Are we in another art bubble? Halfway through The Armory Show I was so bored I was composing headlines with the words “skip it”, and yet by the end of the day a jubilance filled the air as dealers started to report strong sales. “I think there’s a really great energy, don’t you?” photography dealer Yossi Milo asked me. Like many others that day—Sean Kelly, David Zwirner, and Spruth Magers amongst them—Milo only had good news to report. He’d sold a lot of art.
I’m happy dealers and gallery artists are doing well, but my response to Milo’s question was guarded none the less. “It depends who you ask.” I said, recalling an earlier conversation I’d had with artist and blogger Martin Bromirski. He shared my sentiment about the fair — there isn’t enough good art — noting it had taken him only a little over two hours to circle the fair twice. Now trimmed by 25 percent, the fair no longer boasts many of the galleries people have come to expect, and the return of David Zwirner doesn’t make up for the big names lost to Frieze (this May), which arrives in New York at the beginning of May. 303 Gallery, Altman Siegal, CANADA, Hauser & Wirth, Lehmann Maupin, Murray Guy, and White Cube are all doing other fairs this year. “I might go to Scope now, because, I’ve, like, seen this.” Bromirski told me, gesturing to the doors (Scope is now located across the street). We erupted into laughter at the thought that such a scrappy fair might pose competition to the Armory. A year ago, that joke would not have been funny.
While the Armory got off to a slow start Wednesday, as far as I could tell, the fair’s hemorrhaging of blue chip galleries hadn’t effected the crowds. “I’ve seen Terence Koh.” I told Bromirski as mega-collectors Donald and Mera Rubell walked by. “This is the first year I haven’t seen Michael Stipe.” countered Bromirski [Ed. Note: We totally saw him like four times]. As the crowds thickened I ran into gallerist Jane Cohan, whose gallery is just one of the many higher-end outfits exhibiting at the ADAA this year. “The people are [at the Armory] now, so we can come to see the show.” she told me. The ADAA had opened the night before.
These kinds of crowds are only part of the allure of the fair for some. “I think it means something to participate in the Armory,” dealer Sean Horton told me, “There’s a tradition, a history.” Horton is exhibiting the work of painter Wallace Whitney, a founding member of CANADA, a gallery he says is founded on the idea that artists should take control of their careers. “It’s really the gallery as a form of class warfare.” As was the case with CANADA, Horton had to fight tooth and nail to get off the Armory waiting list all three years he applied.
By now, this struggle is well-known amongst a certain crowd of emerging artists and dealers; what’s happening over in the Nordic Wing this year, though, may be a new and exciting crack in the commercial facade of The Armory. Thanks to Jacob Fabricius, the Director of the Malmö Konsthall and the curator of Nordic Focus section, an entire section of the fair is dedicated to primarily showcasing artist-run and non-profit galleries. Participating galleries and artists come from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland and have infused an otherwise sullen fair with new life. The lounge program, which is basically what sits in the middle of the aisle, is full of performances and free posters, souvenirs and ephemera.
This may not sound like anything so new—we’ve all been to art events that include art made to be distributed en masse—but the volume and energy separate it from any program I’ve ever observed at The Armory. It actually changes the experience of the fair, and pushes back against the bubble of banality this year’s Armory would have otherwise presented.