Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the Art Show is renowned as New York's bluest-chip fair, presenting work by artists from the historical past to today in the tony precincts of the Upper East Side's Park Avenue Armory. The selection process for becoming an exhibitor at the fair is notoriously stringent—to have a booth, a dealer must be a member of the Art Dealers Association of America, which produces the event, and preference is given to established art purveyors who have been in the business for years. As a result, the fair is small—there are just 72 exhibitors this year—and marked by a heady mixture of work from different periods, with many booths presenting the work of a single artist and all arranged according to a curatorial sensibility.
Overseeing the Art Show is ADAA executive director Linda Blumberg, who, somewhat surprisingly given the fair's white-collar reputation, actually comes from the cutting edge of contemporary art: in 1971 she joined Alanna Heiss in founding the radical art laboratory PS1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS1) as its first director of programs, and more recently she brought Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates to Central Park. To gain insight into this year's fair, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein sat down with Blumberg to discuss the Art Show's place in the art landscape, the challenges that dealers of older art face today, and the future of the fair.
If I were somebody entirely foreign to the New York art fair landscape, how would you describe the Art Show?
The main thing is that it's a boutique art fair, which means it's small and rather intimate. We purposefully only have 72 booths, because we're very concerned with the experience that people have when they enter the building—we want them to have a sense of being able to really look at art and contemplate it, not just pass it by quickly and have first impressions. The second thing is that it's a competitive process to get into the Art Show, and we really encourage our dealers to curate their booths. It can't just be a laundry list of everything the dealer shows. They make proposals and we look at them very carefully to make sure they are thoughtful and have something to say besides just that the work for sale. I don't mean to say that it isn't a fair, but the context is very important to us, and I think that we've done very well because of that. This is, as you may know, our 25th year, so that says something. I believe we are the oldest running fair in America, and we've been very consistent. I think we're also known for rather high quality in terms of what we present, and we have a wide range of material because the fair reflects our membership, from booths of 18th-century art to new works created specifically for the fair. It's been a successful formula for us.
You mentioned that some of the art on offer stretches back to the 18th century, and a decade ago, in fact, the Art Show was primarily known as a place to find Impressionist and Modern works, with a smattering of Old Masters, too. Now there are many contemporary dealers as well. How did that change come about?
I think it was organic frankly. There are a couple of things that happened. There's no question that earlier work is more difficult to come by today, and as we go on and more and more of it is bought up so it's much more difficult for dealers to acquire these works and have them to present at an art show. That's one issue we've seen with some of our dealers of early American art, for instance—they've moved away from Modernism and are now veering into contemporary art. That line is always shifting, and the older I get, the more it shifts. The other thing is that when we changed the dates of our fair to coincide with the Armory Show, some of our dealers who do TEFAF Maastrich [the elite old masters-heavy fair in Holland] hard time doing both. We were really sorry to lose them because we feel strongly that those dealers represent an important arm of the ADAA, but having the Art Show take place alongside the Armory Show made more sense. We voted with our membership, and they voted for this time slot.
It is a trend in both exhibition curation and art fairs these days to place new art alongside older works, as we have seen at events like Documenta and Frieze Masters. it seems like that mixture has evolved almost organically at the Art Show.
It has evolved that way because our membership has evolved to encompass all of work, but it was also definitely a conscious decision. We think that older work informs newer work, and that things don't just occur but exist in a continuum of discussion and process and tradition. I think it would really be a shame to lose that. I'm always impressed by how much historical works inform very contemporary work, and I know that some of the living artists we show are very excited to show alongside Modern masters. We do many solo shows every year—which is something the Art Show actually pioneered—where we encourage dealers to bring a booth of a single artist's work, and we've heard from artists who say how amazing it is to show across the aisle from Miró, for example.
With auction houses offering a high-profile and high-profit alternative to art fairs for selling older work, how long do you think it will be possible for the Art Show to compete in that area? Will there come a time when your fair is almost entirely contemporary?
I really hope not—I would be really sad if that was the case. A dealer and an auction house have two very different objectives in mind: both want to make a profit, but the auction house's main purpose is to get the highest price it possibly can for a single work of art. It doesn't care about the work before or after. Then that price is very much reported in the press because it's titillating, and there's no question that the public is awed by it, but I don't know what that has to do with quality or a long-range view of art and where it's going. I also quite honestly think that auctions serve a very small and limited audience, and the reality is that the audience for art has grown exponentially and globally to become—and I hate to use the word populist—but certainly more accessible to more people than it ever has been. I think one of the things that distinguishes the dealers in our show is that their concern is not to sell the piece for the highest price possible but to encourage collectors and museums to support an artist and their career, and to eventually place the work somewhere that the public can see. I think the incessant focus on price is a mistake myself, and I think it's a reflection of where American culture is at at the moment. I don't mean to sound like I'm 106 years old, but I've been in the art world long enough to know that artists go through moments in their careers where their new work is very confusing and sometimes doesn't succeed, but the best artists take chances and keep going. So their trajectories go up and go down, and it seems to me that if you're just making product for sale, maybe that's more design than art. And I think that's an issue.
From the other side of the equation, one criticism of the fair is that while it has contemporary art, it is rarely a place to find truly cutting-edge work, or overtly provocative work. Is that a direction the fair might go in more in the future?
Well I think that's fair to say in a sense. I do think provocative can be good and can be interesting—it can be valuable and it can be sensational—but it can also be boring. The newest, most shocking art probably isn't going to be what we show, although some of our booths can be pretty out-there. So I would agree that we take a slightly more reflective position of valuation. You could tell I was at PS1, because Alanna and I still share the view that art isn't just about the latest moment in thought—there's more to it than that. I still go back and read Chekhov and the other great Russian writers, and I have to say that I get more and more out of them the older I get. I've come to look at art that way, too. As a culture, we consume very quickly these days, and I just worry that we consume and discard a little too rapidly. Which is not to say that I'm against the new—obviously the new is my background, and working with artists to help them make their work is still my favorite thing.
The Art Show has had cutting-edge contemporary exhibitors in recent years, like Greene Naftali and Gavin Brown, but both of those galleries have since left the fair. Is it difficult to hold on to these types of galleries?
It's a good question. Greene Naftali is an ADAA member, as is Gavin Brown. Neither participate in the show, for various reasons, but some of their artists have definitely been highlighted in our show. Allen Ruppersberg had a one-person show with us, for instance, and it was fantastic. I would never want to not consider galleries that aren't doing exciting and very radical work, but there's a certain reality: to become a member of the ADAA you have to have been in business for five years. That immediately says something. I think that we are completely open, and we've heard that there are many younger galleries that are interested in becoming members—and I'm thrilled with that. We have not seen any decline in our membership at all. We remain amazingly steady.
How do you see your fair as being situated in the current art-fair landscape, which has become incredibly competitive? In New York you have the Armory Show and Frieze, and then abroad there are the major European and Asian fairs. Since galleries have limited amounts of money and material that can be allocated to art fairs, how do you make an argument for the ADAA? How does it fit into the art-fair ecosystem in an indispensable way?
As I said, it's a unique kind of fair. First of all, it's solely American dealers, so we don't have a direct international component, even though many dealers show international art. But aside from that, as long as people want to be in that atmosphere, as long as they find it valuable to have a boutique fair—a smaller fair that is highly discriminatory in terms of the quality of what is presented—I think we'll have an audience. If we have an audience and they're an audience that buys work, I think the dealers will support it. There is a certain fair fatigue, and I think people are choosing and selecting, but how could they not? It's utterly exhausting for our dealers, and it requires a huge investment. I think people so far have felt that our fair is valuable and we haven't seen a drop-off in applications or desire to sell. To be honest, every year I've seen an incredible increase in the quality and the kinds of work that are being brought, so I'm optimistic. But I also want our dealers to feel good about the fair, so we do everything we can to make them happy.
The ADAA is very selective in terms of which galleries it lets into its ranks, and one gallery that's famous for not being in the ADAA is Gagosian. What does it take—aside from five years of being in business—to make the cut?
You can't apply; you have to be proposed by a member, and then we have a membership committee that looks at the program of the gallery and judges it by a whole set of criteria that you can see on our website. They don't only look at what you show but consider the contribution that you make to the cultural community, the catalogues you produce, and a whole range of excellence, knowledge, and connoisseurship that is involved. The whole process takes about a year, believe it or not, and then we have standards and practices that you must adhere to if you become a member. I'm very proud of our membership, and I think we really do have the most important and interesting galleries. If we ever got to the point where we thought we were not being au courant, I think maybe we would reconsider our criteria, but I haven't heard that from anybody. People tend to respect our standards and want to become a part of the organization.
When you say that one criterion is the dealer's contribution to the community that suggests that these are all brick-and-mortar establishments, but you also include private dealers.
Yes, we have quite a few private dealers who don't have shows that are open to the public. The requirement for them is eight years of being in business, which is even more strident, and we measure their contributions to the community by their engagement with the museum community or in terms of scholarship. Many of our Modern dealers, and contemporary dealers as well, come from the academic world. So there are a lot of other ways in which that engagement happens.
Considering all of the changes that are occurring in the art world and the way that the market is shifting, where do you see the Art Show being situated in five years? Will it be still be in the same location, at the Park Avenue Armory? Will it be conceived the same way?
I think that anybody who projects five years into the future, at this point, is crazy. The only thing I can say is that if we maintain quality and are open to new challenges, we'll be fine. It's hard to know what five years will bring, and if you had asked the same question five years ago I couldn't have imagined all of the changes that have happened. I would like to say that we'll be responsive and aware, and I think our dealers will make us responsive and aware. We're not going to be a stodgy old institution that buries its head in the sand and says that this is how it had to be. We're going to be flexible. But we do have a standard we want to uphold, and as long as we continue to do that we'll have significance.