Even if you never go to galleries or museums, you should try an art fair. Expose yourself to art in high doses — and see if it takes.
High doses is what we have now, during Armory Week — the Fleet Week of art fairs — with ten arriving, bringing together an extraordinary concentration of artworks, private dealers and galleries from around the globe and briefly laying siege to the world’s densest art scene. And all but one of these fairs — the International Antiquarian Book Fair at the Park Avenue Armory — is devoted to contemporary works.
The confabs play to varied tastes and pocketbooks while ranging in quality from blue-chip to less than no-chip — a measure of market, not aesthetic value. They are ensconced all over town and at some odd new locations — including the heart of Chelsea, amid the David Zwirner galleries, and in a condominium at United Nations Plaza. From free to a high of $57 — about the cost of a nice dinner and a good glass of wine in New York — you can sample anywhere from a few scores to a couple of hundred galleries in action, showing works by one or two artists or a selection, including emerging talents gallerists hope will catch on.
What follows is a brief survival guide to art fairs, complete with pointers for looking; etiquette tips for talking to dealers; ways to broach the always-uncomfortable subject of money, and how to dress the part without getting sore feet. As for which fairs to see, read on for the highlights.
The rise of fairs as an irresistible force in contemporary art began with the Armory Show in the mid 1990s. Today they are considered a mixed blessing, detrimental to galleries who have nevertheless come to depend on them — while fairs, in turn, depend on galleries. The frequent refrain is that collectors have been seduced by the one-stop-shopping convenience of fairs, which drains galleries of money, energy and visitors, even if they are selling hand over fist. A fair booth can cost an exhibitor from $15,000 to $50,000, and that doesn’t factor in shipping, hotels or airfare.) Still, the art fair format seems to be infinitely malleable and dealers and artists constantly push back, coming up with new variations. For the rest of us, fairs are an education — repositories, if not floods — of new information regarding galleries, artworks and emerging artists. First time around, they can feel like you’ve jumped into the deep end. Your water wings are your eyes and your heart.
Should I Buy Art Here?
Everyone should live with art they love and love can happen at art fairs, even if they are the aesthetic equivalent of speed-dating. Before you consider buying, look and look deeply. You can’t put things on hold for long, and, unlike buying at an auction, you won’t have time to consult an expert or someone you trust. A reputable gallery will let you see the provenance — if the work has one. Then, if you covet something and can afford it, take the plunge.
Lack of labels for the artworks can indicate a gallery’s decision that their booth looks better without them. Sometimes dealers do this out of a desire to meet potential clients and answer their questions directly. Note to dealers: Even the artists’ names penciled on the wall would help speed up the flow of information and visitors.
Fairs provide access to dealers and, in some cases, artists themselves, but should be seen as an introductory experience, a way to start going to galleries.
How Do I Survive the Tumult?
Wear comfortable shoes and clothes, preferably. Bring water and snacks. It’s never fun to wait in line and then have to pay relatively high prices.
Get there in the morning before the crowds reach fever pitch.
Keep expressions of jaded world-weariness off your face, and avoid the “Huh? Is this art, too?” look. Do not ask prices unless you are seriously interested in buying. As for that other question — “Will this artwork increase in value?” — a good dealer should answer “I don’t know” and maybe, “That’s not a reason to buy.”
The Armory Show
The mother of them all, with modern as well as contemporary art, this fair is on the upswing. Established in the Gramercy Hotel in 1994, it has occupied Pier 92 and 94 on the Hudson River since 2001. This year it has added Pier 90 after the city determined structural weakness had rendered Pier 92 mostly unusable. In the early 2010s, the Armory expanded and the fair’s quality dipped. But it’s trying to rise again, learning from, while also competing with, the younger Frieze Art Fair (in May). The Armory has cut back in the past few years from 300 galleries to this year’s 198, representing 33 countries. It has also been beefing up its restaurants and snack bars, programming and lounge options. Going all out for its 25th anniversary, it has initiated the Gramercy International Prize, which supports a “young and pioneering” New York gallery that has not yet participated in the fair. The inaugural prize — a booth at no cost — went to the gallery Ramiken (originally known as Ramiken Crucible), returning to New York after a brief sojourn in Los Angeles.
At $52 to $57, the Armory’s entrance fee is the most expensive. What we get for the price is a world unto itself, a place where it is hoped a visitor will spend an entire day — and more money. March 6-10; on 12th Avenue, from West 50th Street to West 55th Street; thearmoryshow.com
The Spring/Break Art Show
Founded in 2009, this curator-driven fair has been, as its name suggests, the youngest, most raucous and most egalitarian of the New York fairs. Spring/Break is also essentially nomadic, known for inhabiting unconventionally dilapidated spaces like the high-ceilinged offices in the James A. Farley Building (formerly the General Post Office). This year’s location, on the second floor of 866 United Nations Plaza, is smaller than usual, which has forced Spring/Break to be more selective, downsizing to around 90 participants from 140 last year. While a few commercial galleries participate, most of Spring/Break is devoted emerging artists who have been proposed by other artists or independent curators. This writer managed a sneak peek on Monday, which confirmed that the fair remains the place to find new art. This year’s theme is “Fact and Fiction,” which makes sense given the rising tide of representational art. $20; March 5-11; springbreakartshow.com
The Independent Art Fair
There is more than one way to break the art fair mold, and the suave and sometimes painfully hip Independent is an example. Elegantly designed with walls but no booths at 50 Varick Street in TriBeCa, it has around 60 participants and a clubby atmosphere. Inclusion is a form of anointment. But for the first time, this Independent has a theme, a representational (and conservative) one that departs considerably from its characteristic cool: “Surrealism and Hyperrealism Moment.” The Independent could use more juice, but leap in. $29; March 7-10 (opens to public March 8); independenthq.com.
Formerly known as Volta New York, this sudden pop-up fair is the feel-good story of New York’s 2019 fair cycle. It coalesced quickly when Volta, usually at Pier 90, was forced to give its space to the inhabitants of the Armory Show’s Pier 92 after the city determined that pier was unsafe. The collector Peter Hort, joined by David Zwirner and Quang Bao of the 1969 Gallery on the Lower East Side, spearheaded a rescue mission, and Plan B emerged, with about 30 Volta participants invited to Mr. Zwirner’s galleries at 525 West 19th Street and the building owned by the Paula Cooper Gallery at 534 West 21st. And who knows, Mr. Hort and company may have inadvertently invented a new model: an art fair surrounded by scores of art galleries. Free; March 6-9; no website
Art on Paper
With around 100 galleries, this is the largest of the Armory Week fairs to offer free admission — a compensation for its relatively remote location, the East River pier previously used by NADA (Pier 36, 299 South Street). Five years old, it is devoted to all things paper: from dealers in drawings, prints and occasionally photographs to large paper-based installations. These, and the orderly booths and carpeted aisles, suggest a mini Armory Show. (This year it is sheltering nine galleries from Volta.) Free; March 7-10 (opens to public March 8); thepaperfair.com/ny
Scope Art Fair
Scope is a veteran midlevel fair that caters to galleries with little or no fair experience. It will present 57 galleries at the Metropolitan Pavilion (125 West 18th Street) mostly from Europe and the United States. It is a big-hearted fair, using travel grants and program awards to lure some participants. $25; March 7-10 (opens to public March 8); scope-art.com
The New Art Dealers Association
A staple of Armory Week, NADA has suspended its New York fair this year, opting for what it calls a “gallery open.” Sixty-three local member galleries are pursuing business and exhibitions at their usual addresses; NADA is providing maps showing locations, listing shows and also organizing a week’s worth of guided tours and artists’ talks. If art fairs are not for you, this is a good way to discover some of the best small and midsize galleries, especially on the Lower East Side, where more than two-thirds are clustered. Free; March 4-10; newartdealers.org
Clio Art Fair
Billing itself as the “Anti-Fair for Independent Artists,” CLIO, founded in 2014, has mostly eliminated dealers and works directly with artists of all ages from around the world who have no New York representation. This year it will occupy a ground floor space on the fringes of Chelsea: 550 West 29th Street. It charges artists by the amount of wall or floor space they use, and without booths, resembles an exhibition. It is almost guaranteed that this crowded presentation will be full of new names, which doesn’t necessarily mean the work will look new. Free on Friday, $18 on Saturday and Sunday; March 7-10 (opens to public March 8); clioartfair.com
This may be New York’s tiniest and longest-running art fair. Now 21 years old, it occupies a single NoHo gallery (33 Bleecker Street) whose modest space exudes an old-time unapologetic funkiness. This year Zürcher will host three European galleries and work by two New York artists. It is a fair for the fair-phobic or enthusiasts not fond of walking. There is always something here — maybe just one thing — that makes you glad you visited. Free; March 4-10; galeriezurcher.com