Curators vs Art Fairs

These days, an art fair wouldn’t be an art fair without a nod to the curatorial. From in-fair projects, historical sections, and curatorial directorships, the language of exhibitions is sitting firmly alongside the commercial in modern fair. Yet does this work? How are fairs attempting to seriously engage with curated projects?

Matthew Higgs’s role at the Independent art fair is a perfect example of the right way to approach the curatorial at a fair. Higgs, who has been the creative advisor of the fair since its inception five years ago, is best known as the director of nonprofit White Columns in New York. His was inspired by influential fairs such as Prospect in Germany in the ’60s, Unfair in Cologne in the early ’90s, and the first Armory shows at the Gramercy Hotel. Independent, which presents only 50 projects, is intentionally much closer to an exhibition presentation than a trade fair. There are no clear booths. Here “stands” feel more narrative led and conversational. “I think the scale of it is also very important.” Higgs notes. “It feels very close to the feeling of walking down the Lower East Side on a Sunday afternoon.”

The narrative flow is something Higgs, Elizabeth Dee, Darren Flook, and fair director Laura Mitterand have been working on for months with the architects Andrew Feuerstein and Bret Quagliara. “We’ve tried to anticipate/curate the proximity of certain kinds of ideas, one gallery next to each other, what takes place within eyesight.” Nonprofits, normally marginalized in fairs, are something integral to the fair layout. This year, for example, includes a project from White Columns, who will show work by an artist associated with Creative Growth (a San Francisco Bay Area organization that helps support and promote artists with mental and developmental disabilities) and a presentation by curator Sarah McCrory to anticipate the Glasgow International, as well as young galleries like Ramiken Crucible and 47 Canal, and mavericks like Cologne’s Susanne Zander. The aim is to remove the hierarchy present in other fairs. Independent’s approach has spread—notably influencing the open, creative layout of fairs like SUNDAY Art Fair and ABC (Art Berlin Contemporary). Both avoid booth walls, organizing galleries in a more open way.

The more traditional approach to the curatorial at fairs is on-site exhibitions, screenings, and events programs. The king of this approach is Art Unlimited at Art Basel overseen by Gianni Jetzer, the former curator of Zurich’s Migros Museum and former director of the Swiss Institute in New York. This aircraft hangar-sized show brings together seriously large installations and solo presentations. Like a pop up mega-museum, these increasingly expensive and complex projects obviously have a strong relationship to the galleries exhibiting at the fair next door, yet somehow Unlimited manages to maintain its integrity. The projects are simply good.

Frieze’s fairs in London and New York have had from their inception a very strong artist-led curatorial approach, with integrated projects in and out of the fairs. It’s a tough brief, as Nicola Lees, curator of Frieze Foundation, notes. “The biggest difficulty comes from working in an environment which is already populated with a wealth of new material.” Last year, Lees brought the projects together in one space to foster collaboration and dialogue between the new commissions (though surprisingly this fell a bit flat). This year, in contrast, she is curating projects throughout the fair, adding a new “Live” section for performances. “We hope this will encourage applicants to think unconventionally about their presentation in the art fair context, to create moments of interruption and immersive experiences for the specific context of the fair.” The aim is to build on the interactive installations in the fair’s history such as Rob Pruitt’s Flea Market and the Wrong Gallery stand.

Frieze New York curator Cecilia Alemani sees the relationship between the commercial and her projects section as distinct. “The structure of Frieze Projects is completely separate from the galleries, so the only way the commercial context impacts us is by being located in its proximity,” she notes. “Some artists are interested in challenging that aspect.” For Alemani, the benefit of curating in the fair context is visibility. 45,000 people visited the five day fair last year—numbers most museums would be blown away by. This year’s Projects is dedicated to recreational activities and leisure, including a surreal soccer field by Argentine artist Eduardo Basualdo and a jungle gym by Eva Kotátková.

An awareness of art history is another way fairs are establishing curatorial heft. Alemani has included homages to artist-run projects at Frieze New York such as Gordon Matta-Clark and Carol Goodden’s FOOD and this May, Allen Ruppersberg’s Al’s Grand Hotel, a legendary project realized in Los Angeles. Turin’s Artissima fair was one of the first to make historical sections a central part of the fair. Part of this reflects its relationship to the city. “It is a public fair, owned by the city and region and funded for one third of the budget by them,” artistic director Sarah Cosulich Canarutto explains. “This means that, beside a commercial function, we also have a cultural responsibility.” Since the 2013 edition, the fair’s collateral projects have been amalgamated into one large annual exhibition, One Torino, composed by five separate shows curated by international curators in the city’s main museums and institutions—Castello di Rivoli, GAM, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Fondazione Merz and Palazzo Cavour. The aim was to extend the program into something less transitory than a four-day fair.

It would be easy to say the curatorial is employed by fairs as a way to give intellectual weight to the wares on display. It is something some fairs are doing in a tacked-on, haphazard way, and it does them no favors. A more positive view would be to see fair projects as a way to introduce a wider public to more experimental artists, projects, and performances that they would not necessarily experience in such a concentrated way in one space. When the collectors have calmed after the preview days, curatorial elements come into their own.

Independent art fair, March 6-9. Learn more here.

Revisit past fair coverage on Artsy: Frieze Week New York 2013, Frieze London and Frieze Masters 2013, Art Basel in Miami Beach 2013.

Portrait of Matthew Higgs by Aubrey Mayer; Independent photos courtesy of Tom Powel Imaging; Frieze London and New York images courtesy of Linda Nylind and John Berens; Nicola Lees portrait courtesy of Graham Carlow; Portrait of Cecilia Alemani by Tom Medwell, courtesy of Friends of the High Line. 

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