2013 was a good year for the Outsider Art Fair. The fair tripled its attendance, with crowds swelling to 9,500 visitors, up from 3,200 last year. Then, throughout the weekend, critics-of-note Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith glowingly praised the fair—several times I overheard conversations by dealers dropping soundbites from those articles. Finally, most importantly, work was selling, and selling quick.
“We sold this tiger on preview night the first five minutes we were here,” said a gleaming Susan Baerwald, co-proprietor of Just Folk, a five-year-old gallery based out of Summerland, California. It sold for over $20,000 to a new client, giving this young gallery at least one reason to trek east to the fair.
Baerwald, like many other dealers located outside of New York, has been participating in the Outsider Art Fair for years, but the level of excitement from dealers this year exceeds anything they’ve expressed about previous iterations. Andrew Edlin, the fair’s new owner, surely had something to do with it, bringing the fair to its new location in the heart of Chelsea.
“Saturday was a mob scene,” Yolanda Farias, manager of Chicago’s Carl Hammer Gallery told me. I caught up with her and Carl Hammer on Sunday afternoon, when it seemed like the fair’s crowds had managed to dwindle. Blame it on the Super Bowl, but it seemed like a necessary respite for these dealers in folk and outsider art. Many had been on their feet for the past two weeks; the Metro Show, the nation’s largest folk art fair, is held in New York the week prior to the Outsider Art Fair, and many galleries, Carl Hammer Gallery included, stay in New York for the fairs’ duration.
“We’ve sold more work here,” Carl Hammer mentioned, comparing the two fairs. To be fair, The Metro Show has only been around for two years, while the Outsider Art Fair has been in New York for more than two decades. “New York has been so receptive to outsider art since the fair began,” Hammer added, a sentiment reiterated by many gallerists outside New York who return to the fair year after year.
Walking through the fair’s three-floor set up in the former Dia building, it’s easy to see how outsider art has become its own full-fledged industry in and out of New York. There’s blue-chip outsider art, stretching back to the early part of the 20th century with European artists like Adolf Wölfli who have their roots in the Rousseauian and Art Brut tradition; Americans like Martin Ramirez, who’s had multiple solo retrospectives at the American Museum of Folk Art; and then newer blood like Henry Darger, who’s recognized by the hipster and art world contingents alike. All three artists made appearances in multiple booths, and all three were on view at Galerie St. Etienne, the nation’s oldest gallery devoted to outsider art, established in 1939. Claiming historical cred, the gallery had a timeline of outsider art running around the length of its booth.
It’s rare to see such established galleries—ones that have spent time cultivating a specific history for outsider art—rub shoulders with younger ones, who often propose a more liberal interpretation of what’s considered outsider art. There’s work by a forensics artist, Frank Bender, shown by Dallas’s Chris Byrne, whose busts have been commissioned by America’s Most Wanted; self-taught ex-monk Carlos DeMedeiros at Marion Harris, whose showcase of miniature sculptures included a pig on wheels wearing a mitre; and Erika Wanenmacher, a witch represented by Santa Fe dealer Laura Steward. While these works land on the stranger side of the fence, that’s part of their awkward charm.
Still, there’s some discomfort in that narrative current running through many of the booths. In order to make it as an outsider artist, it looks like you’d better have a good story to tell about living on the fringe. While that vision of the fair looks a bit like an ideal society, where all are welcome, the more than ample wall labels end up overshadowing the quality of the art.
But from the looks of it, nobody seemed to mind all that. Many dealers expressed interest in returning to the fair next year, and couldn’t note a single complaint. “We think this venue is fantastic: the fair has never been better and the quality’s great,” added Baerwald, one of the fair’s most ecstatic dealers. With crowds, sales, and dealers showing such strong support, it’s not a stretch to assume that under the helm of Andrew Edlin, the Outsider Art Fair is stepping into notable new beginnings.