Posted on August 05, 2019, 9:25 am
27 mins

It might seem tiresome to note that commercial art fairs exist to make money first and foremost, but there are at least a few people still unclear on the subject. On the Wednesday evening, before Art Fair began, the official Facebook page for Seattle Art Fair was full of posts from self-promoting hobby artists and complaints about the $35 cost of admission. Isn’t Bellevue Art Fair (a street fair) free? Confusion like this prompts writers to publish variations on the same article every year, explaining what an art fair is. We cannot, after all, in this country expect people to take the initiative to educate themselves about urgent things, let alone the rarefied money game of the art world.

Not all the posts and comments on Seattle Art Fair’s page showed this lack of savvy though. Some bold entrepreneurs were trying to sell tickets at a discount. They no doubt had the line on free tickets, using one of many codes offered by galleries to their patrons and followers. Who can blame them for wanting to make a buck? As we have already established: That’s what art fairs are all about.

But this year, the subject of money was more pervasive than ever. Even in peripheral conversations about curatorial practice and the rights to performances, capital was at the heart of it. We are in late-stage capitalism, and the art market at its highest tiers is essentially a money-laundering operation and Ponzi scheme rolled into one Byzantine, whitewashed mess. But usually, the working-class artists, gallerists, collectors and academics that compose the majority of the art world can turn their attention elsewhere, if only momentarily. They are there to create, share and contemplate, even in the highly commercial environment of the art fair. This year, money was never just background noise. It was the leitmotif.

An overhead view of opening night at Seattle Art Fair 2019. Photo by Myles Haslam for Vulcan.

That Sweet, Sweet Tech Money

The Seattle art market itself has its cadre of established collectors but remains somewhat small despite the region’s overall wealth. One often observes indifference and antipathy to the arts among the “disruption”-minded tech sector, but one can’t generalize all techies as philistines. And among local companies, Microsoft is one of the few that has groomed a new generation of collectors and stewards of the arts.

Nationally (even globally) there is an understanding that there is a LOT of money in the PNW, and that has captured the attention of international gallerists whose main function is to make sure that artists can keep making artwork. Good luck to them. Many local gallerists feel that they have yet to bridge the divide, to make the moneyed technocracy give a hoot about art beyond the funhouse-style commissions that make their corporate environments slightly less dungeonesque. These gallerists and their artists are scrappy, working-class folks, trying to keep the lights on among skyrocketing rents. Even those who have had a committed collector base can’t rest on their laurels. Collectors are people, and people are both capricious and mortal. The money will always dry up one way or another.

Seattle Art Fair’s founder and Microsofty Paul Allen was himself a major collector, and his art fair experiences abroad inspired him to create one in his own backyard. But for Allen, it was not just about having a big, arty party because he could. The art fair was an opportunity to facilitate the kind of communication, education and network building that our rather isolated market sorely needs.

It was never intended to be a magic bullet, and there were always doubts; there is no question that the fair model globally has added pressure and expense for exhibitors while burning out collectors, too, and some might argue that fairs can hurt galleries locally.

At the very least, there have been some significant local beneficiaries. The Frye Art Museum received two $25,000 gifts over two years from Seattle Art Fair to support the expansion of the museum’s contemporary collection with works shown at the fair. This year, the Frye acquired four works from PNW-based galleries: a work on paper by Jeffry Mitchell, a multimedia sculpture by Ko Kirk Yamahira (both of whom have had solo shows at The Frye), a drawing by Mary Ann Peters and a painting by Anthony White.

As of publishing this article, I’ve yet to hear what the overall sales report was for the fair this year, and in all events, we won’t know who was doing the buying—to know if, in fact, local tech wealth has started to invest in art more earnestly via the fair.

Opera Gallery offers one of the fairs more popular photo-ops. Photo by Myles Haslam for Vulcan.

The Art Fair Burnout

What is certain is that fairs make the art-viewing experience more fast-paced, less meditative. There is a thrill in seeing so much art in so small a span, but it can be more numbing than nourishing for audiences. Gallerists are dealers in objects that demand extended attention spans, so the frenetic energy around a fair is keenly felt as they eagerly await conversations about work in their booths, and hope to make back the cost of participation.

To have a booth can be prohibitively expensive for galleries (the fair’s fees, the labor, the travel, the shipping, the insurance…). Keeping it local cuts some costs for regional galleries, which is in part why so many regional fairs have sprung up over the last decade. Aside from major events such as Armory Week, Miami Basel and SOFA Chicago and specialized fairs based on medium, art fairs stateside are attended mostly by regional dealers and collectors. The highly stratified market for art tends to keep blue-chip and emerging galleries in separate spaces.

Despite being new and modest in size, Seattle Art Fair boasted the participation of some of the art world’s biggest names from the start, such as Gagosian and David Zwirner. In fact, Gagosian himself presented a space-themed booth as an homage to Allen last year. Now that Allen is gone, so are Gagosian and Zwirner, and I don’t expect that they will be back.

Nor do I care. Nor should you. It was novel to have them, but their booths were never the most compelling. And it was “so Seattle” to have that gulf between the echelons bridged superficially, but I doubt that it had much material benefit for the gallerists in the trenches. In a city still figuring itself out, to make the art world make sense will require more time and vision. The question is whether or not we have it at Seattle Art Fair.

Dinner is not served. A view of Bigert & Bergström’s “Incubator for Earthquakes.” Photo by Myles Haslam for Vulcan.

From Gilded Age to PTA Potluck

In the meantime, the question is that of money: “Can the galleries at the fair sell enough to justify their attendance, and thus the existence of the fair?” Fair co-sponsor AIG is committed to seeing the fair happen for at least another two years. The numbers have been serviceable enough to draw some galleries back every year, or on alternating years. The gallerists have to do their part: Choose the right work for the market and present it in a compelling way. And the fair has to do its part: Create an appealing destination for collectors and maintain an energetic, convivial atmosphere that encourages people to buy.

Seattle Art Fair has toyed with the formula every year. In the beginning, the VIP lounge was extravagant: fresh oysters, eye-popping buffets, a sundae bar. It was very Gilded Age, even by art fair standards. They have scaled it back considerably: no more hip designs for the lounge. Last year the lounges were plural, with tiers that looked at each other awkwardly over partitions. People now grumbled about the lack of hospitality—and indeed, they may have dialed it back too much.

Sure, getting a lousy buffet and no drink tickets is a #firstworldproblem for people to have, but this isn’t just about people missing a free meal. It’s a strategic matter, one that both the charitable and commercial sides of the art world agree upon. If you want people to open their wallets, get them drunk.

That may sound nefarious, but it’s a matter of perspective. For instance, if fundraisers are trying to guarantee that local school children get to see world-class art, and their donors are a room full of extortionate landlords and mega-polluters, dumping bubbles down their gullets until they are drunk enough to compete for public approval is a small price to pay. Both sides even get to feel a little heroic (to themselves) in the process. At a fair, all that’s really at stake is the bottom line for galleries, but that same sort of transactional hospitality helps.

If the fair has pulled back because it knows that the people attending are general consumers who take their largesse for granted, then that doesn’t bode well for the galleries. Those people don’t buy art, not even the pop-art chintz that filled so many of the booths this year.

One of Seattle Art Fair’s requisite selfie-stations: Another Peter Gronquist infinity mirror at Hashimoto Contemporary. Photo by Myles Haslam for Vulcan.

What We Saw at Seattle Art Fair 2019

I found myself asking a question several times walking into booths at the art fair this year: Why is this here? Why this level of work? Who wants this tired, fragmented portrait of Rosie the Riveter, or Audrey Hepburn, or Frida Kahlo? What about this hodgepodge of uninspired bric-a-brac on the walls made sense when the gallery was deciding what to haul across oceans and state lines?

Don’t get me wrong. There was plenty worth seeing at Seattle Art Fair this year, but there was so much that suggested a total confusion about what Seattle wants. This is partly a symptom of the fair model itself. It is less risky to bring a selection of works into an unfamiliar market than a single artist, and some galleries that tour national fairs have a set roster they use over and over to test the waters. Gallerists and artists Amy Spassov and Erik Hall of Hall Spassov Gallery have observed as much in the past year, seeing many of the same galleries and same artists, over and over. In Seattle, they took a personal approach, presented some of their own work alongside an homage to the late painter Francesca Sundsten. Happily, it was a good year for them.

The advantage of being on one’s own turf and showing to a potential national audience got other locals to take chances. I was speaking to one local curator who had been asked by a participating artist collective to curate their booth. (I didn’t ask for express permission to quote her, so I won’t use their names.) She asked them right up front: “Do you want to make your money back, or do you want to push the envelope?” They chose the latter option, understanding that to distinguish themselves to new audiences was an investment all the same.

The Martyr Sauce booth by Tariqa Waters at Seattle Art Fair 2019

The Martyr Sauce booth at Seattle Art Fair 2019. Image courtesy of Tariqa Waters.

Meanwhile, artist and curator Tariqa Waters set up a different sort of space altogether. Seated in the community partners section, Waters covered her entire booth wall with the Harriet Tubman Twenty Dollar Bill. The table is designed to look like a giant stack of them. The seats: two oversized dice. She minced no words when asked about the concept she was hammering home.

“Art Fairs have very little to do with art and everything to do with money. Every conversation has an agenda and every discussion is transactional. For me, it’s also about representation, and the Tubman $20 just seemed the perfect intersection. My first publicly displayed and recognized work in Seattle was an 8-foot tall oil painting of Andrew Jackson—the slave-owning ex-president currently on the $20—wearing a pink slave’s collar. It was a didactic, reactionary and confrontational piece that certainly initiated some interesting conversations. At the fair, I wanted to continue those conversations and confrontations and also take the piss and subvert the art/commerce dynamic.”

One of the most impressive booths to me perhaps looked relatively understated to others. New-York based Barney Savage Gallery presented a panoramic green dream of oil paintings by late-career artist Jillian Denby. The six-figure prices created some sticker shock for those who inquired, but gallery director Julian Lorber was prepared for that. Barney Savage Gallery opened in February 2018 but has already distinguished itself with a rigorous program, featuring primarily artists from underrepresented groups (LGBTQ, women, and artists of color). Jillian Denby’s work is at the highest price point among the artists in the Barney Savage roster.

Lorber said he was pleased by the connections that he made at the fair this year, with consultants and collectors who can make deals at that level. Whether or not a deal materializes down the line is anyone’s guess.

Money Talks

In this paradigm, commercial gallerists have to consider the bottom line as the most essential. But this year even the special talks that are part of Seattle Art Fair’s programming could not escape the singular pull of the subject. On Friday, curators Larry Ossei-Mensah (MOCAD) and Rita Gonzalez (LACMA) talked about their view of contemporary curation. The discussion was led and moderated by Paula Marincola, executive director of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

Ossei-Mensah’s approach has led him to initiate collaborations between visual artists, musicians, and writers in the Detroit area to inspire new work and engage new audiences. He has also been engaging corporate partners with the means to make sure these sorts of events can even happen when grants alone won’t cut it.

When Marincola broached the subject of artist empowerment as seen in the recent case of the Whitney Biennial, the subject of funding got even more pointed. (For those not following: The Whitney Museum recently saw the resignation of vice-chairman Warren Kanders after a growing number of artists in the Biennial threatened to withdraw their work based on his company’s production of teargas.) Gonzalez had just come from a conference with dozens of other curators, and the question of what this protest and resignation meant for institutional funding was a hot topic, and no unified answers of how to best proceed were apparent. In Gonzalez’s words, some were pleased to see this sort of accountability; others were more “cynical,” unconvinced that tear gas was the moral line to not be crossed when museum boardrooms are full of robber barons and war profiteers, and always have been.

Catharina Manchanda, a curator of contemporary art Seattle Art Museum, was in the audience and expressed her own concerns about how institutions can proceed. The conversations will be “painful,” in her words, and I think everyone agreed. Marincola sanguinely pointed out that transparency was a good thing, nonetheless, and it is best to view it as such because this conversation about who funds our cultural institutions is not going away.

Don’t bet on the solutions being found in this environment, especially based on what passes for disruption in the market according to the talk on Sunday afternoon. Art world applications of blockchain were the subject for two New York-based panelists, lawyer Sarah Conley Odenkirk and Misha Libman, founder of techy art firm Snark.art. The “disruption” was actually late-capitalism as usual: using blockchain to create digital scarcity. That is, easily (and infinitely) reproducible digital art forms are certified for one owner through blockchain technology. The point is to limit access, not expand it. And yet the duo gave examples of “democratization” through the technology, whereby individuals could own small patches of a video work, or invest in a physical work of art (that they will never physically see or own) like a small hedge fund. How avant-garde.

I say every day that our world has always been troubled by a failure of imagination: to imagine another person’s experience, to imagine other modes of being, of organizing our world, our communities. So much of what passes for innovation and disruption is mere market cunning and opportunism. I wouldn’t expect to find genuinely new and imaginative ideas at an art fair, but it was still striking to see total acquiescence to the capitalistic drive that is killing the planet.

For more on that, ask artist Jeff Frost, whose work covering the devastation of California wildfires was covered in a talk on Saturday. Stephen Poux, Head of Risk Management and Loss Prevention at AIG, was a charming interlocutor, and it became a highlight of the fair for me. True to AIG’s business (of insuring high net-wealth individuals) the talk veered a little into the matter of how those building at the WUI (Wildlife-Urban Interface) in California were contributing to the fires and most at risk. Poux implied that homes in those areas would probably be uninsurable going forward, meaning we may see less building into the wilderness now. The invisible hand of the market prevails.

An attendee repurposes a 3D butterfly specimen by Richard Pell on opening night. Photo by Myles Haslam for Vulcan.

Bread and Circuses

Several people noted that it was nice that this year Seattle was not underneath a blanket of wildfire smoke. For a moment, in the climate-controlled, peaceable interior of Century Link Event Center, one could forget that outside, we all seem to be affirming George Orwell’s late prophecy: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

How apt that inside the fair, we had the cringe-worthy, slapstick performances of Bread Face, the blogger who achieved notoriety about four or five years ago for smashing her face into bread on camera. While some might say her “work” lies at the intersection of critiques of net culture (audiences for ASMR and women in bondage, eating, submission, etc.), there is less here than meets the eye. If “bread” is still acceptable slang for money (though a tad dated in a post-gluten world), then it is quite on the nose to have audiences gawking as someone smashes their face into it at an art fair.

This bit was arranged as part of the fair’s special programming, which artistic director Nato Thompson claimed in early releases was informed by the notion of the Wunderkammer. If only that were so apparent. The Wunderkammer—seventeenth-century curios popular among colonizing bourgeousie—were the seed of what would become galleries, and eventually museums. They were microcosms of the world being conquered and subjugated, in which tribal art, classical antiques, taxidermied animals and chunks of coral were on equal footing. They were all parts of a unified whole, with the colonizer at the center.

To contemplate that nexus of humanism, science and capitalism in the space of an art fair would have been truly interesting. The closest the fair comes to that intent is 3D specimens by Richard Pell of Pittsburgh’s Center for PostNatural History (CPNH). (They really are stunningly detailed and delightful to view.) There could have been more space for the dreamers in the art world still holding on, making the work, hauling it into booths, hoping for a connection with other people who care. The table where that sort of exchange might have occurred outside the booths was covered…with breadcrumbs.

Art fairs still facilitate the discovery of art in their own way, and their total commercialism is an inevitability—as the end of art commoditization, of the colonizing impulse of the Wunderkammer. Hence, as much as I critique the fairs, the dreamers are still there. And for those getting their first taste of collecting and finding entrance into the art world at events like Seattle Art Fair (as Paul Allen wished), there is good news: It only gets better.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.