Seattle Art Fair turns 5 this year. Since its 2015 founding by Paul Allen, the fair has been a huge party. Tens of thousands of people — some flying in from around the world — congregate over four days at the CenturyLink Field Event Center to check out modern and contemporary art from a hundred or so commercial galleries from cities including New York, Berlin, Tokyo and, yes, Seattle. This year, Seattle Art Fair takes place Aug. 1-4, with more than 22,500 people expected.
The fair is more than a marketplace, with daily talks, special projects and performances that reflect contemporary-art currents. This year, the fair’s artistic director, Nato Thompson, organized events around the themes of curiosity and wonder, featuring music, tech, natural history and artificial intelligence.
One curious, interactive installation that should, ahem, get a rise out of visitors is “Self Facing” by Bread Face, the social-media sensation who smashes her face in bread and records ASMR performances. (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response recordings amplify small sounds in ways that some listeners find deeply pleasurable.) In her interactive installation for the fair, people will be invited to touch and play with bread, which will then be placed on display.
But the fair isn’t just fun, baked goods and eye candy. The stakes are high for the galleries that pay a pretty penny for a “booth” (more like a minigallery space). And the stakes are high for Seattle, too. Commentators point out that a city’s ability to sustain an international-art fair is a marker of a strong art ecosystem. We have plenty of talented artists and curators, but can the fair attract enough buyers?
Seattle is sometimes considered an untapped market, with a booming economy and lots of new residents who might be tempted to buy art for the first time. Year after year, people wonder if the fair can dip into the notoriously elusive pockets of affluent tech folks.
Fair Weekend can feel like a citywide celebration, with a Sodo locus and many off-site shindigs. So, what are the must-knows and know-hows for an optimal Seattle Art Fair experience?
What — and who — is Seattle Art Fair for?
Some people come to shop, some to mingle and most, of course, to see a vast array of art in one sleek, sprawling layout.
The occasional pundit will say that art fairs are only for well-heeled collectors and the blue chip galleries that cater to them. Yes, these high-end exchanges are indispensable and, yes, the list of galleries is scrutinized every year: Which big names are coming? Which decide to stay home? This year, Gagosian (with spaces in New York, Los Angeles, London, Basel, Rome, Hong Kong and elsewhere) and David Zwirner (located in New York, London, Hong Kong and soon in Paris), which had previously bought large spaces at the front of the fair, are not participating.
The Mindy Solomon Gallery of Miami, on the other hand, has come for all five years. Owner Solomon says, “During this time I have established several regular collectors, as well as made museum and institutional sales. I enjoy introducing exciting national and international emerging artworks to an engaged audience.”
The changing roster isn’t necessarily a reflection on the viability of the Seattle Art Fair since fairs, in general, are currently in a state of flux. The number of fairs around the world more than quadrupled over the last 20 years and many dealers now limit where to fly themselves — and their art. The key, experts say, is to find that age-old balance between supply and demand.
As for hometown representation, Seattle galleries are out in force again this year, from tried and true galleries like Greg Kucera and James Harris (whose gallery is now celebrating its 20th anniversary) to the newly established J. Rinehart Gallery. There are even two galleries from the tiny town of Edison in Skagit County: Smith & Vallee and i.e.
But the Art Fair isn’t only about gallerists making sales. It’s also for those who like to suss out contemporary trends and how those interact with regional scenes. Each fair, after all, takes on its own flavor. The Seattle Art Fair, particularly since the hiring of Thompson last year, has hints of tech-love, handcraftedness and intersections between the two.
So what else is happening this year?
Thompson, in a news release, calls this year’s programming “eclectically topical.” From an earthquake-simulation installation by the artistic duo Bigert & Bergström to a talk about artificial life by artists Richard Pell and Stephanie Dinkins, the interdisciplinary offerings are supposed to reflect a response of “frenetic enthusiasm to the shifting needs of the existence around us.”
As for the commercial booths? Well, there’s no overarching theme, since galleries bring whatever work they think will sell and that best represents their brand. As a visitor, you can play the game of spotting the differences of tone and style between the booths.
It’s always fascinating to visit galleries from faraway places including, this year, Korea, Russia and Vietnam. STOA Gallery, based in Spain, is coming for the first time, bringing artwork by Spanish artists Salustiano and Conchi Álvarez and Mexican artist Astrid Sommer. About the decision to participate, gallery director María Concepción Álvarez says, “Seattle is a very important city within the arts and its location makes it a magnificent platform to gain visibility within the Asia-Pacific and Americas.”
Any more tips for navigating this massive event?
Just show up! One of the joys of an art fair — like visiting a museum — is wandering and looking. Take the pressure off and simply let your eyes lead.
Or plan ahead! Peruse the Seattle Art Fair website and take note of which talks, special events and booths you want to see. Take a look at your walls, your office, your gift-giving shopping list. Want to buy some art? Prices range from surprisingly affordable to surprisingly astronomical.
What about tickets?
Ticket prices range from $10 for a student ticket for one day to $150 for a “premium-experience” package, which includes a pass for the opening-night preview, entire weekend and access to the VIP lounge (and Champagne!). Check with local museums, galleries, and cultural institutions; many of them are offering discounted tickets.
Want to venture beyond the fair?
Good for you! The ideal scenario for our cultural community is that the Art Fair will share the spotlight and help introduce (or reacquaint) locals and out-of-towners to Seattle’s vibrant offerings. Here are a few highlights:
Pioneer Square First Thursday Art Walk is the longest established art walk in the nation; the Aug. 1 Art Walk is also connected to the opening reception for 2019’s Contemporary Northwest Print Invitational, co-organized by Davidson Galleries and Seattle Print Arts.
Now in its third year, festival:festival is a free, two-day arts, performance, and music event supporting Seattle cultural workers who have been historically underrepresented. Festival:festival will take place at the Northwest Film Forum, the new Amplifier Art Lab, and in the middle of the street on East Denny Way (between Broadway & 10th Avenue).
Wa Na Wari, the new(ish) center for black art in a home in the Central District, is opening an exhibition of work by Xenobia Bailey, known for her eclectic crochet hats and large-scale crochet mandalas.
In Georgetown, several arts organizations are throwing a multivenue event from 6-9 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 3. A free shuttle will connect Oxbow, Hoedemaker Pfeiffer, Housewright Gallery and studio e. Also participating is Base: Experimental Arts + Space which, along with On the Boards, is copresenting Morgan Thorson’s durational dance, “Still Life,” in partnership with Seattle Art Fair. It will be the last weekend to catch “Uses of History,” a group show featuring several Pacific Northwest artists at studio e gallery.
Seattle Art Fair 2019, opening night preview 6-9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 1; public hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 2; 11 a.m. -7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 3; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday Aug. 4; CenturyLink Field Event Center, 1000 Occidental Ave. S., Seattle; $10 (student one-day tickets), $35 (adult one-day tickets), $55 (three-day), $90-$150 (various packages that include opening night preview); 212-518-6912, seattleartfair.com