Q&A

Volta Director Amanda Coulson on the Changed Art Market

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Volta Director Amanda Coulson on the Changed Art Market

This Thursday the Volta Show is returning to West 34th Street with its unique selection of solo artist displays, put on this year by a roster of 80 art purveyors from around the globe—including Artspace, which for the first time will have a booth at the fair focusing on the dizzying, dazzling art of assume vivid astro focus. In the run-up to Volta's vernissage, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to the fair's artistic director, Amanda Coulson, about the coming week.

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, it's going to be interesting to see. I think one thing working in the favor of the March date is simply that everyone's used to it—there's something comforting about "every October we go here, and every November we go there, and every December we go there." And I think the Armory actually bounced back very strong. I think everyone was surprised by the exhibitor list when it came out. In a way, I think it's been kind of good, because it makes everyone clarify their profiles. I think the Armory has somehow found its niche now. There are a lot of good galleries in there, they're not Frieze-type galleries, and same with NADA—it's not Volta. It kind of clarifies everybody's position, because when there's more competition out there you have to be very clear about what you're doing and what you're presenting. And there's obviously a lot of excitement this year, so I think the fairs are going to be really well attended. I don't know if people have taken into account how much the art world has grown. I mean, maybe ten years ago one fair was enough, but now there's enough audience with enough range in taste that I'm not sure that any one fair is going to emerge as the leader. They're just different, and they're going to get different audiences. It will be like a Venn diagram, where there will be some crossover but there will also be a lot of people who only choose to go to one or the other. But I don't think there's going to be a winner, and that one's going to fail. And I think it's also kind of great for New York, since the city is getting all this interest again—for a while it was all about Miami, and New York really is still the naval of the art world no matter how you slice it. I think it's really great. We've had more people join the March date, even though I had actually hoped that it would filter some people out and make it a more focused fair, because my fear is always that Armory Week would grow into some kind of Miami thing with 23 fairs and become very difficult. But you know, who knows?

How has Volta adjusted its profile this year to stand out from the pack?

We didn't really have to adapt that much, since we've always had a pretty clear profile in New York as the only place that does a solo-project fair-people choose to do us because they want to do a clear presentation of a single artist. We didn't have a lot of crossover with Pulse, so losing them wasn't really a massive problem, and actually for us it might have even worked to our benefit because we have New York in March and then we have Basel in June, and a lot of galleries want to do Volta in Basel. Many people told us that doing May in New York is just too difficult for them because they can't do two fairs of that kind of magnitude within the span of 30 days, especially people of our level who are more emerging galleries—they don't have a massive stable of artists, they don't have massive funds, so they need three months between fairs. And we didn't have any exhibitors who said they were bailing in order to do May. For us the main problem was, "Is the Armory going to stay as a viable destination?" Because of course we are a satellite, and I've never pretended that Volta was going to be the main fair anywhere and that people were going to fly to wherever just to come for Volta. They are coming for the main event, and we offer a complement to that main event with something different. So I really wanted to see how the Armory was going to be perceived, and I was extremely pleased when I saw the list come out and saw that it stayed strong, and I hear the level of interest from collectors is quite high. Because they're two very different things, the Armory and Frieze, and I don't think it's appropriate to ask which one's better. They're different. It's like people asking me who my favorite kid is—they both have very different qualities, and often the qualities one has the other one doesn't have. So I was just really pleased that March has stayed a very exciting time and a viable date, and that so many other things are joining that period.

What kind of collectors are you anticipating?

We always have a kind of crossover with the Armory, obviously, but mostly with people who are interested in the more emerging positions. We have a younger profile, definitely. We don't really attract a lot of the more well-heeled collectors who have been collecting for 40 years—we normally have a younger edge. But New York remains such an exciting place to go that I don't think any of the recent changes will affect our visitorship. People have always come to Volta, and I haven't had anyone say they're not coming this year because of Frieze or because of whatever. So I think we're going to have the same level that we always do, which is a very high-end level—we always get very good collectors through the door. And because we've never been able to afford to advertise, Volta has always been sort of a word-of-mouth, so basically we get the audience that is interested, we don't get the audience that is merely curious. We don't get schools coming and just general people wanting a museum experience, because they're going to see the Armory for that. We really get people who are just interested in emerging art and actually want to buy things. We're not the blockbuster movie, we're the art-house movie that you tell your friend to go see and maybe wins an award at Sundance.

Are there any booths that you're especially excited about?

Oh you can't ask me that! It goes back to the favorite kid question! [laughs] But we have an artist who is in the Whitney Biennial, Andrew Masullo, and we have an artist who has a solo show at MoMA right now, Sanja Ivekovic. So we have a few artists like that in the sense that they've reached a certain level. But I think it's always a nice fair to walk around, and I don't say that just because I'm the director but because it's small and has a very human scale and you can really get into a single artist's practice, and I think that makes it less of a kind of overwhelming experience and you can really concentrate on just one artist in each booth. I think in general that always makes it a pleasant experience to come to, and you're always going to find something outstanding for you.

What is the price range for the artworks this year?

There are some people who have drawings that are about $1,500, but normally I would say it's about $5,000 up to $250,000 on the high end. We don't have anything in the millions or anything like that. But even $250,000 would be really high, for something of museum quality. We always present ourselves as being for emerging positions, but what we've done slightly differently is that sometimes we have historical positions that we consider relevant and emerging. In our first fair we had an installation by Anna Oppermann, an artist who died in the '70s and was completely overlooked in her time. So we have artists who are really further along in their careers in terms of time but really aren't household names, and quite often their prices are higher because they've been working much longer and have a real body of work behind them. But we still consider people like that emerging if we feel that they were kind of missed at the time. I get really bored with the "hot young new artist." When I go into galleries and they say, "Oh, he's 23 and he just graduated from art school," I really couldn't care less. I want to see something new, original, and inspiring.

What currents have you been following in the art market recently?

I think it's all kind of evened out somehow. It used to be that everybody was only interested in the American market, and I just think that's changed. Now it's not just about one country anymore, it's about ups and downs and swings. China right now has lots of money, and the question is always, "What's the new hot spot?" Now it's Berlin and then its Ljubljana and then it's Iceland, and that's the way it's going to happen every year. But I think in general it's become really global. You can never say who's going to be the big collector, who is going to buy the piece—it doesn't have to be the guy from China, there are great German collectors who are operating and Italian collectors, and they all have sort of different profiles and operate in a very different way. So that's really the main thing that I'd say.

Art fairs clearly have a big role to play in this kind of globalized art market.

Yeah, for sure. I have a lot of dealers who tell me that they do three quarters of their sales at art fairs now, and they don't sell necessarily to their local clients—especially people who are in places like South Africa or Australia or whatever, but even people from the U.S. If you're a gallery in Chicago you might have a better client base in Los Angeles because you've done a fair there and you did a fair in Miami and those collectors were there. So fairs have become very important, and I don't necessarily think that's a good thing. I don't think it's evil, but my greatest concern today is that galleries will close because of art fairs and I would not want to see that happen. I think galleries are an extremely important space in a city, extremely important for the social fabric of a city, helping an artist hone their practice and put on solo shows and things like that. But I worry that the costs become too heavy, because the former model of running a gallery space and splitting sales fifty-fifty with artists is putting galleries under a lot of financial pressure, because to do a fair and to run a gallery space is really difficult. So a lot of people are considering going virtual and just do the fairs, and others are considering not doing the fairs, and I'm not sure that either of those is going to work because you kind of do need the mix. So I don't really know what the solution is.

You would also lose exposure for your artists if you only did fairs, because often critics don't go to them.

That's true, and they really should. I think that's a snobby approach, but whatever. And some magazines don't want to cover them because they don't want to write about the market. But I think an art fair is a good place for discovering things. It's not a good place for digesting things in the long term, but very often I've found an artist who I've never heard of before and maybe I never would have come across because their gallery is someplace I never visit. It's a good place to see a wide range, and if you come out just having found five new artists then that's an amazing thing. It's like going to a biennial, and I've had quite a lot of galleries at Volta telling me that they've gotten institutional shows as a result of their booths, and people have said that Volta New York is like going to studio visits because quite often you get a full body of work, you're not being distracted—the dealer isn't trying to show you find other people in their stable.

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