Q&A

Armory Show Director Noah Horowitz on Revitalizing New York's Marquee Art Fair

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Armory Show Director Noah Horowitz on Revitalizing New York's Marquee Art Fair
Armory Show director Noah Horowitz (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Corazza)

New York's marquee art fair, the Armory Show has dominated the city's art-fair landscape for years, bringing a crush of international dealers and collectors to its twin piers on the far West Side—not to mention the hordes of culture-seekers who converge on the fair to take in its spectacular scale and buzzy art. With the entry of a dozen new fairs to the city this month, and Frieze and NADA in May, exhibitors and audiences alike have a plethora of new choices of where to devote their energy. And in recent years the Armory Show's very scale—impressive to some, oppressive to others—has faced criticism, along with other aspects of its operation under the ownership of the profits-first Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. 

Stepping up to these challenges with notable verve is the Armory Show's new director, Noah Horowitz, who will open his debut fair during the centennial of the original 1913 Armory Show. Promoted to the job late last year, Horowitz brings an impressively broad skill set to running the Armory, with a PhD in art history from London's elite Courtauld Institute, a faculty position at the Sotheby's Institute, and experience running the experimental online-only VIP Art Fair. He has also written a well-received book on the contemporary art market, Art of the Deal. To find out how he plans to remake the fair, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Horowitz about what to expect this year, what it has to do with the original Armory Show, and where we can go these days to find the "shock of the new."

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This year's edition of the Armory Show will be observed particularly closely for two reasons: it's the centennial of the original Armory Show exhibition, the namesake of the fair, and it is the first edition of the fair under your directorship. Let's start by talking about the centennial. How does the 1913 exhibition that brought Duchamp and the rest of the European avant-garde to American shores relate to the Armory Show art fair?

There are a few ways that we anchored our fair to that legacy this year. When we began planning what we would do for the fair this year, we framed it through a few key initiatives, and the most prominent of these was looking back at that legacy. As you know, our fair is tied to the original Armory Show in name only. The fair was started in the mid 1990s as the Gramercy International, but when it migrated in 1999 to the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Armory—which was the site of the 1913 show—it adopted that name. To reflect on that history, we chose this year to look at what the legacy of the original Armory Show means for American art today rather than purely looking backward, and what emerged is really a celebration of 100 years of the avant-garde in America. 

One way you did that is by tapping Eric Shiner, the director of the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, to organize this year's "Focus" section to spotlight new art in America. How did that come together?

Eric brought together 16 different galleries from across the country, and one gallery from Japan, to present artist-driven projects reflecting on the politics, social fabric, and humor of what it means to be an American in 2013. It's a challenge to define what is America, and who is American and not American, and this is part of what Eric is playing with. A number of other dealers throughout the fair will be dealing with the centennial head-on. Another aspect of what we're doing this year is that the dealer Francis Naumann will bring an homage to Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase to his booth in the fair that will be a mixture of historical materials and contemporary work that has been made in response to Duchamp's masterpiece by artists from Cindy Sherman to Marcel Dzama and others. Francis is one of the leading Duchamp scholars, so that's quite exciting. Then there are other Modern dealers on Pier 92 who will be showing work by artists who were included in the 1913 Armory Show. And then we have a talks program as well that has been curated this year by Anne Barlow, director of Art in General, and that thematically reflects on both the legacy of the 1913 fair and also various questions around regionalism and different types of alternative American practices and identities. We're really proud of that and we think it will help anchor our commercial art fair within a wider discussion that's been going on in the international press and curatorial circles, sort of looking back on what this all means.

The fair this year will feature 210 exhibitors from around the world, each of which is bringing a selection of work they want to sell. There's a significant divide between that kind of array of art and the curated selection that was shown in the original Armory Show. How would you describe the style of presentation at the Armory Show?

It's important to underline the inherent difference between the 1913 show and ours. The 1913 show actually was commercial, but it wasn't galleries presenting artists, it was artists presenting each other. So the fabric of our fair is fundamentally different from that quite radical exhibition, and instead the context is one that has become a very widely accepted mode of exhibition and sales today, which is the context of the fair. That being said, we've made a concerted effort in the last year since I joined the Armory's team to raise the bar for the types of presentations that one sees at the fair—the ambitious curatorial programs that our galleries display—to try and combat the broad perception that an art fair is nothing more than a commercial trade fair where galleries bring a lot of inventory that might not necessarily be related to each other. We encouraged them this year to bring a more rigorous program that makes sense conceptually and intellectually as a consistent mode of presentation. 

Where are some places we can look forward to seeing that this year?

You'll see that every booth in Eric Shiner's "Focus" section features a presentation by just one or two artists, which is a really nice departure for the fair, and you'll see that in other booths around the fair as well, from David Zwirner showing Diana Thater to Zürich's Mai 36th Gallery showing Matt Mullican to David Kramer at Laurent Godin to Gallery Noire from Italy doing an Alighiero Boetti show. We also have a dedicated Solo Projects section for a dozen of our younger galleries. Cumulatively, I think that these tight presentations will have a profound impact on the fair this year that touches on what's unique about presenting a contemporary art fair in New York City as opposed to any number of places around the world. This also relates to a general cleaning-up of the fair that we've been overseeing this year, where we've dramatically scaled back the number of exhibitors, bringing the total down to 210 from 290 in 2010. As a result, the aisles are wider and there are more lounges. We've gone to great lengths to enhance the kind of catering and vending, and the whole experiential side of what the fair feels like.

It's interesting that you say that, because while the Armory Show has long been New York's marquee art fair—attracting the most diverse audience of collectors and culture-seekers alike—in recent years it has sometimes been criticized for being overcrowded with dealers, uneven in quality, and less than welcoming in terms of layout and amenities. You've touched on a few significant ways that you have introduced changes to make the fair more user-friendly. Are there any others?

Sure. I think that a lot of these issues arise from the flow of the fair itself. Last year we worked with a Brooklyn-based architectural firm called Bade Stageberg Cox for the first time, and they approached a redesign of the Armory Show as an urban design problem. They compared our floor plan to the layouts of a number of other art fairs internationally and tried to simplify it by reducing the number of aisles and making everything more streamlined. We put those changes into place in 2012, and I think this year will see us enhancing them yet again based on the full audit we did of the fair last year. We have added additional lounges in the Pier 92 Modern section, which we're quite proud of, and we feel that will make that part of the fair feel more spacious to walk through. Galleries spend huge amounts of time preparing for fairs, so it's very important that we get some of these smaller details fine-tuned, and that will be on view this year. We've also begun working with two different restaurant partners, having the Starr Restaurant Group—which runs Buddakan, Morimoto, and the New-York Historical Society's Caffé Storico—do the VIP lounges as well as sit-down restaurants at the fair and the Upper East Side's Butterfield Market taking over the coffee bars as well as a restaurant in a new tented area we've added to the fair. The connection between the piers has always been a challenge for us, and this year we wanted to make that transitional moment more of a destination by creating a tented cafe between the two piers that will have an installation by the artist Devon Dikeou inside as well. So we're trying to listen to our audiences and respond to some of the pragmatic difficulties and challenges that people have criticized the fair for previously.

Tell me a little bit about this year's commissioned artist, Liz Magic Laser.

Each year we commission an artist to be the official Armory artist, which is a designation we give to someone whose work we feel somehow encapsulates a certain movement in the art world at a given time. This artist traditionally has been charged with working with our team to develop the visual identity of the fair for that year, and that tends to spill over to our website presence and the look of the catalog and collateral materials. This year we approached Liz, who's a performance artist based in New York, and she in turn has approached the entire project very conceptually. Because she doesn't really work with fixed plastic materials, so to speak, she took the idea of the commissioned artist and turned that process into her performance itself. In November she staged a series of focus groups—corporate strategy sessions, really—where she asked audiences what she should do for her commission, and, in that way, all of the materials she developed became part of this discursive process. One of the results of this is a 30-minute film that we will be premiering as part of our Armory Film program on Saturdy, and Liz has also created editions to benefit MoMA and the Pat Hearn and Colin de Land Cancer Foundation. In addition to all that, her dealer, Esther Kim Varet from Various Small Fires, will devote her booth in the "Focus: USA" section to displaying all of the trappings from Liz's focus group and the broader commission as a site-specific installation.

Now, you mentioned how the way the Armory Show splits its offerings across two piers, one devoted to Modern and older art and the other to contemporary, is something that people have had some difficulty navigating in the past. It's also a different approach from that of other fairs, like the Art Show and Frieze Masters, that display historic works alongside contemporary art. What are the advantages of such a split, and what are the disadvantages?

The advantage, inherently, is that the two distinct bodies of work can be seen side by side. We have found that the audiences for cutting-edge contemporary work and secondary-market Modern material are fairly different, and that while people often go to both, they don't always do so. At a certain level I think that works in our favor—it's nice that you can walk through a pier and feel that you've seen a cohesive body of work, whether it's Modern or contemporary work. The disadvantage, of course, is that it is also interesting to show contemporary art in a way that is anchored to a deeper heritage, and nowadays both museum curators and other fairs are delving into this terrain more ambitously. For us, I think there are pros and cons to both. Clearly at the Armory Show we have certain logistical constraints due to the layout of the piers themselves, which lend themselves to this kind of parallel presentation rather than a fully integrated presentation. That's not to say that we wouldn't potentially look at a new configuration down the road, but for the time being it's something dealers on both sides of the equation—on the Modern and on the contemporary side—tend to be quite content with, as do collectors.

It's well known that the inventory of Modern and historical art that's on the market is rapidly dwindling, with most high-quality examples already in private collections or in museums. How long do you think that having a dedicated pier for Modern and historical work will be viable?

You could ask the same question of how long there can be auctions of this material as well. I think that certainly one of the reasons that we've seen such a significant rise of contemporary art over the past 20 years is on some level directly related to the problem you've spelled out, that higher-end historical material is piped in to museum collections or elite private collections, and there's just less and less on the market. That being said, there's still a huge amount of material out there and also a huge amount of material from other parts of the world that we're becoming more familiar with that can be integrated into this sort of dialogue in a very powerful way. So at least for the foreseeable future in a market like New York—which is an attractive market to be showing in for galleries from all over the world—I don't see that as being a direct challenge, although all of us in the art world would be wise to be aware of that and to understand how we're operating in relation to that shifting dynamic down the road.

With about a dozen art fairs around the city this month and now also Frieze and NADA in May, dealers now have more options than ever of where and how to show their work in New York. Why, with so many alternatives, should dealers continue to get a booth at the Armory Show instead of either splitting their wares over two fairs or trying a different fair?

I think there are fundamentally different market forces in play. The week in early March that we've had for some years now was decided upon quite strategically as really a sort of kickoff to the spring season in New York. The ADAA shifted its Art Show to those dates, Independent launched several years ago, and with Volta, Scope, and the rest there's a critical mass of activity going on in New York this month that is all centered on the galleries and these fairs. So, for the dealers, the Armory Show comes at a particular good time. Another reason reason that early March is so attractive is that there is a bit of a lull in the international art-fair calendar after Miami, so in many ways Armory Week jumpstarts that and can be a real bonus in terms of meeting new clients and making sales at an otherwise slow point in the year. I think this much is here to stay, and it's a strong thing to have in our favor. Above and beyond that we have a location in midtown Manhattan that makes us very accessible, just up the West Side Highway from the galleries in Chelsea. And then, of course, the Armory is a very strong fair commercially, and a large part of this is the repeat traffic that it generates from a professional audience of curators, collectors, and advisors that come to the fair not just on opening day but throughout the five days. 

The international art market has lately been experiencing seismic shifts on a yearly basis, with last year seeing both the profusion of record contemporary art auctions and at the same time the dramatic crash of the Chinese art market, which only last year was heralded as the world's largest and now has reportedly being halved in size. What trends do you see in the international art market at this time, and how do you plan to frame the Armory Show in a way that exploits those trends?

In the last couple years we've seen a tremendous expansion of the art market into previously untapped parts of the global art world ecology, from South America to Asia. China, obviously, has been the hot topic in the market for the past few years now. The Armory has historically been a strong New York, American art fair, and one thing that we've done is to really reach out to collectors, institutions, and galleries in other parts of the world throughout the year. This year we've brought on a number of new galleries from Asia and the Middle East, for example, from Pekin Fine Arts in Beijing to Edouard Malingue in Hong Kong to Isabelle van den Eynde in Dubai. So I think one thing that we are certainly interested in expanding is this global strength of the gallery programs that we're presenting, and I feel very strongly that there's a eager audience hungry to see that type of material in New York City that maybe doesn't yet travel as widely as it should.

The fair certainly seems to be reenergized, with an interesting direction ahead of it. But there were reports last year that the Armory Show's owners, Merchandise Mart Properties, has been looking to sell the fair, and now there have been reports that an expected sale to Louise Blouin Media will not happen after all. What does this mean for the future of the fair?

As of now the fair is fully owned and operated by Merchandise Mart, which is our parent company, and above and beyond that we're not at liberty to speak of the situation. What I can say—and what will be evident at the fair this year—is that I think we've done a very, very good job of investing and allocating resources into the fair this year to really raise the bar from where we were even a year ago and to put the fair in a good position for success both in 2013 and well beyond. We have had a lot of discussions with our art dealers and constituents about this, and they seem to agree.

To go back to the centennial of the original Armory Show, that exhibition is famous for having jolted American audiences with what Robert Hughes calls "the shock of the new," expanding artistic horizons by introducing compelling ideas from beyond the mainstream. Where can we expect to find such a shock today? Can it be found at the Armory Show? 

Fundamentally, we live in an age where we don't get shocked in the same way anymore, so at a very basic level, it's not really feasible for a fair—or a museum exhibition, or most other forms of entertainment, for that matter—to really shock in the same way as the 1913 Armory Show was shocking and scandalous when it debuted here. That being said, I think it's our duty as a fair to educate, inform, and keep things fresh, and I think the Armory can be part of a larger trajectory in this respect moving forward. When we look back 50 years from now, we'll see that fairs in recent years have shifted from what was once a pretty isolated function for a professionalized community of dealers and collectors to become something that's more of a social experience and spectacle, and we're hopeful that it's an experience that has a real, substantive meaning behind it as well. And it's our duty to present that experience with integrity, in the best possible manner that we can, to express the visions of the artists and the galleries that show with us.

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