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How To Launch An Art Fair

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November 11, 2012   ·   17 Comments

Brooklyn's Superchief Gallery is looking forward to hitting Miami Beach this December for the art fair.

Back in September, I was solicited over the Internet to exhibit at the Select Art Fair at Miami’s Catalina Hotel.  I was, according to the e-vite, the kind of artist that should take advantage of a unique art fair opportunity during Art Basel’s annual Miami art orgy (December 5 – 9, 2012).  The pitch: For only $4,800 I would be able to show my work in a hotel room – one of only about 60 – right around the corner from Art Basel Miami.  The founders proposed the curious idea that I could sleep in my gallery space!

I wrote back asking why I was being solicited; the offer was so personal I had the impression the organizers had actually seen my work. (And for a second I wondered if this was simply a sophisticated prostitution ring targeting artists!)  An e-mail quickly followed, inviting me to chat on Skype.  The artist-founders Brian Whiteley and Matthew Eck, were soon online with me, and I saw the two in their small New York office, a giant fan blowing hot air and papers all about.

Brian Whiteley and Matthew Eck, the artist-founders of The Select Art Fair, opening at the Catalina Hotel during the annual art orgy in Miami this December.

My personal experience with art fairs (Red Dot, Affordable Art Fair among others) has been mediocre, largely because the satellite showings I have been involved with were the victims of terribly marginal traffic.  Those who did show up were mostly reporters or thirsty critics who felt the need to fully cover the scene, scope out the artists fallen in between the cracks; or maybe they just needed wifi connection. The feeling was generally: Greetings from Padukahville, Nowhere. I mean, Gogo and Damien didn’t come over to give me a hug nor were these fairs  on Agnes Gund’s radar.

Oddly enough, while Miami real estate is way underwater, its art fair concept is high flying. This year brings seven new fairs to the capital of Latin America – Miami Project, Context, Miami Photo Fair, Miami River Art Fair, Untitled Art Fair, Just MadMia and The Select Art Fair. Those are new fairs.  The old ones, include the Fountain Art Fair which is sponsored by the Creamhotel in Miami, are still in town.  Art Basel Miami is like a returning tsunami of fresh money.

So…another art fair with ambitious ambitions, inspired me to ask the two founders of The Select Fair about the mechanics of art fairs and their launching this one in the middle of a stubborn art recession.

MATTHEW ROSE: You are launching an art fair in the middle of an art recession?  Is that crazy?

BRIAN WHITELEY: Well, sort of. We have gotten responses where people think we’re nuts.  True, we are in a recession, and dealers tell us they haven’t seen many sales recently‚ but it’s a small number of people, and, well, we just don’t listen to them!  You never know what Miami will bring except that there will be many art people there and that means, quite simply, lots of opportunities.  The opportunity presented itself.  We were in Miami when the recession was worse and people still bought work; and we thought about creating a platform to promote young artists – artists who were contemporary, edgy.

Get a room: Hotel Catalina at 1732 Collins Avenue, Miami where The Select Art Fair founders plan to show art and pour drinks. No art tent here.

MATTHEW ROSE: Do you have financial backers? Are your partners your financial backers? What about your own resources?

MATTHEW ECK: No, our partners are not financial partners; they are helping to promote and run our events.  The artists and galleries come about funds in all sorts of interesting ways, creating collectives, launching Kickstarter campaigns and organizing fundraisers if they need to.  We don’t disclose our own risks.

MATTHEW ROSE:  Do you really think yet another art fair in the ground zero of art fairs is needed?  Aren’t there too many already?

MATTHEW ECK: You’re right, there are too many art fairs. There are too many art fairs designed around dated models, and dated work.

MATTHEW ROSE: Most art enterprises and fairs are losing propositions with only the few big guns really making any money – Art Basel and its twin Art Basel Miami, Frieze, The Armory, the FIAC in Paris and a handful of others. There are already so many art fairs ravenously feeding off of Art Basel Miami in December. What is your edge?

MATTHEW ECK: In regards to the other art fairs, we saw three levels of Art Basel – Basel itself; tent fairs and boutique hotel fairs. We are a boutique hotel art fair, and we wanted to raise the bar, to have the audience to walk into a work of art, not just a hotel that’s hosting galleries. We want our public spaces and exhibition spaces to interact with the viewer and provide a multi-sensory experience that stays memorable.  Brian and I have been hand-selecting galleries and artists and tightly curating exhibition spaces based on our vision. Some of the galleries who have signed up are Anonymous Gallery (New York City), Dupree Gallery (Philadelphia), Superchief Gallery (Brooklyn, New York) and a dozen collectives.

Chad Abel pitched in a part of the $4800 fee to show his Momerican Girl collages in Miami.

MATTHEW ROSE: Are the artists really paying $4,800 each for a room?  Has everyone paid that much?

BRIAN WHITELEY: Everyone pays the $4,800.  And if you look at the prices for other art fairs, you’ll see we are extremely competitive.  We are offering extensive VIP programs, collector brunches, shuttle bus services, banners throughout Miami, and AskArt profiles – year-long exposure through Select.  There are also opportunities for our artists to show works in New York City and other venues.

MATTHEW ROSE: Tell me more about your “Margarita Moment” – the flash when the idea of the fair came to you?

MATTHEW ECK: Brian and I were sitting on the front patio of the Catalina Hotel around sunset, the day after Art Basel Miami ended. We were thinking about grandiose ideas for installations, over-the-top parties and what crazy clothes we were going to wear next year.  I decided I wanted to wear bright blazers with the word “SELECT” on my back.  That was it! It was quite simple – the idea for the art fair came from a fashion fantasy.

BRIAN WHITELEY: We decided to create the environment for those blazers and then decided on a hotel filled with artists and exhibitions.  Since last December, the idea of Select morphed into many things – usually on the advice of advisers who wanted us to conform to the comfortable art fair platform.  And while we are artists, too, The Select is not about Matthew’s work or mine. It is more about our communal ideology of what contemporary art should be.

MATTHEW ROSE: Which artists have signed? What kinds of artists?

MATTHEW ECK:  Our artists are not young age-wise, but emerging artists.  Evan Boggess from West Virginia who spent time at Skowhegan artist residency is exhibiting, and there is Bruce Robinson McDonald who draws with metal and sand blasting.  The sARTq Collective, based in Sarasota, Florida, is participating.  Zack Neve, an artist here in New York who is pushing the boundaries of ceramics, creates giant sculptures without armature will be showing along with other artists like Somaphony (New York City) and Neil Bender (Tampa FL / Brooklyn, NY).

The art of noise: Somaphony brings music and art together in a variety of ways – from objects to t-shirts.

BRIAN WHITELEY: Another artist we like is Ruben Acosta.  He works with assemblage and found objects. We found him on the internet.  And there’s Brooke Holloway who deals with sex and text.  Melissa Maddonni Haims, an artist from the Philadelphia who is a yarn bomber – she ties things up in yarn; Melissa will be yarn bombing the mezzanine railing at the Catalina Hotel during the fair.

MATTHEW ROSE: What can contemporary art be – in a hotel?  Can you lay it out on a bed?  Or put it in a shower?

BRIAN WHITELEY: The hotel will be completely empty – like a gallery space – and the works will be on the walls, the floor, hung from the ceiling or placed on a pedestal, or even put in the bathroom if the artist wants to do that. Why not?

MATTHEW ROSE: Have you rejected any artists or galleries?

MATTHEW ECK: We have said no to some artists, but yes to many collectives. As of late October 52 of the 64 rooms were taken.  About 5 to 10 percent of the galleries here in New York are pushing the boundaries of art making, we feel and we’ve aggressively approached them.  We’ve been getting lots of interest but more for 2013. Many want to see our fair in action before they commit.

Neil Bender will take his canvases down to Miami for some sun and fun and hopefully, sales. Above his 2010 48” x 88” canvas: "But It Looks Like Brains."

MATTHEW ROSE: Have any big collectors gotten behind you?  The elephant in the room is the art dollar. And of course all the peanuts chasing it.  Art in Miami in December is a very competitive proposition.  How do you stand out?  Attract not only the young artist crowd, the fashion designers and the well-dressed wannabes, but also the folks with money to make your event a worthwhile one?

BRIAN WHITELEY: These high-rollers are there for investment purposes. Do we need super high-rollers or upper-middle class buyers?  Sure.  We have a handful of pieces that exceed $50,000, but most of the works on view are priced between $10,000 and $12,000.

Right before Hurricane Sandy: Let it blow! The Select Art Fair Masquerade Party at the Aicon Gallery in New York City set in motion the Miami buzz.

BRIAN WHITELEY: We’ve seen an influx of VIPs over the past month. The buzz and the party in New York has helped spread the word all over the place, too. The Bass Museum in Miami asked for 200 VIP passes. But people will have to stop in to see exactly what we’ve got planned.

MATTHEW ECK: We have partners who are working with us – AskART is giving all Select artists a free Profile, WADA (Wynwood Arts Districts Association) is working closely with us to promote our Wynwood Party and get the local Wynwood crowd excited. The Grace Exhibition Space is sending performance artists down to perform in our public spaces.  Aicon Gallery hosted our NYC warm up – the October Masquerade Party; and, prior to us leaving for Miami and they’re promoting us to their clients. The Anonymous Gallery will be parking their awesome Airstream mobile art gallery out to the front of the Catalina Hotel during the Select Fair, and we couldn’t have had the fair without the lovely South Beach Group who works closely with us almost on a daily basis. Of course we have to coordinate the shipping, cocktail parties and suppliers.

MATTHEW ROSE: What sorts of logistics do you have to deal with — shipping, airlines, cocktail parties, and suppliers?  How is stuff stored?  Where do you put the crates?

MATTHEW ECK: We’re keeping it simple: All the work will arrive the day before the fair – The Catalina has more than 12 properties on South Beach, so there is no problem. The hotel is our partner with many of the events, and they are a strong part of it all.  We’ve been shuttling twice a month down to Miami to put together the business.

MATTHEW ROSE: Do you get a piece of the bar or is that part of your deal?

BRIAN WHITELEY:  Oh wow, the bar is very important – it’s the main congregation area for our VIPs, and the collector’s brunch.  The hotel obviously wants a cash bar, but during our events we’ll have sponsors – right now as we speak we’re working on getting liquor sponsors. Champagne offered. The bar will be open depending on events.  Our vision for sponsorship is to have our artists offer champagne in their rooms, and walk around with collectors.

MATTHEW ROSE: And you set up video works?

MATTHEW ECK: When you walk into the hotel video art will be displayed, near the bar area. We invited artists to send us videos and we’ll probably show 15 of them.  This was  was a free-to-exhibit idea, and it created a bit of a buzz for our fair among artists.

MATTHEW ROSE: Have you also gone the route of giveaways? Bags? Glasses? Bathrobes? Bikinis? Maybe bottles champagne with the Select Art Fair name on it?

Taking the dive: Grace Exhibition Space artists will perform in Miami.

MATTHEW ECK: We’ve been kicking around some different ideas – something our strategy team is working on now. I thought of having tote bags, but Brian is against it.  But I don’t see the turn around in a give-away.  If they leave with anything it should be our business card.

MATTHEW ROSE: Hurricane Sandy has wreaked havoc on New York City and the surrounding areas this month, and the galleries in Chelsea and Brooklyn are in shambles.  Many spaces like Zack Feuer’s were practically destroyed. What does the storm mean for you and the fair?

MATTHEW ECK:  Sandy has put a major damper on New York City life, including ours.  Without power and cell phone service it’s been hard to conduct business as usual.  But New Yorkers band together in times of trouble. Select has been going to a temporary workspace called the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn to continue putting together the mechanics of the fair.

MATTHEW ROSE: With a little more than a month before the big splash, you set up a New York preview?

MATTHEW ECK: We held an October masquerade party at the Aicon Gallery in New York, with very funky costumes and elegant masks. About 300 of our friends, exhibitors and supporters came and everyone danced till midnight. We had performances by Nyugen Smith, Whitney V. Hunter and Elan Juardo.  The Grace Exhibition Space artists from Brooklyn did a durational performance with a human dog.

Brooklyn's Superchief Gallery is looking forward to hitting Miami Beach and the art fair this December.

MATTHEW ROSE: Marketing  to New York palefaces to get them to Miami…so with about a month before the gathering, how will you break through the gathering glutstorm of dealers and venues hawking their particular shows?  I mean there’s a lot of noise down there in December.

BRIAN WHITELEY: We just signed up a red double decker English bus – Blighty Bus.  It’s been refurbished with a bar on the bottom and a lounge up on top – The Select Speak Easy Shuttle. It will run from downtown Miami to South Beach during the day, and nighttime to shuttle VIPs from Wynwood to the Catalina Hotel.  On the side of the bus we will have a moving advertising saying: “Are you Select?”

MATTHEW ROSE: I guess we’ll soon find out.

End Note: I wasn’t convinced enough by the pitch to take a room in Miami this December.  I’m certain there will be extremely successful dealers and artists, and it’s hard to say where exactly collectors will congregate or what assortment of works (or hors d’oeuvres) and champagne will persuade them to support one venue over another.

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17 Responses to “How To Launch An Art Fair”

  1. Good job unpacking what goes into the art fair promotions. I can’t imagine breaking through the noise and actually making a collector connection with the Florida glut of fairs. Plus the room price is just the tip of the iceberg for the artist.

  2. Thanks a lot for this extremely useful inside. William is right, it is a lot of money for an artist and actually you need much more to make it happen. These hotel art fairs seem to come into fashion, it’s already the second or third year we have this in Brussels.

  3. Great article/interview guys! really nice to hear the behind the scenes info! excited and proud to be showing with Select! we really picked the right team to work with!! go Select!! =)

  4. Great article Matthew, very substantial interview which I read right till the end. The whole Art Fair thing sounds kind of crazy – I think I’d be going for something like ‘Occupy Miami” -like a Salon des Refusés – create your own art fair, invite all your friends and have a party – it will be a cool place to hang out and soon all the others will start coming as they want to hang out with you!

  5. Michael Andre says:

    I was involved in the New York Book Fair for some years. My wife Erika Rothenberg did the advertising. The Book Fair was given a billboard space for free. The Book Fair organizers suggested I ask Andy Warhol to do the billboard and Andy agreed if Interview was given a free table. The Book Fair seemed pleased. Then Erika and I missed a meeting and the Book Fair voted to refuse Warhol’s offer. Apparently Andy wasn’t a real artist.

  6. matthew rose says:

    What could be useful for artists, dealers and even collectors would be fresh anecdotes from the front lines of the Miami Art Fairs…or preparations for the world’s biggest art market. What does one bring? Just business cards and a bathing suit? I think people are curious to get into the minds of collectors, too. What are collectors looking for? Investment? Pleasure? Philosophy? Sun? Adventure? Are dealers suffering from floods, wind and recession traveling light this year? What do artists believe the fairs can doing for them? Success stories? Add your two cents to the what’s it worth department files.

  7. Garret Siegel says:

    What comes to my mind here is the poetry anthology contest concept, which personally I hate. Poet pays to have their work considered for publication in an anthology, and the group running the concept makes a nice profit. The poets? Maybe not so much beyond (shaky) proof to their parents, friends, etc., that their aspirations are legitimate.

    I don’t want to suggest that these guys are aiming for something quite as darkly exploitative. I mean, theoretically, a participating artist has a chance at least to earn some money whereas the model I am referring to is more for the benefit of the organizers. But I do worry about the artist suddenly ending up the one to foot the bill and am therefore not surprised to learn that some artists/galleries want to see how the first edition goes before plunking their money down. How many emerging artists can afford $4,800 for the possibility that a collector will visit their room?

  8. Todd Levin says:

    Really good article Matthew! Very well written and informative for those individual Artists considering this type of “pay to play” arrangement.

    “…the idea for the art fair came from a fashion fantasy…” Oy vey.

  9. Jess Rosner says:

    This was a very fun read. As an old yet emerging artist I enjoyed the fact that there is such a thing…enough that they mentioned it as a category. I am looking from outside in…can’t imagine being able to fork over 5 grand to do anything like this, for a matter of a few days. But I was impressed by the Select guys. They seem serious and well intentioned.

  10. Hay Matthew! Nice read. I am actually going to take the plunge and do an artist art fair dec 7-9 in Miami via
    http://www.parallaxaf.com/index.html. I fell for the temptation based on price… a little over $1,000.00 for a booth (6x4x8 feet – size of a small walk in closet) at Soho Studios at The Wynwood Convention Center. This is during Art Basel Miami and the Wynwood District Gallery Walk. I have never been to one of these myself but various of my dealers have had my work on view at many of these fairs over the years and two dealers will be showing my work at Art Basel this year as well. so am hoping to have fun and maybe sell something. we’ll see… Parallax got started in London and seems to be spreading rapidly into other Fair sites. I’ll give you a review of my experience later. Cecil

  11. I’ve been running a nice little arts and music festival in. Rye NY for the past 3 years….damn, wish I could get $4800 for each booth space!! But I run my festival to truly support local artists and I do it all solo…..guarantee most of my artists make a profit!!!

  12. Ginny Lloyd says:

    Hey Matthew this was good to read. Yes S FL is overrun this time of year with many small groups trying to get into the pockets of the Art Basel clientele but these collectors usually only go to the bigger, well known gallery spaces and rarely see the satellite exhibits. Good luck Cecil – would like to hear how it works out for you. Ginny

  13. chad abel says:

    This is Chad Abel, the generator of one of the images featured in your article. I did not plop down the reported $4,800 to participate in this fair. I am part of a small curated group show. So the amount I paid was nowhere near the price depicted in the caption (I basically covered transportation costs and insurance fees). Thanks. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  14. Thanks for an outstanding article which touches upon many of the fiscal dynamics emerging artists and art entrepreneurs deal with. Many will always be chasing the relative few collectors to be found. In general I think it is great for new fairs to enter the fray. Participation might open some doors for those unable to reach the level of Basel, etc. Going the route of a collective is a good way to reduce the risk of giving it a shot. Kudos to the organizers for attacking the challenges of a very competitive marketplace with professionalism and passion.

  15. chad abel says:

    Benefits of art fairs based on prior experience:
    >sales!
    >contacts (regional, national, international) that lead to other shows and opportunities (this often proves more important than the initial art fair).
    >publicity
    >free HBO, hotel soap, crackers and cheese, sex, drugs, and rock and roll (jocularity implied).
    >A week’s worth of hotel accommodations (have you seen the nightly prices in Miami during this week?)
    >A reason to escape from the kids for a week (priceless).
    >In comparison: if a small gallery, individual artist, or collective were to arrange, plan the logistics, publicize, set up and tear down their own space for the week in Miami, the time, effort, and monetary cost would far exceed the small investment individual artists make in these art fairs.
    >Many artists participate only in their local collective or insular art scene (Padukahville, Nowhere), which is analogous to masturbation….although this may be fun, it does not compare to the real thing.

  16. matthew rose says:

    Note bene: NYT covered the satellite fairs at Art Basel and mentioned the boys from Select.

    You can read their report here:

    http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/06/blocks-from-art-basel-miami-beach-artists-with-more-modest-hopes/

  17. NoNameArt says:

    All artists: REFUSE those “Pay to play” things.
    The last sentence of th nyt article says it al:

    Ideally, Mr. Jacobs hopes SELECT will bring in both sales and publicity, but he was philosophical. “It’s a learning experience.”

    …you pay their learning experience

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