floor. The one with all the 20th c. works. In other words: where old money goes shopping). VOLTA looked busier by comparison but the space there was also more compressed. They seemed to have a lot more new media which was markedly absent from most booths at the Armory.
Maybe this is a good time to rethink what the use of these things are and shed all the pretentious trappings that both artists and gallerists have attached to them as they grew. Let these fairs be what they are. Silly, cooky, trade shows where you find all the fringe and new products of a particular industry right along with all the more established and proven ones. Let people exchange business cards, trade their wares and generally keep all these market side trappings where they belong: contained in a desolated warehouse by the waterfront, once a year. Maybe then places like Chelsea (and Hipster runner ups Williamsburg and Bushwick) can actually start becoming places of experimentation and exchange rather than attention seeking forums of silliness or pomposity.