In spite of increasing wealth in the Pacific Northwest, arts organizations and galleries are working harder than ever to keep the lights on. A few major donors writing annual checks won’t preserve current institutions indefinitely, and noblesse oblige can stymie new ideas and approaches. How do we reinvigorate a passion for cultural stewardship in the emerging culture, especially knowing that the tech industry that has propelled Seattle’s economy is itself volatile and given to disruption?
A commercial art fair cannot answer that, but it can be part of the solution. At least that’s what the organizers of the Seattle Art Fair are counting on. Founder Paul Allen and Vulcan Inc. consider the fair a long-term investment in promoting art collection, cultural literacy and stewardship. Co-producer Art Market Productions runs art fairs in several U.S. cities, and their goal is to make Seattle Art Fair the most robust commercial art fair on the west coast during this process of education and growth.
The long-term vision can’t be measured in traditional metrics, but this year’s fair improved over the first, which was a big success in its own right. 18,000 attended (up from 15,000 last year), and the beneficiary preview event on the first night raised $100,000 for Seattle Art Museum. There were some major acquisitions made at the booths, and perhaps others will follow.
Many of the attendees of the inaugural Seattle Art Fair had not seen a commercial art fair before, but they weren’t the only ones who didn’t know what to expect. The organizers weren’t sure if seasoned collectors from outside of Seattle would make the trip (but they did). Meanwhile, visiting exhibitors didn’t know much about PNW audiences, how they buy and what they like.
That education continues: Only ten of the 84 exhibitors this year were Seattle-based galleries. Eight others were from the region, while many more came from the east coast, especially New York City. The organizers also pushed for more exhibitors from Asia, as Seattle’s position makes the fair a prime location for more trans-Pacific cultural exchange, which was the theme of a special curated exhibition hosted in the fair last year. In addition to noted Tokyo-based galleries like Kaikai Kiki and SCAI The Bathhouse, there was also Sundaram Tagore, a gallery founded in New York with branches in Asia, specifically focused on promoting this kind of east-west exchange.
Allen’s influence as a collector helped bring elite international galleries like Gagosian and Zwirner the first year, and these big names have attracted other diverse exhibitors, who fill the bulk of the fair and create the opportunities for collectors to discover new artists. (After all, many collectors will not be able to afford work from the blue-chip galleries, or they are at least already familiar with the artists on display.)
Several gallerists I spoke with over the weekend used the phrase “a slow burn” to refer to the Seattle market, as collectors often take lots of time to think before buying. That means that, like the long-term vision for the fair, a gallery’s fiscal success at the fair takes time to evaluate. Most participants were prepared to play the long game in cultivating clients here.
That’s not to say that every gallery had the best strategy in dealing with the public. A potential client in Seattle may not necessarily be dressed to the nines, and I also heard several stories about collectors who were ready to spend, but were dismissed or ignored, even at slower booths…and so they spent their money elsewhere in the fair. (Have those gallerists never seen Pretty Woman?)
The design of the fair was open and easy to navigate, but may have exacerbated this problem. PNW audiences can be on the timid side, and the wide aisles allowed visitors to keep their distance until something particularly arresting drew them in. Even at its busiest, the foot traffic at Seattle Art Fair never really forced one into a booth where a surprise discovery might take place. Booth design is always important at a fair, but it seemed particularly important at Seattle Art Fair just to get people inside.
Marlborough Gallery had a particularly sophisticated, rounded booth in which a neon installation by Chihuly Studios bathed everything in an enticing blue light. Ziehersmith Gallery appealed directly to the tech savvy crowd with a virtual reality piece, for which people were lining up all weekend. And to the fair’s credit, this year the special installations within the event center didn’t take you out of the mix for too long. Some guests lamented the lack of a large curated exhibition, but I would argue that it was better for the galleries. Among the special exhibits, Dawn Kasper’s installation of motion-controlled cymbals, “Star Formation,” in the northeast corner demanded the most time to engage (including the line to get in), but not so much that one lost momentum to see the rest of the fair.
There was time to breathe and relax, even if you wanted to see all the public lectures and performances. This programming was curated by artistic director Laura Fried, including off-site works that helped knit the fair together with local cultural partners and the surrounding neighborhoods. This extended programming is unusual at new fairs of modest size. Even though Seatle Art Fair’s exhibitor list increased from 62 to 84 participants this year, it’s still relatively small. For perspective, Art Basel in June had nearly 300 exhibitors and Volta, a satellite fair held simultaneously in Basel, had 68 (more than Seattle Art Fair had in the first year).
Did it help the local galleries? The opening night of the fair coincided with First Thursday Art Walk, and the whole of Pioneer Square was abuzz more than usual, but no one is reporting a big boost in sales yet. That, like everything else, will take time. However, among the many works sold by Greg Kucera Gallery at the fair were a Deborah Butterfield sculpture for $135,000 and a work by Marie Watt for $40,000.
Not everyone prioritized selling at the fair. Mariane Ibrahim Gallery did not display any work for sale at the fair. The booth, its furnishings and a few framed photos were covered in an installation by Clay Apenouvon, who has individual works for sale at the gallery’s brick-and-mortar location.
The higher visibility brought to the region by the fair have raised the stakes for galleries and artists, so at a minimum Seattle Art Fair has already encouraged more cooperation, risk-taking and experimentation. In Pioneer Square, multiple satellite exhibitions staged by local artists took advantage of the expanded publicity around the main event and helped create a critical mass. The Good Arts Building alone hosted an official SAF installation by L.A.-based artist Brendan Fowler, a group show at CoCA’s P35 space, and another group show in the halls of the ’57 Biscayne artist studio space upstairs. Meanwhile, Out of Sight, an extensive survey of emerging art from the region filled the third floor of King Street Station for a second year. This show, too, was more polished than the first, and can still be seen on weekends through the end of August.
At this point, the Seattle Art Fair is guaranteed at least another year at Century Link Event Center. How it will adapt and how expectations around it will change remains to be seen, but one can at least feel certain that it will take a lot more than another year to turn passive admirers of the arts into devoted advocates and collectors.
In the meantime, now that we can catch our breath after the whirlwind, one can hope that the momentum of the event will continue to encourage more ambitious projects among artists and curators locally, whether they are partnering with the fair or working independently (or even in reaction to it). As much as I am excited to see the art fair grow and bring more interest to the region, I am more interested in seeing what else pops up in the rising tide.
The work of growing the city and seeing it engage more directly with other parts of the world will require people working at the street level and the exec level. It will include the continued patronage and cultural leadership of established local collectors: the True family, the Wright family, et al. It will include artists from other parts of the country and the world, who bring differing perspectives. It will include recent transplants from other cities who want to support the local arts and don’t know where to find it yet or where to begin. It will include the dealers and educators who lead them in. It will include curators who empower artists to respond to changes here and abroad. It will include a lot of different people working different angles.
It will include the fair. See you there next year.