When the Affordable Art Fair visited Seattle Center last month, the organizers were keen to point out that our city had not hosted an art fair for many years. So imagine this: Last weekend, in the adjoining cities of Miami and Miami Beach, which even between them have a smaller population than Seattle, you could have visited any one of 24 art fairs all happening at the same time. What these fairs showed almost exclusively, and sold in huge quantities, was modern and contemporary art, or art of the 20th and 21st centuries. As a rule of thumb, the newer the art is, the more of it you’ll find in Miami.
At the heart of all of this activity is what many in the art world consider the largest and most important art fair in the world — Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB), which comprises temporary booths occupied by 250 of the world’s most successful galleries and attracted 70,000 visitors over five days.
It is not easy to get your gallery into ABMB. Not only is there a discerning and trend-conscious selection committee to satisfy, there are the unwritten rules of one of the most class-driven areas of business on earth.
Dealers who like to call themselves “blue-chip” are not inclined to share their accommodations with just anyone. And no wonder; at ABMB, the prices that the art attracts range between a few thousand and a few million dollars.
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There are no galleries from Seattle at Art Basel Miami Beach. There was, however, a significant Seattle presence in Miami last week, though to find it you had to take a step down the fairs’ hierarchy. At the Pulse fair — generally regarded as one of the best “satellite” fairs — you would have found the James Harris Gallery, and at a new fair by the name of Miami Project you’d have found gallery booths occupied by Greg Kucera and Stephen Lyons’ Platform Gallery. (If you’d happened by at the right moment you might also have bumped into Sarah Traver, who has now taken over the reins of the Traver Gallery from her fair-shy father, and who was in town to have a look at Miami Project with the aim of having a booth there next year.) These Seattle galleries all brought with them a roster of Seattle artists, from Scott Fife at Platform to Margie Livingston at Greg Kucera.
So why do these Seattle dealers think it is worth going to Miami during the first week of December? If it were just for the warm weather, there are far cheaper ways of doing it. The rent for booths at Miami Project starts at $10,000 for the five days. Then there are the costs of shipping, insurance, accommodation, and the extensive hospitality that Miami art buyers seem to expect by way of encouragement.
Lyons says that he regards his Miami booth as “a three-dimensional advertisement” for Platform. Even though he might not cover his costs in sales during the fair, his gallery and the artists he shows there come to the attention of thousands of art collectors from all over the world.
It is not an unusual occurrence for a Seattle dealer to make a sale months or years later on the basis of a connection made in Miami.
But there are also sales that are made there and then.
On the first morning of Miami Project, a Swiss collector who has previously collected the rough-hewn wooden sculptures of the English artist David Nash walked into Greg Kucera’s booth, where he saw the only vaguely similar carvings of Seattle sculptor Dan Webb for the first time. He asked Kucera a few questions about a piece called “Rock,” went off to look at the rest of the fair for a few minutes, and then came back and bought it. For $22,000.
Down the road at Harris’ booth at Pulse, there was particular interest in Karin Davie. This relative newcomer to Seattle retains a considerable following from her days based in New York. Harris pretty quickly sold Davie’s small gouache, “Liquid Life With Black Lines,” for $3,250.
The strongest Seattle connection among the art fairs is Aqua Art Miami, a small fair low in Miami’s pecking order that was founded by Seattle artists Jaq Chartier and Dirk Park with the original intention of giving galleries from Seattle a Miami presence.
Dirk’s own gallery, Prole Drift, and the Seattle artist-gallerist collective SOIL, had booths there this year. Success at Aqua is measured in different sums than those that change hands at ABMB or Miami Projects; SOIL member Christopher Buening sold more of his tinfoil sculptures of teeth than he actually exhibited, though at only $150 each. On the other hand, the fair itself was just bought by Art Miami, a much bigger and prestigious fair.
The third element
The final measure of success at an art fair is almost entirely commercial. What sells, in this context, is the very measure of what is good. Thus the necessary third element in the Miami mix alongside dealers and artists is the huge international community of art collectors that it attracts. A lot of these people like to keep their heads down, but there were probably more Seattle collectors in Miami last week than Seattle artists and dealers put together.
Or, as one of Davies’ longtime collectors, New York art consultant Kim Light, said, “Fairs are a great place to buy art. Dealers and artists specifically set aside good work to bring with them.”
Then, she added, “If ever I don’t go to a fair, I know I’ve missed something.”
Robert Ayers: email@example.com