Sunday, December 01, 2013

Miami bound... but a note about art fairs

As I write this for later posting here, we're flying to Miami to participate in the annual Art Basel week of art fairs. As I've written many times before, this is the world's "big dance" when it comes to the visual arts; this is the big party and everyone is invited. However, it is a matter of getting here that's the issue.

Art fairs are very expensive. As I've noted before, many galleries risk everything to come to Miami, and I suspect that many are financially destroyed at the end of the week. And yet, many do well and return year after year.

Between my years with the Fraser Gallery and now with AAAP, we've been returning to Miami for many years now. Other DMV and regional galleries that keep coming back are my good buds at Connersmith, Hamiltonian, and Virginia's Mayer Fine Arts. They consistently take the financial risk and venture to Miami (and in some cases all over the US and Europe). Some newer participants are Morton Fine Arts and Adah Rose; both galleries did their first art fairs a year or two ago and both are enthusiastically now doing art fairs all over.

Others have tried a year or two, crashed and burn and never return to the party.

Is there a formula to this? What the the magic that makes this work for some and not for others?

I know of at least two galleries in the Mid Atlantic who have "financial backers" who absorb most or some of the financial risk involved in doing an art fair. Since these sort of galleries are very limited (who wouldn't love to have a financial backer?), they are the "outlayers" in the formula for clicking the right button in the art fair game.

Some non-profiits have the economic stability to play consistently in the art fair game; and to make it easier for them, many art fairs have special, lower pricing for non-profits. So they are also a special case, I think, because in most cases, the financial risk is absorbed by the state of their income-gathering to stay afloat as a non-profit.

It is a mystery to me why not more DMV area non-profits go to the art fairs. Hamiltonian is a notable exception, as is Honfleur Gallery in Anacostia. And the WPA does participate in our own (e)merge.

But I would submit that there are several area non-profits that could, and should participate in Miami and New York art fairs as part of their business model; if a local non-profit can afford to pay $70-$80,000 a year to its executive director (and several DMV non-profits are in that range), then it can certainly afford to budget $12-18K to participate in an art fair outside of the DMV. I think this anyway... As an outsider to the money shell game that running a non profit must be (I tip my hat to them).

I'm not saying that all visual arts non-profits should do this - I am sure that the mission of some of them are strictly focused on "local" only, rather than expanding their artistic presentations outside the capital region.

But that still leaves several key ones that (if I was the DMV art dictator) should be in NYC and Miami during art fair times.

This also applies to some of our large membership-based visual arts organizations and cooperative galleries, such as The Art League.

I'm a big fan of The Art League, and when I lived close to Alexandria I was a member for many years, and I have been honored multiple times by being selected as a juror for them.

And thus I am going to use them as an example, but this example applies to the multiple "other" art leagues, groups, clubs, cooperatives, etc. that exist around our region and which are important and significant components of our cultural tapestry. I could just as easily have picked the Rockville Art League, or the Reston Art League, Gallery West, Touchstone, Fairfax Art League, CHAW, etc.

The money part is always an issue, but when the money part can be divided into several (rather than one) entities, then the financial risk is reduced, because it is spread, rather than concentrated into one (the independent commercial gallery) bank account.

So let's proceed with this possible example using The Art League.

They have several thousand members and run a very successful and important program at their space inside the Torpedo Factory and assorted classrooms all over the area.

So the issue is, how does The Art League (again, you can fill in any of multiple DMV area membership-based art organizations) pick or select the 3-5 artists to take to an art fair?

The "good" art fairs are nearly always tightly juried. There are many art fairs where one just pays and anyone and everyone can go - those usually suck and in about a week or so, some DMV galleries and many DMV solo artists will unfortunately discover this.

And thus for Miami/NYC fairs I am thinking (in no particular order) about Art Miami, Context, Aqua, Pulse, NADA, Affordable Art Fair(s), Scope, Miami Project, Frieze... some of these are very, very hard to get in, but they're listed nonetheless, because there is a "food chain" of art fairs, and the bottom-feeders usually spell disaster for the participants.

And thus The Art League would need to establish a process to pre-jury its membership to 3-5 artists and apply with those artists to an art fair. I would start with The Affordable Art Fair in New York. They are close by and they are a "proven" fair. I have done it many times and consistently recommend it to any gallery that asks me about art fairs in general.

And thus redux The Art League would need to canvas their membership and find out who's interested in being juried for possible selection for further jurying into an art fair. I would make this process independent from the Art League itself - just like they do for their monthly juried shows, and have interested artists bring their work in to be juried by an independent juror.

That juror has to be a very special juror - in fact 98% of your standard-issue visual art juror (art professors, art critics, art writers, art center directors, artists, etc.) would guarantee a disaster to this process. In the DMV the jury pool for this process is very limited and its members are only those gallerists who have participated in multiple art fairs. In fact I can't think of anyone better to jury this part than me!

Back to the generic process... In the next post... Or soon... All DMV (and nationwide visual arts non profits/co-ops and clubs should be reading this...).


Rose ODonnell said...

Thanks for the shout out Lenny. I completely agree with you about The Art League participating in one of the fairs. As you say, the issue is cost. Many of the fairs offer a discounted rate for non-profits and I do believe we will take the leap in the next few years and participate in the new fair here in DC, Emerge or in the Affordable Art Fair. Good luck in Miami! Rose O'Donnell, The Art League Gallery

Anonymous said...

I'm a member of the art league and I think this is a great idea.