Long live the art fair! If anyone doubted its resilience, one need only look at what happened in New York City this week. Besides the blockbuster Armory Show, now in its 12th year, there was also Dutch Art Now, Korean Art Show, Red Dot, PooL, Pulse, Fountain, Independent, Volta, Verge, Art Dealers Association of America’s Art Show and Scope. In a city already loaded to the gills with museums and galleries, the week felt like a Vegas-style, all-you-can-eat art buffet. And while it was admittedly dizzying, as well as physically gruelling, to trek across this city and take it all in, no one was complaining.
Just last year, wandering through the Armory’s grey-carpeted lanes was as festive as a cemetery visit. Perhaps it was famed New York art critic, Jerry Saltz, who described the scene best: “If the art world was the Titanic, then we have finally hit the iceberg. Dealers are going down like crazy. Artists are in trouble. Collectors have stopped collecting. It’s going down as we speak. So the question is, who gets a life jacket.” Well, as it turns out, nearly everyone did. Along with the clinking of the Armory’s free flutes of champagne on opening day, you could also hear huge sighs of relief ricocheting across this endless, fluorescent-lit art grid. Sure it wasn’t the 2007 days of multi-million dollar, one-minute sales, but no one here seemed to mind. “This is not about shop till you die,” says Victor Gisler of Berlin’s Reception gallery. “It was time for something fresher.”
This year the Armory decided to include a city-specific section that featured 22 Berlin galleries. Although Gisler and all the other Germans were placed thousands of feet from the fair’s entrance, it was undeniably the most exciting, if not cash poor, section here. Alongside affordable, inventive works, you could find artists’ names scratched in pencil, shipping crates functioning as desks and, as was the case with “Reception”, podiums for art.
But this is New York, not Basel, and that kind of “make it work” hustler mentality is always welcomed. “This is a Horatio Alger story,” says Joel Mesler of his two-year-old Rental Gallery, located in a former mah-jong parlour in New York’s Chinatown. “If you work hard here, people notice.” Nearly every available spot in his Armory booth’s three walls were covered in pieces from American artists and rising stars, such as Henry Taylor and Brendan Fowler. And even though his gallery, much like many of the other participants here, is just a 15-minute cab ride away, exhibiting at the Armory is an important part of his business strategy. “My collectors believe in me and my gallery but they are not going to bring 10 people in at one time to see me. My gallery is located in the shtetl.” In keeping with this “do-or-die” attitude, Chelsea-based gallerist Andrew Kreps strapped on a pair of trainers so he could move swiftly between his Armory booth and his coveted spot at the brand new Independent fair. Housed inside the former Dia, Independent is the commercial brainchild of X Initiative founder Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook from London’s Hotel gallery.
The two invited 40 galleries, curators, publishers and non-profits to take over three floors of the former foundation. There were no admission fees. No fluorescent lights. No makeshift plaster booths. In fact, it was difficult to know where one gallery began and the other ended. It was the anti-fair fair, Kreps explained, that we all hoped the recession was going to produce. “We wanted to make the fair model we inherited from previous generations our own,” says Independent director Lauren Mitterrand among swarms of coiffed 30-somethings carrying plastic cups of red wine while snapping iPhone pictures of their reflections in the art. “A collaboration like this is what New York could really use. Besides, we thought it is our turn now.”