Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair begins this week, and it all came together in a matter of weeks. Its beginning coincides with what would have been The Seattle Art Fair, which canceled for at least this year. The ongoing pandemic has canceled far more than art fairs, obviously, and the SDAF will provide options for art lovers who have felt starved of creative experiences this year.
Visiting Greg Kucera Gallery as the fair opens, I spoke with the gallery’s Director of Communications, Laura Komada. She has already noted an uptick in foot traffic, and herself feels a little more optimistic just through the activity generated around putting the deconstructed fair together with galleries around town, and a few from outside of town, too. Not giving in to inertia is key for everyone at this point, but especially for independent businesses trying to operate amid all the chaos and uncertainty.
Like most independent businesses trying to carry on during lockdown, galleries are feeling pinched, too. The dealers behind Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair certainly hope to drum up some enthusiasm for art collecting again, too. After all, with how much time people are spending at home, some new art couldn’t hurt, right?
But what does a Deconstructed Art Fair look like?
A Glance At A Very Deconstructed Fair
At this stage, the Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair is what individual dealers and curators want to make of it. Several participants were scheduled to have booths at Seattle Art Fair, and are creating booths of a sort in their own spaces to capture the look of that. Greg Kucera Gallery has the most literal version of this, presenting a full on booth experience in the back exhibition space. That group installation features works by Humaira Abid, Drie Chapek, Anthony White, and more.
The gallery has often used the art fair as a showcase for artists with upcoming shows, and this year is no exception. Hopefully, viewers who break out of their bubble and see the art will be inspired to return for solo exhibits later.
Next door, Foster/White will use its western walls as their “booth,” displaying work by several gallery artists, including stoneware sculptures by Calvin Ma, paintings by the late Alden Mason, and a hanging sculpture by Paul Vexler. At front, they have their scheduled show of work by George Rodriguez, which is itself worth the trip to Pioneer Square.
But Foster/White will also have a space devoted to artist Gala Bent’s work, represented and curated by art dealer Gail Gibson, who closed her brick and mortar space last year to go virtual. This spirit of collaboration between dealers is how the fair is happening at all, and with such short notice, and it’s actually what is most exciting about the whole project.
Of course, in the short-term I am excited to see the actual artworks and virtual projects of the galleries, but we absolutely need collaborations in the face of an ever-growing crisis. Some things will be temporary solutions, others may endure. After all, it is not as if there weren’t big existential questions around the arts before Coronavirus hit. Institutions and galleries were already being interrogated about survivability, accountability, their purpose in a changing world.
Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair doesn’t offer answers, but it offers a little hope that fresh perspectives and cooperation is on the way, as the project brings together established and emerging galleries on a more local level.
Venues In The Year Of The Virtual
There is no grand opening for the Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair, nor even the First Thursday Art Walk in Pioneer Square. But in addition to the shows in physical spaces, galleries will also be releasing online experiences over the course of August. Again, it’s up to the individual dealers how they want to proceed.
I am all for the motley mix that we can expect to see. The staid, compartmentalization of the art market (exemplified by the white cube/white booth design of most fairs) tends to treat personality and a sense of humor as genre, lines in an artist statement. If the Deconstructed Art Fair is occasion for dealers to deconstruct their own role and cut loose a bit more, that in itself would be a success.
There has been some rehearsal for this in recent months, as galleries worked with members of creative agency Civilization to produce By The Hour, an online surrogate for art walks offering mini-tours and chats with the gallerists. It’s still not clear how much virtual content will be available via SDAF, but from what I have seen and heard thus far, it is reasonable to hope that it will surpass mere marketing and feel genuinely curated, even personable.
Contrast this with the UNTITLED, ART Fair this month. UNTITLED, ART Fair still has its physical events scheduled later this year, but on July 31, the showrunners also launched the first fully virtual art fair with their partners Artland, who provided the technological power. UNTITLED, ART Online used architectural rendering to re-create a fair’s layout, complete with booths and art at proper scale on the walls, all navigable by keyboard in real time. Participating galleries even rented booths as they normally would (at a reduced rate), and could communicate with visitors who voiced interest via chat boxes.
It was the most literal way of reproducing an art fair as ones-and-zeroes. It was (in a tech city like our own) what one might have expected from Seattle Art Fair, had they the necessary ambition and backing to pivot to a virtual fair rather than canceling. I may be surprised that Seattle Art Fair wasn’t all over this, but I am not lamenting it.
As novel and intuitive as UNTITLED, ART Online was, it was also as sterile as fresh PPE. There is no way to match the experience of wending through crowds, talking about the art as you see it, feeling overwhelmed and pausing for a drink, all the frenzy and energy that makes an art fair the buzzy, glitzy monstrosity that it ought to be. Despite the video game-like atmosphere, it was without urgency, excitement or discovery. It was more like a post-apocalyptic dungeon crawler, with neither monsters nor allies, nor atmospheric lighting, but rather the invisible specter of Coronavirus, snickering in a pale void.
I nonetheless hope that UNTITLED, ART Online proved fruitful for the participants, but it felt like the worst-case scenario for me, or anyone else who already finds the art market too scripted, mechanical and materialistic a vessel for the living art it offers as commodities. The online experience stripped away the last vestiges of humanity and communion—however performative some may be—leaving something aptly white as bone.
Keep Seattle (Art Fairs) Weird
I am glad that Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair is staying scrappy and weird. So far, the most madcap, invigorating project produced for SDAF is a Venetian fantasia from gallerist Dawna Holloway of studio e. She has superimposed images of artworks from some of her represented artists over footage of a trip to Venice and the Prado. It is posed as a hypothetical Venice Biennale installation, which is especially apt since the 2020 Venice Biennale was postponed to open August 29, just as the Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair wraps up.
The seams are visible in the studio e Biennale. This isn’t sophisticated, interactive CGI, but that’s not the point. The actual human presence and noise and scrappiness of the published product is delightful, and far more hopeful than the limbo of UNTITLED, ART Online. Fortunately, the Venetian dream will stay online, too, even after the Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair has run its course.
It would seem that the primary obstacle for the SDAF is clear messaging, but that is to be expected. It came out of nowhere and is being done on the fly by people who often remain siloed in their individual operations. The Fair is taking its deconstructed shape quite quickly under the circumstances, and this, again, is cause for cautious hope.
Every year that the SAF took place, I noted that local galleries and institutions were not doing much to create a critical mass around it. Dawna Holloway was, again, one of the exceptions to this, staging satellite shows of her own around the event center during the fair. If Seattle Art Fair is able to return next year (and the republic has not fallen), the momentum of SDAF 2020 might turn into something more complete for 2021.
Learning From The Past, Staying In The Present For The Future Of Art Spaces
But why prognosticate that far? In this time of crisis, cooperation and new approaches will be essential for the survival of arts spaces locally. Some of it will be ad hoc and temporary, and some things will be built to endure in the new normal. As a prior example, ten years ago in the wake of the Great Recession, I saw a lot of new galleries arise in Atlanta, in the backs of trucks or under hybrid-nonprofit models.
This came as a shock to me, given that I had grown up in Atlanta and left, in part, because the art scene seemed out of steam, ideas, vigor, and capital. The traditional models had failed in a highly segregated city whose booms were built on cheap real estate and easy credit, and whose old guard wasn’t exactly fond of artists speaking truth to power… or even deviating from what some might call merely decorative. In some ways, the tastes and distribution of capital in Seattle now are the inverse of the Atlanta I knew, but the paralysis feels awfully similar.
That burst of activity in Atlanta during the recession came from a lot of creative people realizing together that it was better to risk new models rather than accept almost certain defeat by taking a traditional approach. Not everything lasted, nor was it meant to. The sense that only what is “permanent” is successful is an old world pathology that has never been true, but is more out of touch than ever.
If Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair is just a one-time attempt to stir up some excitement, that is perfectly adequate. But I am allowing myself to be sanguine enough to think that maybe it will inspire other ideas and ways of engaging that aren’t just a response to the pandemic and its added inertia. For that to be true, people have to turn out, get engaged, not just ignore it or give in to that inertia that we feel in lockdown, caught in virtual feedback loops, doom-scrolling and binge-watching. The gift of hope goes both ways, between audiences and the arts spaces.
So mask up and get out if you can, and tune in to the virtual fun either way. Those who go in expecting a consolation prize or substitute for a gala event will likely be disappointed. Instead, let Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair be its own thing… even if, in the end, it is just the pieces from which something new might be constructed.
Stay tuned this weekend as we look more closely at the shows happening in conjunction with Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair. See the official website for a list of exhibitions and participating galleries.