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How To Launch An 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.