Saturday, February 23, 2008

Proposing a new art fair model

There is a sense of art fatigue brewing in the art world. Read on a little background below and then read a new art fair model that I am proposing.

If you're jonesying because artDC got cancelled, you should consider attending the Baltimore Fair for Contemporary Prints and New Editions, which is an interesting deviation from the most common art fair model - which is usually led by a commercial entity such as a gallerist or art dealer-- since it is a project of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Baltimore Fair for Contemporary Prints & New Editions is presented by the BMA's Print, Drawing & Photograph Society. Proceeds from the fair are used to acquire contemporary works on paper for the BMA’s collection.

BMA invited 12 galleries, dealers and presses for this biennial weekend fair, offering drawings and prints, photography and digital images - so it's more than just prints.


Center Street Studio, Milton, MA
Dolphin Press & Print, Baltimore, MD
Gallery Joe, Philadelphia, PA
Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl, New York, NY
Goya Contemporary & Goya-Girl Press, Baltimore, MD
Harlan & Weaver, Inc., New York, NY
Jungle Press Editions, Brooklyn, NY
Jim Kempner Fine Art, New York, NY
Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, MD
Pyramid Atlantic, Silver Spring, MD
Solo Impression, New York, NY
Charles M. Young Fine Prints & Drawings LLC, Portland, CT

A new art fair model

The other important thing to remember, as I mull, chew and refine a "new" art fair model to replace the existing art fair model, which seems to work well in Miami and New York, but not so well in the West coast, and as we have seen, not at all in the capital region, is the marriage of a legitimate art entity (a museum) with an art-for-sale process as a means to raise funds.

The seeds for this model already exist in the DC region with the Smithsonian Craft Show, now in its 26th year.

Considered by many to be the finest craft fair in the world -- and from the many artists that I have spoken to over the years -- one of the best places to sell fine crafts as well, this prestigious and highly competitive juried exhibition and sale of contemporary American craft will take place from April 10 through April 13, 2008.

It takes place at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC and it includes one-of-a-kind and limited edition craft objects in 12 different media: basketry, ceramics, decorative fiber, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, wearable art and wood.

There are 120 exhibitors in this year's show including emerging artists and master craftsmen, 39 of whom are first-time participants. Twelve of those selected were also first-time applicants to the show. All were chosen by a panel of expert jurors from a highly competitive field of close to 1,400 applicants.

So we have a model for printmaking in Baltimore and a model for crafts in DC that has been working for 26 years.

See where I'm going?

Can we envision the Smithsonian American Art Fair?

The Smithsonian American International Art Fair would dramatically expand the business model of the Smithsonian Craft Fair to a Mall-wide, or even citywide art fair anchored and guided by the Smithsonian Institution, and possibly either (a) spread throughout the various accommodating spaces at the various SI locales around the National Mall or even (b) in temporary art spaces, booth or containers on the open spaces of the National Mall itself!

The latter is not as big of a deal as it sounds. The National Mall already hosts a spectacular variety of outdoor events on the Mall spaces where complex display spaces are temporarily built, secured and just as quickly dismantled, grass re-seeded and by Monday the Mall is back to normal. For art, all we need is protection from the weather and security.

Perhaps even a combination of "free" (to the public) set of exhibitors (maybe out on the Mall) coupled with a paid admission set of exhibitors inside SI spaces -- or just make them all free to the public?

Details... details...

This new fair model would be open to both commercial art galleries and art dealers, as well as to art schools, and (and here's the key "and") to individual artists and cooperative artist-owned galleries.

Size matters.

Would 1200 galleries, dealers, schools and artists in a mega, new-model art fair raise some interests from art collectors to come to DC for a long weekend in May? It would if it attracted 60,000 visitors to the fair instead of 10,000 (like artDC attracted).

Are you aware that in May the Bethesda Fine Arts Festival in nearby Bethesda attracts 30-40,000 people to the streets of Bethesda for this artist-only street fine arts fair? or that also in May the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Festival attracts the same number of people to the streets of the Reston Town Center to buy art from individual artists? Both Bethesda and Reston have two of the highest median household incomes in the US.

And I am told that the Greater Washington, DC region has the second highest concentration of multi-millionaires in the world. The money is here - the key is to get the disposable income crown in touch with the art. Both Bethesda and Reston manage to accomplish this one weekend a year.

Do not, under any circumstances assume that these are "street fairs" where teddy bears, country crafts and dried flowers are sold. These are both highly competitive fine arts outdoor fairs where artists from all over the nation come to and compete for spots because artwork sells well. I have seen $80,000 worth of sculptures sell to one collector in Bethesda and a painter with a price point of $17,000 sell out in Reston. Do not let the snobby attitude of the high art world affect your preconception of what these two street art fairs are like; go visit one this coming May and open your eyes.

And because of them, and because of the success of ABMB, we know that given a certain critical mass, people will come out to an art fair.

The primary key for art dealers to have interest in an art fair is sales (and also exposure to new collectors, museum curators, etc.), but mainly sales. If you are a British gallery, by the time you get yourself and your artwork to Miami Beach, you're in the hole a whole bunch of Euros; if you don't sell anything (like it happened to a British gallery in artDC and an Israeli gallery at another fair), chances are that you won't return to that fair.

But increase the public attendance numbers exponentially, and Economics 101 tells you that sales will also increase exponentially.

And unlike the hotel-deprived artDC location at the Convention Center, I am told by DC's tourist gurus that the National Mall is already a magnet location where visitors, regardless of where they are staying around the Greater DC region, flock to during their visits to the capital.

Since two major Greater DC area street art fairs already exist in May in the Greater DC area, we can even consider aligning the weekends so that both Reston, Bethesda and the The Smithsonian American International Art Fair all take place on the same weekend! Offer free bus service between Reston and Bethesda and the National Mall for collectors to hop around during the fair weekend, and a public buzz alignment will begin to happen.

The Smithsonian American International Art Fair starts on a Thursday through Sunday and both Reston and Bethesda continue to run on Saturday and Sunday.

And the The Smithsonian American International Art Fair is focused as a major fundraiser for the cash-hungry SI. A formula of booth prices + perhaps a 5% commission on all sales (both tax deductible for American galleries) would take care of temporary Mall booth construction, reseeding of grass, and booth construction inside SI venues and still yield a nice chunk of cash for the SI.

If there's commercial success and high public attendance, soon we'd see some satellite hotel fairs popping up all over DC and its easy-to-get-to suburbs; the Corcoran will jump on the bandwagon right away. ABMB had 22 fairs all over the place last December.

I think that this "new" model could (and eventually when someone does it will) challenge Miami Beach -- and yes, I am aware that DC in May is not Miami in December -- but I also think that the District's own museums and public attractions trump Miami's anytime, so the District has something different to offer the potential collector who may be considering attending a new art fair in a city (like DC) that also offers him/her some other cultural and visual attractions besides good weather and nice beaches and sexy Cubans.

DC art commisioners... Smithsonianos... DC city fathers and mothers.... call me! Let's work this out before I offer my idea to Philly!

My good friend Fernando Batista adds a new element to the above model, and an important element that only a Washington art fair weekend can add: include the Embassies! It's brilliant! In addition to all the above events taking place, the fair could also align with shows at 15-20 embassy galleries around DC. The embassies would showcase one (or a group) of their national artists, and then the fair would really have an international flavor, and the beginning seeds of a mini-Venice.

DC is a small city; it's fairly easy to set up transportation between the embassies and the Mall. In fact, some embassies could probably set that up themselves.

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