It's undeniable that the proliferation, expansion and emboldening of the art fair is a distinct characteristic of our contemporary art world. The art fair industry over the last decade has grown exponentially, becoming a crucial part of the art landscape, developing from mere trade shows into elaborate events and necessary meeting grounds for art professionals. Charlie Schultz talks with Katelijne De Backer, the Director of Exhibitor Relations for SCOPE about the evolution of art fairs, her tenure as director of the Armory Show, and how art fairs affect the culture of art.
Charlie Schultz: Having been director of the Armory Show for over a decade, I'd say you qualify as an art fair veteran. How did you first get involved with art fairs?
Katelijne De Backer: It all started in 1999. The art fair "industry" was very young at that time and I had just moved to New York City. I came from London where I had worked in television production. I had the opportunity to collaborate with the organizers (Colin de Land, Pat Hearn, Matthew Marks and Paul Morris) for the very first edition of The Armory Show, which took place at the 69th Regiment Armory in Manhattan at the same time as the ADAA Art Show. The biggest international art fair in the US at that time was Art Chicago. I continued helping them out until they named me Director in 2001.
CS: Between your job at The Armory Show and your position at SCOPE you temporarily worked as a Managing Director at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery. During your tenure at Lehmann Maupin did you experience an art fair from the gallery's perspective? If so, did it in any way shape the way you approach your current role as the Director of Exhibitor Relations at SCOPE?
KDB: Yes, of course! Working at a gallery gives you a totally different perspective. First of all, you have to decide which fairs to apply to, then once you are accepted, you have to decide which artists and works to bring, then you have to curate and design an appealing booth and, at the same time, comply with all the administrative duties in a timely manner. A gallery makes easily more than half of its annual revenue at an art fair and the number of collectors, curators or art advisors a gallery meets there is unquantifiable. So with the growing importance of art fairs, this all has to be taken very seriously. I know how stressful it is for a gallery to do all this. That is why, in my current role, I know exactly how to assist the galleries and make them have the best art fair experience ever.
SCOPE 2013; Courtesy SCOPE.
CS: What, in your opinion, defines a successful fair?
KDB: You can call a fair successful when galleries meet the right curators, when collectors meet great artists, when artists meet new galleries, when galleries meet buying collectors, when galleries meet interesting partner galleries, etc. It's a meeting point where art aficionados from around the world get together and a great fair should give a clear sense of what is happening in the global art world today. Of course, if galleries sell a lot of art to the right people, then you can call the fair very successful.
CS: Do you have any particularly hair raising or amusing anecdotes from your time as an art fair director? Any that you could share?
KDB: Oh, there are so many... We were once told in October (for a fair taking place in February) that the Pier was not available anymore because priority had to be given to a cruise ship. We had all the galleries signed up and all of a sudden we were homeless… That was absolutely crazy!
CS: Do you have any role models or mentors that guide your thinking or have shaped your decision-making? If so, who?
KDB: Of course all four founders of The Armory Show were my mentors, but I still feel very fortunate to have worked with Colin de Land; he was truly unique.
Portrait of Katelijne De Backer; Courtesy elk / Erin Kornfeld & Erica Leone
CS: How would you describe the difference between the culture of the art fair in which you began your career and its current state?
KDB: When I started, art fairs were purely a place for trade between art dealers and collectors. Now, it has become an event that engages the entire globe, including artists, institutions, critics, museums and the general public. The city where the fair takes place plays a larger role. Each art fair has developed an elaborate VIP program; every art organization in the city, be it a small not-for-profit or an established art institution, gets involved one way or the other. In addition, these days there is a huge competition among art fairs. In 2005 there were around sixty-eight art fairs and now it will be close to 200! Art fairs are truly in the business of shaping contemporary culture, as a whole.
(Image on top:Ayline Olukman,The Curtain, 2011; Courtesy Bertrand Gillig Gallery. At SCOPE.)