Monday, April 30, 2007

ArtDC delivers more than expected

By the time I finish writing this multi-faceted review and opinion piece on the capital's first international fine arts fair, it will all be over and done, and tired gallerists and dealers and their assistants may be still in the process of tearing down exhibits, bubble-wrapping work to be delivered to new owners or shipped back to galleries, or perhaps to the next fair, and figuring out their next step.

View of artDC
Some will have made a lot of money, others will wonder how they will pay bills incurred in attending this fair, others will still be working the phones trying to close last minute deals. But overall, I suspect that most of them will come back next year.

Because I have a very deep interest in what artDC was doing, can do and will do for the region - both as an art critic and as an art dealer and as an artist - I spent a lot of time at the fair, really trying to peel the onion and look inside it from all three perspectives.

I saw the beginning of what I think is something good for the regional visual arts. It is silly and unfair to compare (as some have done) artDC to Art Basel as Art Basel is now. Perhaps a fairer comparison (no pun intended) would be to compare artDC 2007 to Art Basel 1969 or 1970. And even that may be a little unfair to both Art Basel and artDC, as the latter is perhaps more sophisticated and better presented, than Basel was in those early days of artfairdom.

Like anything done in a group, there were some excellent galleries, some bad choices, and the vast number of galleries were quite adequate for DC's first art fair. The fact that the organizers were able to bring dealers from Europe, Latin America and Asia, speaks volumes for their hard work in selling Washington, DC as a viable art market.

The money certainly is here, although as anyone who's ever tried to sell a piece of art in the area knows, the collectors themselves are far and few in between, and a significant number of the 125,000 millionaires who according to Census figures live in the Greater Washington, DC region do not generally buy artwork with the same zest and zeal that they obtain mini mansions in Potomac and ride around in huge SUVs or expensive weekend motorcycles.

Why? Because to a certain extent, many of them lack the "formation" (as a Communist would say) to really understand, appreciate and know the difference between a "picture" and a work of art.

It's not that they are stupid or uncultured - after all, most of them are first generation, self made men and women, often from blue collar backgrounds, who worked their way up the food chain and made themselves what they are today.

Savvy businessmen, too many sharp lawyers, brilliant computer geeks, enviable technocrats - and all with little, if any, exposure to the arts, and more importantly, exposure to the availability of the arts.

Walk down M Street in Georgetown, or King Street in Alexandria, or Bethesda Row in Bethesda and you'll find many example of stores that successfully market, display and sell very expensive "pictures." They are usually located where most "real" galleries can't afford the rent - the prime real estate for business, right around the corner from Benetton, or Banana Republic, etc. They sell "pictures."

"Pictures" by movie stars, or musicians, or Spanish/Italian or Russian surnamed "painters" delivering "hand-embellished" Giclee canvasses with pretty pictures of Impressionistic women, or large wine glasses with cigars, or women with floppy hats, or Surrealistic landscapes... or Kincaid.

They are not cheap either; and these stores are doing gangbusters. So someone is buying these "pictures."


Because the buyers think it's fine art and they do not know any better.


Because they were not exposed to art in their upbringing. Not because their parents were bad, uncultured people, but because their parents were hard-working stiffs who worried about the rent, the electric bill, the food bill and paying for junior's college so that junior could get a Computer Science degree and go on and invent AOL.

And in college, junior probably was not exposed to art other than the two or three peripheral courses that he needed to get his electives; certainly not to buying art, or even aware that art was for sale.

And then junior works hard and becomes a millionaire, and now has disposable income out the yingyang, and looks around for expensive toys, because as George Carlin is fond of saying, we all love to collect "stuff."

And he sees ads for expensive cars, expensive furniture, expensive cigars, and he reads tons of reviews for the latest trendy restaurants, etc. But he's never really made aware that there's also art out there, for our local media has a spectacular sense of apathy towards the visual arts in our area. The Washington Post is the only major American newspaper that has a freelancer deliver around 25 reviews a year to cover an entire year of DC area gallery shows, and they allow their chief art critic to review only museum shows. Very little attention is placed upon our art galleries by the newspapers, certainly not commensurate with the amount of print space that they give theatre, music, dance, fashion, etc.

So junior doesn't know that the DC area has a really good and creative visual arts scene.

Thus when junior takes a stroll through the city's main shopping streets, he doesn't know about the side streets where the galleries are, but sees the stores passing for art galleries that sell the pretty, expensive "pictures," and then junior assumes that this "stuff" is art.

And he drops a ton of money for a pretty "picture." It happens all the time, otherwise these stores would go out of business.

But instead it is the art galleries that go out of business: Veerhoff (after 125 years), Numark, eklektikos, Fusebox.

Every once in a while, junior - usually by accident - discovers a reputable art gallery, and sometimes a real collector is then born. It has happened to me, as a dealer, many, many times. But for every one of those, thousands of others remain on the dark side, or worse still, think that they have to go to New York to find contemporary art.

And this is where an art fair like artDC makes its first impact upon our region.

Because the organizers clearly hired a sharp, savvy PR firm, the fair received a substantial amount of publicity, and it was clear from the numbers of people who attended the fair, that somehow the word got to junior, and a lot of juniors and juniorettes visited artDC 2007.

And hopefully the seed was planted in some of them and it will germinate so that they begin to learn the difference between what they have been buying and what else is out there, and more importantly: what else is in the DC area.

I am not sure if artDC has a way to gather the financial success or failure of the gallerists who took a chance with this first fair. They will answer that question in 2008. Those who return next year will be an indication of those who did well in 2007.

From my own observations, some of the local galleries were doing well. By Friday morning Curator's Office had already sold several large pieces, and while I spent the day doing the video review (will post soon), several dealers told me that they were also doing well. As you will see in the video, I even helped to close a $12,000 sale for a Catalan gallery from Giron, Spain. And on Saturday I witnessed a Miami gallery closing a sale for over $200,000 big ones.

Like any art fair, not everyone was doing well. A British gallery had not broken the ice by late Saturday evening; I hope that they did well on Sunday, which I am told had the largest crowds of the fair, which was expecting around 10,000 visitors in total.

And in addition to getting the word about art to junior, artDC also made sure that all of DC's precious and few art collectors also came to the fair. I saw most of them there on Thursday night, and many returned on Friday and Saturday.

On Thursday night a major ubercollector with a building named after him picked up his 9th Tim Tate piece at the fair. He was but one of many of the area's ubercollectors who was acquiring work at artDC. He is one savvy collector by the way, as he now owns one of Tate's seminal works that marry video and glass.

So the organizers got people to come to the fair. I must admit that I was hugely skeptical that this was going to happen, and even told them months ago that it would take a small miracle to get crowds to come, and pay, to see a visual arts event in our area.

I was wrong and they did a superb job; keep that PR firm!

So what about the art itself? What did junior and the area's ubercollectors get to see, and buy?

The diversity of the artwork was as I expected it would be. Anyone who has been to major art fairs would know this. There was art to satisfy nearly every imaginable taste, and attempts to cover all trends in both the primary and secondary art markets, although there was the usual limited number of sculptures.

Sculptures are difficult and expensive to ship.

Some have commented on the lack of "cutting edge" artwork at the fair. I'm not really sure what this means, although I suspect that in this case the comment was birthed because the writer either (a) skipped the new media section (I helped to jury that) and that silly but interesting "perpetual art machine," or (b) became visually overloaded at his/her first art fair. Next year artDC 2008 should invite the artists from Dorkbot DC to join in the new media salon.

But let's assume that there was very little art in someone's personal sense of what is "cutting edge." Let's also assume that you are a gallerist in Spain, or the Republic of Korea, or China, or Viet Nam, and that you are planning to attend DC's first ever art fair.

If you have done fairs in Miami, or New York, or Madrid, or London, then you know those places well enough, and know what sells there. You are -- after all -- a commercial gallery in the business of selling art. And if you are an independent, fine arts gallery, the business of selling art also comes coupled with a hard-to-define aesthetic ethic to also present work that helps to establish the gallery's reputation as a fine arts dealer - otherwise you're selling "pictures."

But you know very little about Washington, DC.

And so you do a little Googling, call a few people, read a few online blurbs, and try to gather some intelligence on the DC art market.

Good luck with that.

And so, as you prepare to buy airline tickets for you and your staff, and get hotel reservations for you and your staff, and hire a holding company in DC for the artwork that you're shipping from Korea, or Spain or China ahead of time, and pay for the crating and shipping, etc., and deal with American customs, you want to make sure that whatever you ship to DC is a mixture of your heavy hitters for sales or museum acquisitions, coupled with work that delivers an artistic continuity to your gallery's presence on the world scene.

This is not easy to foretell for a new market.

And some foreign and national galleries did well, and others probably failed miserably; but they all learned something. Same thing for the regional galleries. At around $8,000 for a booth, by the time that you add up all the expenses of staff salary, etc., even the locals had to sell at least $20,000 worth of art at the fair just to break even.

The artwork they and others brought included some of the best examples of Latin American masters that I've ever seen outside of the Miami fairs or perhaps ARCO. It included most major names like Matta, Lam, Pelaez, Portecarrero, Fini, Orozco, Mendieta, Rivera, Sequeiros, Botero, etc.

Work by Fernando Botero
They also brought a boatload of the super hot Chinese market that some DC area art galleries (such as Irvine Contemporary Art) are also tapping into.

ArtDC probably brought the first mass exposure to the region of this vibrant Chinese art. "Another Look: New Art From Shanghai," a pavilion of 12 artists from the Shanghai area, was a coup for whoever planned it, as it displayed a dozen artists that curator Liu Jian told me would give a wide range of examples of artistic diversity in Shanghai, rather than the stereotypical view of Chinese art that we're already getting from the Western viewpoint.

They also brought young European talent to the fair. I particularly liked The Steps Gallery's (from Bristol, England) stable of recent British MFAs; artists such as painter Juliet Rose, sculptor Kuldeep Malhi and others.

I also liked one of Galeria Giart's (from Giron, Spain) young painters, Xavi Vilaro's hyper-realistic massive paintings. The Europeans also brought plenty of the big, dead guns, and if Picasso, or Dali and a dozen other in-the-style-of Surrealists was your thing, then you were happy.

The North Americans also did well. Chicago's Aldo Castillo Gallery brought Carolina Sardi's "Snowing Over Miami" installation and it was a hit at the fair, as was Toronto's Artcore brave sculptures such as "3 Men Standing" by Steve Gibson. Have we ever seen nude older men in a public place in DC recently?

Dr. Alida Anderson in front of Steve Gibson's 3 Men Standing
Miami's Hardcore Art & Contemporary Space had a superb sculptural installation by Hiroshi Ohashi (which sold almost immediately) as well as some provocative videos by various artists. Miami's Cernuda Arte brought the heaviest of the Cuban heavy hitters, with vintage works in the hundreds of thousands by Amelia Pelaez, Wifredo Lam, and others (there was a lot of Cuban art in the fair by the way).

Sculpture by Hiroshi Ohashi
And to no one's surprise, the regional galleries more than held their own and in some cases excelled above the competition. Graham Caldwell's piece at G Fine Art probably had the best spot at the fair and was by far the best sculptural installation in artDC.

View of Parish Gallery
Parish Gallery delivered in their specialty: contemporary and vintage art by African-American artists and truly stood out because of it.

Philadelphia's private dealer Dolan/Maxwell also stood out with their strong grouping of vintage Philly artists. Baltimore's Goya Contemporary had a superb mix of blue chip artists (such as a really unique Keith Haring) together with brilliant work by emerging and mid career artists like Liliana Porter and Timothy App, as well as some breathtaking works by Madeleine Keesing.
By Joachim Knill
Migration from Charlottesville seemed to be doing well at the fair, and had several huge Polaroids by Swiss installation-photographer-wizard Joachim Knill which were some of my favorites in the whole fair, and Douz and Mille more than held their own in the New Media area which truly had a very cool range of video projections and installations.
Etsuko Ichikawa
Randall Scott Gallery also showed well, especially the burned glass abstractions of Etsuko Ichikawa, which are reminiscent of the gunpowder pieces of Cai Guo-Qiang, but Ichikawa is developing her own method involving the use of molten glass that makes Cai's seem like childwork in comparison. Also notable were the imaginary teen worlds of photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten, and the gorgeous mixed media pieces by Cara Ober, which were my wife's favorites in the entire event.

Like any large art fair, there was also gimmicky stuff that bordered on kitsch and wall decor, such as the resinated Chinese poster-like work, and the large icons of JFK and Jackie made out of tiny photographs to resemble the op-art that Dali painted by hand in the 60s and they also were almost a copy of the process that Inga Frick did by hand cutting and pasting (before one could do this in PhotoShop) in the 80s and 90s.

But overall there was a glorious and typical visual overload of a lot of different art all in one huge location, which by the way, was superbly planned and very ample in size, with wide walking avenues between the booths, and not the usual congested halls that seem to characterize most art fairs. Visitors could walk and see a lot of different art that they'd rarely get to see in one place.

And this is where an art fair like artDC makes its second impact upon our region.

Another unexpected windfall from the fair was the exposure of DC area artists to other galleries. On Friday I was part of introducing the work of a well-known DC area artist to a British gallery who is very interested in his work.

Also on Friday, while doing a video interview with a Spanish gallery, the owner discussed that she was very interested in exploring the local artists and seeing if she could find some artists to bring back to Spain. By Sunday I had connected her with a couple of artists that I felt fit into her artistic focus, and she had chosen to bring back works by one local artist.

And other than those two personal anecdotes, I am sure that it happened with other galleries and artists. I am also aware of a major gallery with galleries in two US cities which hooked up with Tim Tate.

And thus it seems like the fair managed to help establish a connection between area artists and out-of-area galleries. I am sure that it worked the other way as well, and I'd be curious to hear from DC area galleries who picked up new artists that they "discovered" at the fair.

And these connections is where an art fair like artDC makes its third impact upon our region.

I believe that the artDC folks have signed a three year contract with the Convention Center, so it appears that they're in this for the long haul. And I believe that now is the time for quick thinking artists and curators and business-savvy dealers to start planning what they're going to do around and with artDC 2008.

A shout to the Scope and Bridge and AAF and other art fair moguls: Let's get some peripheral fairs going next year!

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