Everyone attending the Armory Show at yesterday’s VIP preview has an opinion on the Armory and fairs in general. “The Armory is back!” declared Monique Meloche of Monique Meloche Gallery. After three years of handwringing over whether the New York-born fair would survive the competition brought to the table by Frieze New York, that question finally seems to be put to rest. The fair is doing just fine.
And the money was flowing. Nearly everyone we spoke to reported strong sales. Postmasters and Invisible Exports reported doing significant business. “It’s crazy,” Invisible Exports’ co-owner Benjamin Tischer told us of sales in the afternoon. He was glassy-eyed. “Insane,” his partner Risa Needleman added, as if still recovering from the flurry of activity earlier in the day herself.
By 2:00 PM on Wednesday, Beijing-based Tang Contemporary reported that sales seemed to be “almost the same” as years before; they are now in their third year at the fair, this time around showing the Chinese Focus section. Sales seemed to be on a swift rise over the next few hours, though, and by the close of the VIP opening, the gallery’s director Beili Wang reported that this year she had already “sold better than before.”
The rationale given for strong sales varies from vendor to vendor. Beili Wang told us she benefits from being in the Focus section because she can connect with visitors actively building Chinese art collections. Magda Sawon, co-owner of Postmasters, a gallery located at a different end of the fair, had a different explanation for the success. “First, because we’re based in New York, so we know more people. Second, we don’t do many fairs so the work appears fresh.” Walker Waugh, the director of Yancey Richardson told us much the same thing. “We brought our newest work. We try to keep the work as fresh as possible.”
And the Armory seems to be a the place where New York galleries especially get to grow their business among their neighbors. “So much of the New York community is here,” mentioned Amanda Knuppel, Associate Director Koenig & Clinton, as a reason for why their gallery continues to come out. That community is made up of more than buyers. We spoke with several curators and artists who were simply doing research. When we asked Albright-Knox Executive Director Janne Sirén whether he was shopping, he quickly corrected us. “That’s not the correct term. We are studying!” Sirén informed us that the Albright-Knox has collected 1,100 works since 2002 and were taking a break to reflect on their holdings.
For those visiting or “studying” at the Armory, the fair has made physical improvements to the fair. Though differences from years past were minute, there was less of a cookie-cutter cubicle feel to the booths; we even noticed some diagonally oriented corner galleries. The walls are taller, too, mentioned Patrick Llyod from Higher Pictures. “The Armory is keeping up with the times,” he said.
But for fair visitors, those changes might not necessarily make a difference; like dealers, the curators, artists, and other fairgoers just couldn’t get over the craziness of it all. When asking around about work they recommended, most couldn’t single out a single booth; it was all a blur. That’s in part due to the large number of booths dedicated to showcasing a gallery’s entire stable of artists, but also the size of the show itself. There are 200 plus exhibitors this year. This stands in contrast to the ADAA Art Show, a vastly smaller show, in which solo booths are encouraged. Nearly every visitor we spoke with at the Armory named work they were excited about—at the ADAA.
Small isn’t necessarily better, at least as it pertains to the more provincial fairs. “We’ve done smaller fairs, but only at the bigger international fairs [like the Armory] do we do well,” Sawon told us. “In a big context when you stand out it’s a good thing. In a small context, it can be a more fearful thing.”
The one standout identified by visitors seemed to be South-African artist Serge Alain Nitgeka’s installation at Marianne Boesky. As one of the few solo booths at the fair, it had a natural advantage, but the blackened wooden planks arranged to prevent access to the booth also stood out. It was one of the few overtly political pieces spied at the fair, advancing a commentary on South-African racial politics. “If you’re going to go for it you should really go for it,” Helen Allen of Allen/Cooper Enterprise told us, lauding the Boesky for the booth.
Overall, though, most visitors and gallerists expressed a feeling of being overwhelmed. They are grueling events for all involved, so even when the money flows they aren’t much fun to attend or work.
As one anonymous gallerist told us, “This fair gets “Las Vegas trade show.” She quickly added, “I hate fairs.”
Living your life in a well-lit cube from Wednesday through Sunday is not the most rewarding lifestyle. “It’s like Groundhog’s Day,” a London-based gallery director said, referencing the Bill Murray movie in which the protagonist is forced to repeat the same day. “And on Monday, it feels so good when you wake up.”