Art Week 2011: An End to the Hierarchy?

Not a non-sequiter, but perhaps an odd choice: a gorgeously Post War building on 52nd Street near 10th Ave, snapped en route to MoMA from the Armory Show on Weds, 3/2/2011. Identify this building in the comments section and you will receive my utmost respect AND a randomly selected art-world tote bag of my choice from my personal stash.


If you are anything like me, last week commenced on Tuesday, March 1, 2011with high energy for the forthcoming-days’ onslaught of art-viewing in NYC…and ended with your feet up on the couch on Sunday, March 6. Your legs and soles were athrob, your fatigue of faculties so resolute that the only critical thoughts left available to you were whether Jerry was cooler than Tom, which j (raspberry or strawberry) is preferable with your p.b., and whether Art Vandelay was an architect, an importer, an exporter, or an importer/exporter. (Answers: Tom; Raspberry; all of the above).

But now it is Tuesday, March 8th, you’ve had at least 4 hours of rest and 14 hours of sleep and it is time to soldier on & make sense of the hoopla.

“Art Week” is the most fair (accidental pun, I swear) way to describe it, as it betrays no allegiance to the myriad activities or their owners:  ADAA, Armory Show, Pulse, Volta, Moving Image, Independent, Dependent, etc. Art Week has gone the way of most other mega-art-fair towns: the main organism readied a host site for a cluster of cultures that pop up & thrive around it.  This viral chain is perpetuated by an array of press and posts, as best seen herehere, and here.

Lest the virus analogy implies otherwise, I think this is a good thing.  Very good thing.  The chosen analogy underscores my position – which I’ve yet to read in the far more respectable outlets. Thus I present to you my thoughts on cell culture, or, “Art Week 2011: An End to the Hierarchy?”

In essence, the idea is:  the proliferation of multiple fairs or venues indicates that there is both 1/ an audience for the vehicle; and; 2/ a market or system that can support and sustain it.  Once upon a time, the most our infrastructure could (or would) support was one big fair, one small.* This created a staunch hierarchy, whereby the growing numbers of thriving artists and dealers conducted themselves in abeyance to this order.  A large part of this was a matter of context:  unless your art or gallery was merited inclusion into this club, it was somehow on the fringes of the accepted order.  Last week, however, we have seen in New York that there is a broad, dispersed interest in art. For nearly every art fair that happened, there were not only visitors to see it, but artists to supply art for it, collectors to acquire some work, scribes to record and render the events, companies on hand to sponsor, and brewers or vintners to drown it in alcohol.

If this can be sustained (and we are seeing in Miami that it can be), we are witnessing a shift away from one large ‘canonized’ environment for art, and many smaller hubs that are supported on scales proportionate to a supply/demand that is at once local and global.

I’ve been thinking about this idea as it applies to the art world ever since I read this article by Kurt Andersen in the New York Times Book Review in August of 2009.  Here he describes, in the wake of the election (and campaign financing) of President Obama, the changes in our cultural landscape as abetted by the internet.  Andersen’s point was that increasingly we would shift away from one behemouth bookseller, record shop, etc as we all use the internet to perfectly mete our desires with consumables that exist, no matter where they are or who distributes them and how this is done.  The net effects of this are small communities and markets that are local in scale but global in terms of geographic distribution. These hubs are like cells, hence ‘cell culture.’

This is not to say that I am making a one-to-one correlation between the diversification of the art world and the internet.  I do believe that is one part of it:  the increasingly global economy since 2000 (ie, the EU, the Euro, and changes to trade of China and the East in general) is another key factor.  The conflation of these two circumstances fostered an expanded art economy in the first decade of this century, and it cannot be underestimated: they have not disappeared at either the rate or volume that many of us thought they would in 2008.

Certainly there are elements of personal motivation that effect the goings on as well.  I say this from personal experience, as I conceived and co-founded NADA in 2002, which led to an eponymous art fair in 2003.  The fair – the first satellite to Art Basel Miami that was not a hotel fair – was born of the desires, ambitions, and insistences of our members and their artists.  They simply wanted a place to show their art that reflected their own context. This was neither ABMB, which accepted less then 20 emerging international dealers at the time and relegated them to shipping containers on the beach; nor Scope, which took its cue from the original Armory Show at the Gramercy started by Pat Hearn, Colin DeLand, Paul Morris and Matthew Marks in 1999 and used the hotel-model for new art.  Since our first fair only cost a total of $86,000 to put together (thanks to a free space, brought to us by the first NADA Art Fair Director, Janet Phelps), it is hard to imagine that money was the major obstacle for the people who did NOT do it before us.  Rather, I believe that the roadblock had more to do with the observant faith in the canon, and the fear of not knowing if there was an adequate cultural support in place.

Creative dealers continue to decide what context works best for them; this gives artists increasingly more options when making the same decision.  The three most recent exciting fair innovations for New York – the Independent, Moving Image, and the Dependent – are testament to that.  That they can use the internet to [cheaply and effectively] market their endeavors, create a buzz, and connect with some small portion of the international collecting community allows them to hone in on just enough to people to get it going and make it good.

The mixed reviews of the Armory Show, meanwhile, indicate that the art world resents a corporitization of their ‘context.’  A more diffused assembling of art under one roof appears to be of less interest to a good segment of the audience (in a way not unlike the falling values of Walmart and Kmart).  The smaller fairs led by groups of like-minded dealers (and this includes the ADAA) can pay attention to the nuances between varied formal, conceptual and aesthetic ‘cells’ of contemporary art, that may be ellusive to the ham-fisted bottom-liners.We all now live in a world where we are bombared with options; for a good number of us, this has lead to greater discrimination when we seek to self-identify among the experiences, goods and services that are out there.  A cell is born.

This cell mentality extends to galleries too – as they are, afterall, Mom-and-Pop shops named after the parents who birthed them. Did it ever make sense that galleries that are totally different in terms of aesthetic or artistic interest, location, revenue or capital, or any other concern should be vying each other for the same coveted $30,000 lot of 200 sq ft of space?  How could this space truly be as useful to the one as to the other?

Like me, perhaps you went to as many of these shows as possible…and then regretted that you spent so much time at the Armory Show, and not enough time at the other events that you actually enjoyed more.  Indeed, last week was a bit like going to a dinner party:  if you had known in advance that the main course was dry chicken, you may have found your sustenance in the bread & soup, or maybe only taken a bite of the entree so to leave room for your favorite dessert.

Ultimately, Art Week 2011 brought out the optimist in me…it engaged me with so many different art ‘worlds,’ a vast landscape of professionals putting forth different surfaces, varied in execution but similar in their determination, deliberateness,  and hard-work.  Here’s hoping we can forget about the canon, ditch the heirchy and latch onto host site that best feeds us…whichever cell that may be.

*A brief history lesson on art fairs, condensed.  As far as contemporary art is concerned, the terra firma of all art fairs has got to be Art Basel Switzerland. Started in 1970 by a group of local art dealers, it success often attributed to the late Ernst Beyeler – a formidable dealer of 20th century art, whose inclusion secured a place for very fancy art (Picasso, Bacon etc).  As the interest and demand in art of one’s time grew (as a market and a culture), it became about as easy to get into Art Basel by the mid 1980s as it was to get into pre-school in NYC in the mid 2000s.  By the 1990s, following the boom in the arts in the preceding decade, it was no longer possible to contain all of what is good in art of the 20th C. under one roof, despite the massive Messeplatz convention center that the fair organizers own and expand as needed. Thus, in 1996, the disenfranchised new generation of dealers consorted into the Liste art fair, under the direction of Peter Blauer.  Liste has more than the goodwill of Art Basel on its side; take a look back on their history, it is surely a source of discovery of new talent for the mothership. And so it was through the rest of the 1990s and early 2000s:  get into Basel or Liste, or do no other fair until you get into one of those. This model took off around the world:  in New York we had the ADAA Art Show, and then the original Armory Show, a hotel fair at the Gramercy, founded by Pat Hearn, Colin de Land, Paul Morris and Matthew Marks in 1999; Art Basel Miami was added into the mix in 2000, as was the hotel fair Scope Miami. Same story can be told for Chicago, London, etc.

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