“This fair isn’t about making money” (e)merge art fair co-owner Helen Allen told me last night. According to Allen, it’s more about building community, a point evident in the attendees. Walking through the halls of the Capital Skyline Hotel in Washington took several hours last night, as everyone seemed to know everyone. (e)merge is the definition of a community-based fair.
This is important, because the emerging scene in Washington is challenged by realities that aren’t likely to change anytime soon. Real estate prices are high, there aren’t old warehouses for artists to occupy, and there aren’t an enormous number of art schools. As a result, a large number of artists opt to live in Baltimore, where rent is cheap, studio space is easy to come by, and MICA dominates. Baltimore, for its part, has its own challenges, and no collector support to speak of.
Washington, by contrast, has plenty of collectors, which is why it’s strange to see so few Baltimore galleries at the fair. According to the (e)merge website, only two galleries from the city showcased their work this year (MICA being one of them), though another six artists and two collectives participated independently.
“Honestly, as far as commercial galleries go, Baltimore really only has a handful of spaces and most of them closed over the last two years,” Cara Ober, a Baltimore-based artist and founder of BmoreArt, told me. “It’s mostly economics.”
But what of the seemingly endless number of artist spaces in Baltimore? None of them chose to participate, but Goya Contemporary Director Amy Raehse, representing the only Baltimore-based gallery in the fair, was quick to point out the number of unrepresented artists from Baltimore participating. Their work is part of the fair’s “Artist Platform”, which features a vetted selection of works throughout the hotel’s public areas.
“Full disclosure, I’m on the vetting committee,” she told me, as she described the gallery’s dedication to developing the scene between Baltimore and Washington. The committee includes White Columns’s Matthew Higgs and Public Art Fund Co-Founder Yvonne Force Villareal, so the vetting itself helps with exposure; Raehse, though, believes many of the connections already exist. Baltimore artists exhibit in Washington, and teachers in Washington live in Baltimore; “There’s a lot of ties and connections,” Raehse told me.
For all these connections, there does appear to be some tension between the two scenes. “D.C. and Baltimore have a strange rivalry, a difference of ethos and taste and perception of art,” Alex Ebstein, co-founder of Baltimore’s artist-run space Nudashank, told me. Guest Spot owner Rod Malin echoed this sentiment as well, suggesting that many of Baltimore’s collectively run spaces opted out because it was “more how these galleries want to be seen.” Washington is seen as a more conservative, and because “most of these [Baltimore] galleries are paying 400-500 a month, they can do more experimental shows,” he explained. In Malin’s case, however, he opted about because he was worried he wouldn’t sell anything.
Epstein was also concerned about this, adding, “It’s 5,000 dollars for a room. It’s not an ideal exhibition space.” She went on to note, “The fair has no special considerations for smaller programs, and no project booths or discounted rates.”
Nudashank participated in Aqua Miami in 2010, which would have cost considerably more than this, but every gallery has to carefully budget for the fairs they will attend each year. Epstein conceded that they’d considered doing (e)merge with artist Conor Backman, but he ultimately ended up showing at the fair with the New York-based gallery Mixed Greens. Nudashank thusly opted out of the fair, citing differences in programming as an issue. That ultimately, is loss for (e)merge, a community-based fair that could use a few more Baltimore based spaces in the mix.