Can an art fair be a site not only for commerce but also critical engagement? Can it include some of today’s most relevant, interesting, and ambitious artists and thinkers? Dr. Horowitz thinks so, and he’s made it his mission as the Armory Show’s newly hired Managing Director to prove it’s not just possible; it’s doable. As a patron of scores of art fairs who has never had the purchasing power to do more than look, I am hopeful.
In his book, “The Art of the Deal,” Dr. Horowitz describes art fairs as “near perfect embodiments of the experience economy’s penetration into the cultural sector.” This is a radically different perspective than that held by the founding fathers of the contemporary art fair—they called it a Kunstmarkt—who were looking for a way to energize sales. What Dr. Horowitz is selling, according to the late twentieth-century theory of Experience Economy, is not artwork per se but a memorable event. When we buy our tickets, what we’re paying for is a memory—one we’ll cherish, blog about, describe at the next party, and potentially renew in twelve months. It's an experience carousel that goes round and round. And if such is the case, and it certainly seems to be as most of us are not part of the 1% buying art, then what, other than the allure of ultra-consumption, lies at the core of this experience?
Theaster Gates, House of Shine, 2010, Illuminated LED sign, stell and aluminum, 20"x14"x8". Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Berlin | Chicago.
It’s highly likely that, among the images we’ll store in our memory banks, one or two will be the work of this year’s commissioned artist, Theaster Gates, who was unanimously chosen to shape the fair’s visual identity. Like Dr. Horowitz, Gates is a man with a highly distinguished educational background that informs much of his current practice. He’s also slightly controversial in that he never really emerged; rather, he rose from the lowly rank of art-world nobody to become one of the most highly sought after contemporary artists in about four years. Dizzying and rubric-defying.
Ascent aside, the question is what kind of experience Gates’s art provides? Steeped in civil rights era politics and public engagement, you might say it’s about social responsibility, the sort of work that makes you feel wholesome, like the “farm-to-table” fare catered this year by Great Performances. Whether Gates can successfully graft his image of commercial strength and social consciousness onto the body of an art fair stands to be seen. But let’s be honest, we’re not going to critically engage with a Gates image on an advertisement; that won’t move us, even if we know the coil of hose in the picture references a scene in history that probably would raise some hackles. No, our chance to engage Gates will be far less superficial. I understand he’s planning on commandeering one of the cafes to stage a performative, participation-based intervention. As Gates is a powerful performer, this has the potential to be an experience worth recounting, perhaps even worth the cost of entry.
The Open Forum, a series of panels and lectures organized by the independent curator Amanda Parmer, will provide another opportunity to immerse oneself in Gates’s politically charged ideas of what art can be. Here Gates will sit with LaToya Ruby Fraiser (who has been chosen for the 2012 Whitney Biennial) and professor Sharon Zukin, to discuss how artists can affect issues surrounding healthcare, class systems, and the environment. If the politically neutral art fair blunts the politics of Gates’s work, this talk, “The Efficacy of Art to Incite Structural Change,” will be where those beliefs may become sharply defined. Grab your seat.
Jennifer Dalton, What are We not Shutting Up About? (Five Months of Status Updates and Responses from Jerry Saltz's Facebook Wall), 2010 (Detail - Color Keys), Acrylic paint, pencil and ink on watercolor paper, 54 x 196 in. Photograph by Genevieve Hanson
When I asked Dr. Horowitz about his vision for the fair he spoke of a return to the Armory’s original mission as “a place to discover the most ambitious art being made today.” That probably won’t happen on Pier 92 where the focus is on Modern art of historical significance. Odds are better in the contemporary section on Pier 94. One place to look will be the Winkleman Gallery’s booth where Edward Winkleman is presenting a solo installation by the graph-and-chart artist, Jennifer Dalton, whose work is openly critical of the art market. Dalton will debut a few new pieces, and one Winkleman couldn’t discuss—he and his staff are sworn to secrecy—that involves “a challenging but charming” interaction with the public. If Dalton’s collaboration with William Powhida at last year’s Seven art fair in Miami is any indication of what she has planned, then we might expect some fairly cheeky antics designed to make us question the myriad inequalities and social hierarchies that exist around art fair culture. If you visited Dalton and Powhida around lunchtime in Miami, they’d offer you free pizza. If you visited afterwards you’d see their latest sculpture: an empty pizza box.
If, however, you are like me and find that critical engagement is often a matter of discussion, of hashing out with your friends what you’ve just seen or done or touched, then a place to take a break and talk about the art is as crucial as the art itself. To this end the architectural team, Bade Stageberg Cox, who designed the layout of the fair with a focus on social exuberance, has our best experience in mind. When asked what aspect of their design most excited them Stageberg replied that “one of the furniture installations for a coffee bar had taken on a life of its own.” If you enliven the context of a discussion will it reflect on the creativity of the discourse? One might locate the coffee bar and find out.
Very soon we will be able to judge for ourselves whether or not Dr. Horowitz and his Armory team have been able to craft an experience we will remember differently from years past. Will this be a fair where the possibilities of learning, thinking, debating, and relaxing are not only accounted for but highlighted? Will our eyes and minds be opened? Or crushed by the cynicism—what Dalton calls the “disgusting scheme"—that often surrounds art fair culture? For those of us who attend primarily for the experience, we will have much to talk about. Get out your dollars - this may be our fair.