Art Fairs

NADA's Gallery Open: An Alternative Model to the Art Fair that Actually Works?

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NADA's Gallery Open: An Alternative Model to the Art Fair that Actually Works?
Giovannis Family Style preparing a dinner at Helena Anrather to kick off the week.

This past August, NADA announced that for the first time since 2012, they would not be hosting a New York art fair this year. For many former NADA participants—galleries who tend to be younger and leaner than those that occupy booths at Independent and Armory—the news came as a shock, but not necessarily a surprise. As a recent ArtNet News article pointed out, the art world has been oversaturated with fairs, and "fair fatigue" doesn't benefit galleries, or collectors. But still, the loss of NADA posed potential problems for budding galleries—galleries who couldn’t afford to participate in more expensive fairs, but also couldn't seem to afford not to. Many galleries report that reaching their bottom line depends on fairs; the majority of their yearly sales transpire because of them.

But in retrospect, NADA’s decision to opt out of doing an art fair this year could have been a blessing in disguise. NADA, which stands for New Art Dealers Alliance, may have made the decision due to logistical reasons (their venue, the Skylight Clarkson, was sold last year and NADA's since struggled to find a replacement host), they may have also had the inkling that another fair just wasn’t what their community needed. In lieu, NADA instead launched the NADA New York Gallery Open, a “new initiative… to bring visitors, collectors, curators, and critics into over 50 art galleries, non-profits and alternative spaces around New York City during the week of March 4–10, 2019.” The programming consisted of guided tours that brought out-of-towners and New Yorkers alike to galleries in several of the city’s art districts, like the Chelsea, the Lower East Side, and Bushwick, in addition to an abundance of performances, dinners and brunches, and artists talks. NADA’s members—galleries who pay yearly dues in exchange for year-round promotion, invitations to events and other VIP perks, and front-and-center booths at NADA’s fairs—paid just $100 to participate, while non-members shelled out $500 for the opportunity. Either way, the Gallery Open was significantly cheaper for gallerists than participating in an any fair.

Koenig & Clinton. Installation view: American Artist, I’M BLUE (IF I WAS █████ I WOULD DIE). Image via the gallery's website

So, could this be a viable alternative to the art fair model? Was NADA’s new initiative a success? According to Margaret Liu Clinton, the owner and director of Koenig & Clinton, a gallery that moved from Chelsea to Bushwick in July of 2017, the answer is unequivocally, yes. But for Clinton, “success” doesn’t necessarily mean “sales.” “One metric asks, did sales go up in your gallery space? The other metric asks, what message did this convey on a broader scale, not just to the galleries but also to the people that are on NADA’s mailing list?” For Clinton, NADA’s initiative was successful in that it didn’t function as a fair. Instead, it encouraged people to look beyond the booths and into the gallery for deeper context and conversation. “We’re in an experience economy where a lot of people’s first experiences with art are at art fairs. I’m always trying to explain that I want to be the slow food of the art world... To continue to food corollary, let’s say you go to a fantastic food court like Dekalb Market, and you have all these incredible cuisines. Then the person who owns the food court says, ‘Hey, you should really go see the restaurant; it has an expanded menu, they’re always experimenting, they’re bringing in all these different things.’ Then, at the restaurant, you start to learn about the farm, about the elements, about the terrain—which is the studio. So for a fair to put itself aside, and put its constituents first, and symbolically tell their audience that they need to go see shows at galleries, made me feel so incredibly proud to be aligned with NADA in that effort. Because the 10-billion-dollar question is, how do we invite people back into the space of the gallery and even back into the space of the studio? How do we slow things down to allow those experiences and qualities that are really the richest to come through?” 

Koenig & Clinton benefited from a huge increase in foot traffic last weekend, and they weren’t the only gallery who says NADA brought new faces through the doors. Mitra Khorasheh, owner of Signs and Symbols, an 11-month-old gallery in the Lower East Side, says she’s “never had a busier weekend.” Like all the participating galleries in the LES, Signs and Symbols stayed open late on Friday. “It was packed. We had more people there that night than on the night the show opened.” NADA’s Gallery Open allowed Khorasheh’s brand new gallery to benefit from the art fairs without actually participating in them, something that simply isn't financially feasible at this point in the gallery's young life.

After attending previews and opening days at fairs during the week, fair-goers would then flock to galleries like Signs and Symbols and Bureau on the weekend. But did new faces open new checkbooks? Weston Lowe of Bureau on Norfolk Street said, “We made two sales that weekend to out-of-town people who were here for the fairs, but it’s tough to say whether they came through NADA or otherwise." When asked the same question, Khorasheh responded, “We’ve sent some invoices and we have some things in the works, but no, not officially… yet.”

So for new galleries looking to expand their audiences and meet out-of-town collectors, or galleries that prioritize context over coin, NADA certainly seems to have impressed. But it’s worth noting that Koenig & Clinton, Signs  & Symbols, and Bureau hadn’t participated in New York art fairs recently, and thus didn’t exactly have much to lose. More was at stake for Mrs., a gallery who has four NADA art fairs under its belt, and last year completely sold out their entire booth on the first day at NADA New York. Not having that chance this year felt like a missed opportunity, says owner Sara Maria Salamone, but on the other hand was “probably a good thing.” After doing ALAC in Los Angeles, the first fair where the gallery took a loss, Salamone was happy to be able to “sit back a bit” and use the week to take meetings with out-of-town visitors, outside of the fairs. “At an art fair, every second you’re getting interrupted by someone else. By the end of the day I don’t really even know what happened or who I talked to.” This year, she says, she was happy to walk through the fairs just for fun, and to have slower, more focused conversations with people. Did the Gallery Open bring more foot traffic to the gallery? “I'm not really sure, but that’s really our fault, because our gallery isn’t in walking distance from Bushwick galleries, and we didn’t make a strong effort to coordinate events at the gallery that week.” Mrs. is located in Maspeth, Queens.

One major benefit of an art fair is its ability to generate exposure for galleries off the beaten path. You could have a project space in a small town without a large audience, and then travel to art fairs for exposure, networking, sales, etc. Gallery Open, on the other hand, would seem to benefit galleries that already reap the benefits of being centrally located, like those with store-front locations in Manhattan, which already have the advantage of foot traffic. That being said, several far-afield galleries used Armory Week as an opportunity to organize pop-up exhibitions in New York. Good Weather (North Little Rock), Franz Kaka (Toronto), LOYAL (Stockholm), Galería Mascota (Mexico City), Sans titre 2016 (Paris), Studioli (Rome), and Tatjana Pieters (Gent) teamed up to present a pop-up exhibition at the Lower East Side's new Jack Barrett gallery (ran by the former co-director of 315 Gallery in Downtown Brooklyn).

Vacation Gallery on Orchard Street in Manhattan's Lower East Side, hosting a pop-up by ltd los angeles during the NADA New York Gallery Open.

Vacation Gallery, which acts as the home base for hip advisory firm The Larkin, and regularly host's pop-up exhibitions by out-of-town galleries, offered its space on Orchard Street to ltd los angeles, which, after participating in art fairs all over the globe for the past decade, has more recently been staging pop-ups instead. "We thought we’d try doing month-long pop-ups as an alternative to art fairs," says owner Shirley Morales over the phone. "Art fairs have changed a lot over the last ten years. Visitors only have three or four days to see many, many art fairs, so that doesn’t give them a lot of time to spend in each booth. I wanted to try a longer approach.... I think everyone is looking for a new models and I really admire Condo and NADA for starting them. Moving forward, that kind of experimentation is necessary for small and medium galleries and organizations. We need to be open to change."

But is it worth is financially? "At the end of the day it's the same amount of money, if not more," says Morales. While art fairs are expensive, so are month-long pop ups. Staff has to relocate for an entire month. And, unlike sales at art fairs, which typically happen quickly on the first day, exhibitions have a slower burn, with sales unfolding at a slower pace throughout the month, and even after. "But we're definitely selling," Morales is quick to add. "And we’re really happy with the quality of the acquisitions—where the works are being placed."

In passing, I've heard a few different people say something like, "Shouldn't people be going to galleries anyway? Isn't it sad that they need NADA to bring them there?" The answer is yes. People who go to art fairs should definitely also be going to galleries. And yes, it is sad if they don't. Sure, the NADA New York Gallery Open is essentially a well-organized gallery week—not unlike the annual varieties hosted in cities like Berlin, Brussels, and Chicago. Is it a revolutionizing, groundbreaking new model? No. But it does give galleries, especially those who already have one foot out the door of the art fair, an opportunity to reap the benefits of Armory Week without having to participate in a fair model that doesn't necessarily work them. Not that galleries need to justify their reasons for opting out of the fair circuit, but having an alternative platform to get behind and mobilize around certainly helps. And while it may not provide galleries with the potential to make as many sales as they would at a fair, it does, as Clinton pointed out, drive audiences back to the source—the gallery. 

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