Buffalo may seem like an odd place to hold an art fair. It’s one of the poorest cities in the country; the loss of manufacturing jobs and rapid surbanization has, over the years, lead to huge economic decline. In 2008, the United Nations identified the city as having one of the world’s worst rates of economic inequality and that it is racially based.
Art fairs are overwhelmingly white to begin with, so Buffalo’s art fair, Echo, (which runs today and tomorrow,) is no different in this respect. But the fair’s presence, may also reflect a larger cultural change within the city, which wishes to redefine itself as a cultural, educational, medical center and an architectural tourism destination. The University of Buffalo’s new Medical School will bring in 2000 new jobs alone and the New York Times Architecture Critic Nicholai Ouroussoff has said the city is “home to some of the greatest American architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
And signs of economic renewal aren’t that far away; directly adjacent to the fair, The Lafayette Hotel renovation has transformed what was just last year, an art deco building populated by junkies into a swank destination for fancy cocktails, wedding banquets and dining.
Speaking of economics, for a city that is home to only 250,000, Echo saw no shortage of local collectors. I wasn’t thirty minutes into the fair, and Dana Tillou Fine Arts had already sold a Sam Francis and a Victor Vasserly. The gallery was selling works from the HSBC Collection as the bank had just closed.
Nobody seemed that surprised by the swiftness of those sales, perhaps because of the number of known collectors in Buffalo. When I told Adam Charles Greenberger of Judith Charles Gallery (formerly Charles Bank Gallery) that I’d visited two homes of collectors early that day, each of which seemed incredibly invested in art and actually living with the work, he just nodded saying, “There are at least 10-20 collectors of that calibre here,” speaking specifically of the collection of Michael and Roberta Joseph.
As Greenberger tells it, there may be market potential here for commercial galleries. “There’s a lot of opportunity to buy directly from artists. A lot of Western New York Galleries specialize in dead or almost dead artists.” Reflecting this reality, the fair gave space to 29 artists and 12 galleries. There were even artists who chose to man their own booth over showing with their gallery. “I’ll make more money,” artist Katherine Sehr told me matter-of-factly, when I asked her why she wasn’t showing with her gallery Nina Freudenheim. Freudenheim was also at the fair, but Sehr had much more real estate in the solo booth she manned than she would have been offered otherwise. The relationship made sense for both parties.
I liked that Sehr was willing to do the work of selling, which seemed rather brave to me, even if she no longer saw it like that. (She’s participated in the fair three years running, but conceded that the first time she did it she was nervous.) And perhaps that kind of bravery is something specific to the Buffalo character. Earlier that day, when I was visiting with Sheldon and Mary Berlow, Sheldon spoke of how he started collecting. “I don’t know what it was; it just spoke to me.” he said, of the first piece he ever purchased; it was $50, a fortune for him as a poor student. A few years he bought an Alexander Calder from James Goodman, who opened his first gallery in Buffalo. It cost $1200, and Berlow arranged to pay for the piece in $200 installments.
Berlow ultimately did well for himself, as he pursued a career in real estate, and his collection reflects that, but the longer arch of his story struck a chord with me. The family’s collecting didn’t come from a place of privilege, and at the beginning at least, the purchases took a good deal of sacrifice. That kind of investment is only born out of a love for the arts and the relationships born from them and it requires nerves of steel. In my brief experience with the city, it would seem that’s not something this town is short on.