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
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,
, 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 ’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
and Carol Goodden’s FOOD and this May, ’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.
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.