Can Benjamin Genocchio Make The Armory Show the World’s Best Art Fair? He Certainly Thinks So
“The Armory Show isn’t just an art fair. It’s not Frieze that comes here for five days a year and disappears,” says Benjamin Genocchio. “This thing is a cultural institution; it has made an enormous contribution to the cultural life of New York City and it continues to do so.” We’re sitting in the recently appointed fair director’s new digs at The Armory Show’s midtown office, where he promises me a suite of Knoll will soon replace his more banker-ly desk. Genocchio took office in January, after launching the sometimes-polemic artnet News two years before, and spending three years at the editorial helm of Louise Blouin Media. (Full disclosure: I worked under him at both.)
Genocchio rang in his announcement as the successor of Noah Horowitz, who is now Art Basel’s Director Americas, with a series of statements that mirrored his no-prisoners approach to arts journalism. But what exactly his plans are for New York’s eminent art fair, which opens on Manhattan’s Piers 94 and 92 in its 22nd year next Wednesday, I was keen to find out. “I’ve been in the job two weeks. I’d like to think I’ve had an impact in that time,” says Genocchio. “But almost everything was already in place.” That includes the 205 galleries from 36 countries exhibiting this year, in the fair’s most geographically diverse edition to date. “I get to watch that unfold, observe the fair in action,” he adds. “In some ways, I feel like my job begins the moment the fair closes.”
If he hasn’t started working, it’s hard to figure out what exactly to call what he has been doing. In the past month, Genocchio has touched down in Paris, London, and São Paulo. In the less-than-24 hours he spent in Brazil, the director confirmed no fewer than six additional galleries for the fair’s 2017 roster, several of whom have favored Frieze New York in the past. (As Artsy recently reported, many of the country’s galleries are currently feeling the financial squeeze of Brazil’s economic woes.)
Genocchio acted quickly to help allay The Armory Show of what he’s often claimed (with a nod from many art-world denizens) is a blight of boredom that is universal across the fair landscape. (“I came in and said, you know, ‘Where’s the scandalous stuff?’”) This personal mandate has taken shape in a beefed-up special projects section for the fair’s 2016 edition, Genocchio having locked down Jonathan Schipper to install one of the artist’s slow-motion kinetic-car-crash sculptures (Slow Motion Car Crash, 2012), and Romina de Novellis to stage an installation that will see the artist sit in a cage—completely naked—for the entire VIP preview. (“Somebody’s got to get their gear off, right?”) While some of this is aimed at feeding headlines to the reporters who will cover The Armory Show—nearly all of those that write for major art-world publications have worked with him at some point in the past—it’s mainly a game to draw the fair’s own audience: “I’m looking for things that are engaging, that connect to people and that get them curious.”
It is all good fun. But it’s Genocchio’s other main addition to 2016 that most clearly charts his direction for The Armory Show in the future. Near the staircase that connects Piers 94 and 92, just off the Focus lounge, he’s installed a private viewing room—meant to replicate those that form the rear portions of most Chelsea galleries—bookable at a rate of $1,000 an hour during the VIP preview, and $750 an hour thereafter. “One of the things that I’m most interested in is trying to put the focus back on the visitor and exhibitor experience,” says Genocchio of the addition, the first of its kind for a New York fair. “A lot of very serious collectors really don’t want to be in a fair environment. The Jerry Speyers of the world, they have no interest because it’s very difficult to view art, serious art, at a fair. They don’t want to show up and be on the waiting list of 50 people and be told everything is sold or ‘I’m so sorry, I’ve only got one; you’ve got two minutes.’”
That transactional urgency was the hallmark innovation of art fairs over the past decade, allowing galleries to shorten the sales cycle on artworks, sell more, and ultimately see the art market expand. But times have changed. And Genocchio is betting on the fact that, at least for the upper end of purchases, greater intimacy is desired. “If you’re spending seven figures on an artwork, you know, you may want to spend a little bit more time with it,” he says. And the viewing room is a place to do so. “It’s good for business but it’s also good for art when people have time to think about it before making a purchase.” The VVIP art fair program of the future? Be driven directly to a private entrance where Jay Jopling meets you with a flute of champagne and ushers you into the quiet comfort of a bespoke private room to match his own in Bermondsey. Chin-chin.
In the interest of clarity, mega-collectors of the world, we’re not there yet. (Not the least reason for which is that Jopling’s White Cube hasn’t yet been lured back to Pier 94 since its last showing in 2011.) But Genocchio’s aim is neither all that crazy (the art industry is taking an ever-closer look at how it can better serve its clients; see the recent acquisition of Art Agency, Partners by Sotheby’s for direct evidence), nor something he lacks the experience to achieve. Portions of the art world were scratching heads about a journalist leading New York’s biggest art-market event, but online publishing and art fair management aren’t as far off as one might think. “The analogy in journalism is the shift from producer to consumer-centric journalism,” explains Genocchio. “In the old days, we decided what people were going to read. There were one or two forums, and if we wrote about it, we wrote about it; if we didn’t, we didn’t. That was it. Then consumers decided: ‘Hold on a minute, we want to customize this.’” And publishers began to cater to their readers rather than prescribe them information.
A similar thing, according to Genocchio, has occurred with art fairs: “When I first came to the U.S. [from Australia] in 2000, 2001, there were more or less five contemporary art fairs around the world. There was ARCO. There was Cologne. Basel had one fair; it was a small, interesting fair, but Cologne was the real fair in Europe. There was Chicago, and there was The Armory Show. That was it.” Collectors would travel the world on a nouveau Grand Tour of sorts to see the different art on offer at each. Fast forward to 2015, and there were at least 180 international fairs on the art-world calendar. According to Genocchio, “the proliferation of fairs has essentially meant that—instead of them being global events that service this roaming audience of collectors—all of them are now regional. People are not going to travel for fairs as much as they did in the past.” And even when they aren’t traveling—as is more often than not the case with visitors to The Armory Show—collectors are increasingly expecting an experience tailored to their needs and desires.
The Armory Show is well positioned to take on a fair landscape more focused on dealers servicing collectors where they live. As Genocchio highlights, similarly to his predecessor, the fair “really provides access to galleries outside of New York—whether they’re in Dallas or San Francisco, Los Angeles, Europe, Asia—to the world’s most important art market,” New York. How those collectors are serviced, however, is at the top of the new director’s agenda. Over recent years, The Armory Show has made great strides to that end: reducing its number of exhibitors, improving the fair’s food and beverage offer, and rethinking its layout. But to be the world’s best art fair—an ambition for The Armory Show that Genocchio is not shy to admit he has—the new director thinks they can do more. “It’s a New York institution,” says Genocchio as if in chorus. “It just needs, you know, maybe a little work.”