The standard model for art fairs is understandably designed to service dedicated buyers. But it might have failed to appreciate its potential to educate and embrace future collectors and others clamoring for an “art experience.” It is doing a disservice to the art industry if the model reduces art to a mere financial asset for multi-millionaires looking for an outlet for travel and social status. People are always hungry for something spectacular. While they will long consume ordinary meals, they hunger to attend a dramatic feast. What has become rote can be reinvented.
The art fair model is structured around the logic of real estate. Fairs today are optimized for floor space and designed to foster sales. At best, the floor plans are similar to shopping malls, taking you briskly from one store to the next. At worst, they are like casinos, a seemingly endless and confusing mirage of repetition and distraction. This logic is an extension of the interest of the exhibitor who is the paying tenant of the fair organizer. But efficiency and linear logic produce homogenized experiences where the same exhibitors present the same artists to the same buyers. The status quo is risk averse and risk aversion kills innovation. It is also boring. Today’s art fair model is like a glider floating slowly to the ground. To fly further a new updraft must be found.
The greatest markets in the world are not made at a mall, no matter how ornate, pedestrian friendly, hotel accessible, and parking convenient the venue. Great markets for art have always been in diverse and sophisticated urban centers that offer a depth and authenticity of experience—history, culture, and excitement. That’s why, historically speaking, franchised fairs in regional locations are anomalous.
Art fairs thrive when tied to community and experience. They thrive when visitors are encouraged to have a sense of place, to go on a journey, have an adventure and be part of a memorable experience. And yet most fairs are designed from the outside in, abandoning visitors at the edge of a grid with nothing but a map. With this in mind, we completely redesigned the floor plan for The Armory Show in 2017, from the inside out, creating an inclusive, welcoming and accessible “town square” for art at the center of the fair with the aisles radiating out from there. To place this kind of experience at the center of a fair, around which the booths are built and not the other way around, acted like a magnet for visitors to enjoy and experience, to share and to start a conversation.
We also engaged the building, its history and personality, as a canvas from which to create unique experiences, inviting local artists to create artworks specifically for the venue. We removed walls and opened the floor plan to allow for texture and variety as well as a greater sense of light, allowing views of the Hudson River to permeate the exhibition space. The goal was to create a distinctive sense of place. Fairs need to have a personality and identity to remain engaging and relevant. It’s my view that every fair, including The Armory Show, needs to meet this challenge.