Q&A

The Armory Show's Paul Morris on New York's Marquee Art Fair

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The Armory Show's Paul Morris on New York's Marquee Art Fair

The Armory Show is opening to the public today with 221 galleries from 30 countries offering an gargantuan array of fine art, with cutting-edge contemporary work on view in Pier 94 and modern art in Pier 92. It's a world away from its humble origins as a makeshift fair founded in the rooms of the Gramercy Hotel in 1994 by Paul Morris and the art dealers Matthew Marks, Pat Hearn, and Colin de Land. Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Morris about this year's edition, how he's had to change the fair to respond to a sudden upsurge of new competition, and how the art world has changed since 1994.

This is a big year for New York art fairs, with an enormous slew of events opening during Armory Week and then a new fair week springing up in May, with Frieze, NADA NYC, Verge, and Pulse. What is your outlook on the new art-fair landscape?

Well, all of the May events have never happened, so that's a big experiment. It would be hard for me to speculate on that, and also I think it's essential to just really focus on what I'm doing and how I do it. And what we really focused on this year is what the Armory needed and what changes are needed. We actually had to stop doing what we were doing and, instead of only looking at our fair in a micro sort of way we considered the whole landscape and the macro picture of it all. When I entered this business there were two art fairs, and now there's like 60, and the business plan for a fair has not officially changed since Art Cologne was founded [in 1967]. So I thought it was a really great opportunity for us to stop and—I know it's an overused term—think outside of the box as far as ideas that were as radical as say the Gramercy was when Matthew and Pat and Colin and I started that. And then when we started the Armory Show, it was a bit of a challenge because everyone said, as they've always said, "Well, New York's an art fair all year round, so why would a fair ever work here?" So we had to really come up with very radical ideas at that point. So for 2012 I said, "Let's just stop right now and really take a step and look at what we do and how we do it." And we certainly looked at all of the other art fairs in the world because there's something to learn from each of them, but you have to be unique. It's like all of the galleries that are in our fair, if they all were showing the same works no one would be interested. So the Armory Show has to bring something new to the dialogue. And that's what we focused on this year, and we made a checklist of all of the changes we thought were necessary.

And what were these changes?

The thing I was thinking about is how the art world has grown enormously in the past ten or 20 years, and that means there are that many more artists, viewers, and collectors. And I felt like the correct direction to go would be to take the fair and make it a bit smaller, because I think the emphasis should really be on the art. That's always been important for us. Our mission statement for the Armory Show is unique, and that is that we are a primary-market fair. On Pier 94, we really encourage you to only show the artists you represent, with only a few secondary-market pieces. There's a rule, and 90 percent of the booths are hopefully new work by the artists that the dealers represent. We really wanted to keep the focus on that and we wanted to make the fair as generous and as pleasant an experience as possible for both the dealers and the collectors. And we wanted to make it possible to really enjoy the experience, but, more importantly, to understand what you're looking at and get access to information and have a moment to talk to the dealers.

We were also thinking about how the urge to do the Berlin gallery week or the New York gallery week is kind of pushed by the idea that people have gotten into the habit of only buying at art fairs. You have to see the artist's whole statement and you have to go to the gallery, I think, and we want to encourage that as much as possible. We want people to look at art as much as possible and to understand it, because in the end when you're selling art, you're really selling ideas. And if you don't have a moment to really absorb those ideas, then you're short-selling yourself, and the artists especially. So I wanted to do things like make the booths bigger so we can come as close to what a gallery presentation would be. We wanted to put more lounges in so you could start a conversation with a dealer, say, and then move to their booth and have a more significant conversation, a longer one, with them. We also wanted to up our docent program and offer docents to as many people as possible, and we reached out to representatives from 750 museums this year and booked them to come for an early opening on Saturday morning at 10 a.m. So any opportunity that we had to access more information or set up an arena where people could exchange ideas went to the top of our list.

How many applicants were there for this year's fair, and how did you whittle them down to put together the new smaller edition?

We reach about 500 to 600 applications a year, and our search committee really makes all of the choices about who is in the fair. But the world also divided when Frieze announced that they were going to open, and so we had dealers that left our fair to only do Frieze because they can only afford to do so much. A lot of dealers want to do Frieze and try it this year as an experiment. So we then started to look at what dealers we would really love to have at our fair, and [new Armory Show managing director] Noah Horowitz brought in twenty dealers that didn't even apply to the fair. Then we looked at the Nordic section and Michael Hall developed that entire section and really worked closely with the entire Nordic art community from the collectors and galleries on down to give them the best profile we can, because we found that our regional focuses have been really popular and widely celebrated among our collectors as a way of learning about something they didn't know about. Every art fair has a shared audience, but then there are some that are just specific to geography.

There were some last minute additions to the gallery list this year, including David Zwirner, who did the ADAA fair last year. How did these galleries come on at the end of the application process? How were they induced to rejoin?

I would say the changes we made were incredibly seductive. We had been listening to our dealers, listening to our audience for a while, and the Armory Show definitely needed some infrastructure changes. But I was also looking at the world in general, and we want to create what is hopefully the correct art fair for the second decade of the 21st century.

So you didn't offer any kind of inducements or special deals to bring back heavy-hitters like Zwirner?

No. They were really thrilled, though, to see the changes. I don't think there's a person in the world that liked that staircase [dubbed the "staircase of doom" by art blogger Paddy Johnson] and so it need to be better, and the piers need a lot of TLC and we're competing with events that are in some of the best convention centers around the world. We needed a fresh pair of eyes, and the architects really shook up the whole situation. We had this extraordinary prospectus put together with the architects and then we started throwing our ideas out there to our audience and to our dealers, and they loved it.

The Armory Show has been the anchor fair for years, and now Frieze is coming along with its own kind of profile. I wonder, in adapting to the presence of Frieze, is the Armory Show going to make changes in the way it pursues galleries? Will it go after international exhibitors, for instance, while Frieze does more of a local, indie thing?

I'm not sure. I would hesitate to look at the crystal ball and make predictions. I think that what you have to do as an art fair producer is come up with the most extraordinary fair, the most unique fair, and then go to the dealers and see if it hits a note with them. And if we can be help the world understand their artists, and we can also bring together collectors and museums with these dealers, that's probably one of the most important things a fair can accomplish.

What kind of collectors do you anticipate seeing at this year's fair?

We get a lot of requests from the international community that want to come her—they love coming to New York. And the way that Frieze or Paris has enjoyed art tours coming into those cities, we're going to see a swell of people going to Hong Kong, because I think they also want to meet the collectors that have started emerging in Asia. I think that it's fascinating to see how many Europeans have reached out to us, and collectors from around the world, because everybody loves to come to New York.

Do you think there's going to be any kind of increase concentration of a certain geographic group, or is there any indication that there's going to be more big collectors or middle-range collectors?

If I was going to go for the lowest hanging fruit answer, I would say we're first going to see an uptake in Scandinavian collectors coming over. I think they're very proud of their art world, and we're certainly celebrating that. We certainly saw that when we did the South American focus last year—I was surprised by actually how many South American collectors already own apartments in New York. The art world just keeps growing and growing and growing, and I see new names all the time, but I certainly see a lot of our returning VIPs and people who are involved in their local art community and art supporters of museums, which I think is amazing. Our VIP program is one of the best in the world and its the broadest and the deepest out there, and New York collectors are extremely generous and gracious about opening their homes for tours. The first time that we started it we asked ten collectors to open up their homes, and five said yes and five said no. And then when the nos heard about the yeses, they then agreed, and then the next week we had ten more call and say, "Do you think I'm not good enough for your fair?" So New York collectors are really wonderful about sharing their passion. And then the museums here have been incredibly outgoing as well. The Museum of Modern Art is offering tours by the curator of the Cindy Sherman show, and Agnes Gund is opening up her home. It's really great.

In terms of the art in the fair this year, what is the price range of the work being offered?

We have a section of solo presentations that is a row of ten small booths together where you can only show one artist, and that is the entry-level slot for a gallery to get into the Armory Show, so it's probably going to have some of the newest work and that would be an entry-level price point, if we're going to characterize it that way. But I would encourage everyone to always ask dealers across the board because there are no wrong questions to be asked in an art fair, and you might walk into a booth and see what you probably would consider a six-figure work of art, but you might be able to also find that there are $1,200 drawings in the closet, or somewhere on the outside wall. And if you get to the Scandinavian section, I think it's going to be brilliant to go and take a look at what's going on there because people are showing a variety of Scandinavian artists, so I would guess that might also lead to a variety of price points.

What about art in the million-plus category? How much will there be this year?

I haven't priced everything yet, but I know people have brought blue-chip work of the kind that you'd see at, say, Art Basel. So the price is probably the same level.

Are there any artworks that you think people are really going to gravitate toward this year, either because of their size or their impact? Are there any blockbuster pieces?

I would hate to second-guess what the world's going to pay attention to. I think it's very brave for a dealer to do a one-person show, of course, and the new Andres Serranos at Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Arts have never been seen, which is extraordinary. Jane Corkin from Toronto represents some incredible primary-market work but also great secondary-market photography, some vintage photography. Bruce Silverstein is showing some Brancusi photographs, and they're some of the freshest work I've seen, some of the youngest work I've ever seen. There's Olafur Eliasson coming in from Scandinavia. I could flip through the catalogue and just name names, but I think that the material of the fair is extraordinary. And [official Armory Show commissioned artist] Theaster Gates is going to be holding court in the one of the cafés, and he's going to stay in the belly of the whale the whole time.

But Armory Week is an extraordinary week because you have the ADAA celebrating its 50th anniversary, and you can go down to Independent and see another scope of work, and then of course our sister fair, Volta, has really unique, younger work that's just emerging. I have found some of the greatest pieces I've ever purchased there, and a lot of those artists have gone on to become very established and celebrated figures in the art world.

Looking at the international art market at large, what are the currents that you've been following with a special interest?

For a while, it was funny how photography has emerged as not just being a secondary medium, which was last in the Museum of Modern Art's original hierarchy of painting, sculptures, drawings, and then photography. Now that whole thing has flipped into a horizontal position, and all of that work is on an equal playing field. You can't say, "Well, everyone's collecting photography now," or sculpture, or something. I think people are collecting good art, period.

Since you founded the Armory Show back in 1994 you've obviously seen a lot of changes in the art market and the art world. Is there anything that you would say has been the most significant, or the most surprising, development? If your 1994 self were to come to the Armory Show this year, would you be really surprised about?

That's a really good question. There's a long list of things. Like when I sold the fair a long time ago, an old client called me up to congratulate me and said, "I bet if you knew how much work was involved you never would have done it." And I said, "Oh yeah, I never saw the light at the end of the tunnel." But I think the biggest thing is just the scale of the art world right now, which I think is good. I can't wait to see what Chinese museums develop over the years, and museums in Brazil and Dubai and places like that. And I guess I would say just the extraordinary variety of work out there and the size of the art world is something I would hesitate to even have speculated on in 1994. The size of the mailing lists, the amount of people, the amount of art fairs that one can go to, the number of artists that one should know now, the number of art schools in the world—I just think that every facet of the art world has grown exponentially, and what I love about it is that every time I go to an art fair, every time I visit galleries, I discover something new.

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