The Seattle Art Fair 2016 Sets Out to Break Norms and Build Bridges

Can Seattle improve upon the art fair model? And can a commercial fair help artists and the region?

Posted on August 02, 2016, 4:37 pm
20 mins


The art fair model as we know it began with the Kölner Kunstmarkt (now Art Cologne) in 1967 as a sort of dealer-run variation on the world fairs and artist-run fairs of the past. The founders aspired to exhibit high quality works together and create an exciting environment for collectors, who were increasingly taking their money to the feverish, lavish auction houses, not the staid galleries. The strategy worked, and by 1970, Art Actuel and Art Basel had followed Cologne’s lead.

Today, most major cities have at least one major art fair annually, and in cultural hubs a successful fair can spur the formation of other fairs. For instance, The Armory Show remains the namesake and centerpiece of Armory Week, but audiences have about ten other satellite fairs to visit at the same time. The inaugural Seattle Art Fair was one of 269 fairs listed in Art Newspaper‘s 2015 calendar—by no means a complete list, and actually slightly shorter than the year before. That averages to a little over five fairs per week. There’s no way even the most committed collector can attend even a fraction of them, and even if they could, why would they want to?

Most regional fairs are modest in scale and scope, without a lot of unique programming or satellite events to draw seasoned crowds. They form a hub for galleries, artists, institutions and curators in the region, but do not become a regular destination for national and international audiences. Meanwhile, the big fairs are exhausting hullabaloos, where the FOMO and multiple VIP tiers has everyone in a tizzy.

It takes a lot of overhead and time for a gallery to stage a booth in a fair. The more prestigious a fair is, the more expensive a booth becomes. Participation in several of these events each year has become almost compulsory for more renowned galleries, as their own prestige might suffer if they bowed out entirely. They at least have higher price points and (almost) guaranteed sales that offset the cost of participation.

Smaller galleries will sometimes save their best work for fairs, just to help them win a spot, and yet even the best work can get swallowed up in fairs displaying well over a hundred galleries, especially if one’s real estate in the fair isn’t prime. The dealers have to work hard to at least break even while courting new clients, so they have to be choosy about where and how they participate to mitigate the risk. The state of the economy in the last decade hasn’t helped; the wealthiest collectors are zealously pursuing the most valuable and collectable works, while shrinking incomes in other economic brackets have stymied investment in work by emerging and mid-career artists.

Ultimately, all of this puts pressure back on the organizers of these fairs, who must court galleries and collectors to get them in the door, and then hope that the shifting art world calendar doesn’t create a major conflict in scheduling.

Everyone involved has been fatigued by these demands, but the Seattle Art Fair is poised to thrive because it is an outlier in several ways—and not just because it is so geographically far from the traditional centers of art.

Summer is off-season for the art world in many cities, where foot traffic goes down in galleries while people travel. (Most galleries in New York City close for vacation in August.) According to Max Fishko, whose company, Art Market Productions, co-produces the fair with Vulcan Inc., this posed an added challenge when trying to convince national galleries to participate in the inaugural Seattle Art Fair last August.

“They didn’t want to work in August,” he said with a laugh during a phone interview in early July. But in the end, a number of blue-chip galleries were convinced. (Paul Allen’s influence was probably the prevailing factor, not the weather.) Most of them are returning this year.

Fishko has had years of experience producing fairs and working with galleries, but creating a new fair from scratch in Seattle posed new challenges, as there was no road map. Choosing a time that was convenient for art world insiders and locals alike was a balancing act, but Fishko says the choice to run the fair in the summer says something about the goals of the fair as a whole and creates an inherent attraction to the region from the outside.

“The summer is when Seattle is its most vibrant. There’s so much happening, but at the same time this is when we’ll be able to get most people to come. This is when I can say to someone in Los Angeles, ‘So you’ve never been, always thought about it? This is the weekend for you.’ That’s been really successful for us.”

Opening night fo Seattle Art Fair 2015. Photo by Tori Dickson, courtesy of Seattle Art Fair.

Opening night fo Seattle Art Fair 2015. Photo by Tori Dickson, courtesy of Seattle Art Fair.

This is all an important part of the stated goals for the fair. Beyond creating a marketplace for sale, there is a hope that it will accelerate the local art market and above all serve to educate regional audiences about contemporary art. Fishko says this educational component was a priority for the Vulcan team from the beginning.

“It’s a challenging thing,” Fishko admits. “We need to bring attention and content from a global art world, but we are constantly looking for ways to do that without losing any of the local identity. How is this not just going to be another pit stop, another regional art fair? How do we create something that will extend beyond the walls of Century Link and really activate the city in a meaningful way?”

This is where the “extra-curricular” programming comes in: lectures, performances, installations. Larger fairs do this, but a new fair with fewer than a hundred exhibitors? Seattle Art Fair’s approach is absolutely an exception to the rule.

This year, Seattle Art Fair’s artistic director and an L.A.-based curator, Laura Fried, designed a comprehensive series of events in collaboration with national and local talent. Most of the performances take place in Pioneer Square outside of Century Link Event Center, and will thus be free and open to the public. This is Fried’s first time working for an art fair, but she has attended many and knows how overwhelming they can be. She also recognizes their enormous potential.

“An art fair is a place where you can get so much accomplished, because artists and gallerists and curators and collectors are all descending on a city at one time,” she said, speaking to me in L.A. “You can have so many conversations with people internationally in one setting. It’s an incredible place to discover new artists, or see new work by established artists.”

The opportunity to create these kinds of discoveries for audiences has guided Fried’s work for Seattle Art Fair. Last year, the off-site programming was too spread out around the city and this made it hard to see everything. Meanwhile, within the fair, a special exhibition of media inspired by Seattle’s place on the Pacific Rim was so sequestered that it took one out of the fair too much and for too long. As much as I appreciated having an oasis from the rush of the galleries, it felt too disconnected.

This year will be different. Artist-driven projects will be integrated throughout the floor plan, combating fair fatigue with singular experiences in a diversity of materials, practice and scale. Some will be more tucked away and immersive, such as Dawn Kasper’s aural and sculptural installation of cymbals, “Cluster.”

The closest thing to a media exhibition will be hosted by L.A.-based exhibition platform Public Fiction, curated by Lauren Mackler. Its focus will be on early video art and experimental public broadcast, which Mackler will then bridge with contemporary artists who are experimenting with means of media distribution.

What audiences may not understand at a glance is how Fried’s programming is also turning the Seattle Art Fair into an incubator for new works that will live beyond the fair itself. For instance, participating artist Wynne Greenwood is known for multi-disciplinary performance, but for the Seattle Art Fair she will be displaying a series of large soft sculptures in Occidental Park. The park will also be a site for a live durational performance on Friday. It is the culmination of choreographer luciana achugar’s intensive residency at Velocity Dance Center, and will feature international dancers who participated with her.

Fried’s emphasis on performance is also unique to this fair, and speaks to the spirit of collaboration being fostered between the fair and local institutions. Velocity’s Artistic Director, Tonya Lockyer, bridges contemporary art and contemporary dance in her own background, which made her a perfect local partner as Fried sought to include live dance in a number of public spaces. Fried and the Seattle Art Fair team began by reaching out to the Seattle Business Association, the office of the city and Sound Transit to identify sites even before selecting artist projects. The artists themselves could then choose their venues and best determine how to activate and respond to them.

Dawn Kasper's "Cluster" Courtesy of the artist and David Lewis Gallery, New York and Redling Fine Art, Los Angeles

Dawn Kasper’s “Cluster.” Image courtesy of the artist, David Lewis Gallery, New York and Redling Fine Art, Los Angeles

For instance, Union Station was identified early on as a perfect location to showcase movement and dance, and so will be the site of multiple performances over the weekend by Flora Wiegmann (chosen by Fried) and Bebe Miller and Darrell Jones (chosen by Lockyer), as the latest installment of an ongoing project last performed in Chicago.

Lauren Mackler’s exhibit is intended as just the first of many to come, as she embarks on a years-long research project into the works of media artists past and present. “It will be an exhibition that builds, that tours,” Fried explains. “You’ll see this show happening in others places and institutions.” That potentially includes Seatle’s own Henry Art Gallery, where Mackler has found fellow curators and academics with sympathetic interests, including Emily Zimmerman, Associate Curator of Programs, with whom Mackler will be hosting a meta-talk show/lecture/conversation during the art fair (Friday at 3pm).

That is one of five conversations Fried has put together to take place at Century Link Event Center over the fair’s three days. The pairings also include: actor Kyle MacLachlan and artistic polyglot Carrie Brownstein; musician Kim Gordon and academic Branden Joseph; curator Anne Ellegood and Canadian artist Brian Jungen; and architect Sharon Johnson and artist Rita McBride. Fried’s desire is that the pairings will produce interactions that are engaging and accessible.

“I think for a lot of fairs, especially if they are in New York or Basel or [L.A.], there’s a kind of insider conversation that can be more academic, and it was important to me to address a much broader public, because that’s our mission. It’s to bring a broad public in Seattle, not just established collectors.”

“Panel discussions can be really good, but they can be too diluted. It’s harder to build the two-person conversation, because you have to get just the right fit of people who know each other or who are mutual fans. Hopefully, it will be more fun [than panels] for the people on stage and in the audience. These are all conversations that I am excited to attend.

Seattle’s remoteness has made it a good incubator for artists who want to cultivate ideas (provided they have ambition to follow through on their own terms). Unfortunately, there has been less cultivation of a collecting class who see the value in sustaining cultural explorations and dialogs, let alone individual artists. The team behind the Seattle Art Fair is hoping to change that. The extracurricular programming is one facet, but perhaps the most vital is the visibility it gives to major collectors and cultural stewards in action.

Fishko notes, “There is really great thought leadership in Seattle on the part of established collectors…People like John Shirley and obviously Paul Allen, who are demonstrating a dedicated, sophisticated approach to collecting that is public. That in and of itself inspires other people to do it right.”

Last year, Fishko met quite a few fair attendees who told him that they had made their first major art purchase at the fair, and he believes the fair will continue to turn passive admirers into fully engaged advocates who see collecting art as an important part of culture.

“Nothing will make a young collector feel good about what they’re doing more than looking at somebody they truly admire doing the same thing.”

He also voices his support for the many satellite events happening around Seattle during the fair, notably Out of Sight at King Street Station, which exclusively features artists from the region. Meanwhile, across town at another Paul Allen venture, Pivot Art + Culture will host a show of international pop-art and pop-surrealism curated by art megastar Takashi Kurakami and Evan Pricco, editor-in-chief of Juxtapoz magazine. The show, Juxatpoz vs Superflat, emphasizes breakout visual artists “who operate outside of the central hubs of the global art world”—a fitting theme for a city like Seattle, trying to determine its own identity in the larger art world.

As that larger world grapples with its frenetic schedule (an “illegible Mayan calendar,” as Fishko calls it), Seattle’s challenges as a somewhat remote outpost may in time become a blessing. By existing apart from central hubs but participating in cosmopolitan conversations, the Seattle cultural scene could gain recognition as an oasis and incubator and still maintain its own character. No doubt, various institutions (including Velocity) have already given Seattle that reputation for people in the know in specific fields, but this could become a broader value for the city as a whole. By bringing in so many diverse voices around the visual arts, Fried and the team at Seattle Art Fair are helping to put the city on that trajectory for at least one weekend a year, and with the right cooperation and ambition, this could increasingly become the way that Seattle defines its own sensibilities during a period of rapid growth and change.

Speaking about the success of the first Seattle Art Fair, in spite of being held off-season, Max Fishko shared some words that might be applied year-round:

“It’s because the fair is beautiful. It’s because the art we have is special. But it’s also because Seattle is special, too, at this time, so that challenge of being outside the regular schedule ultimately became an asset.”

Check out our summary of the official off-site performances.Check out the full listing of events, installations and lectures on the official Seattle Art Fair website and get your tickets.

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

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