After two years away, the huge Seattle Art Fair returns to the Lumen Field Event Center July 21-24, featuring 85 local, national and international galleries over 87,000 square feet of event space. After a hiatus that saw the fair lose one of its co-producers, Vulcan, which shut down its Arts + Entertainment division in 2020, local gallery owners are calling the chance to return to the fair a breath of fresh air.

The 2020 Seattle Art Fair was originally canceled in late April 2020 due to the pandemic, with Vulcan announcing its division closure a month later. Uncertainty surrounded the future of the fair until July 2021, when Art Market Productions, a main production partner for the fair since its inception in 2015, announced that the Seattle Art Fair would return in 2022 with AMP as the sole organizer. 

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Kelly Freeman, director of AMP’s suite of art fairs, said the company was thrilled when they were asked if the Seattle Art Fair was a project they’d like to take entirely under their helm. 

“We were very, very lucky to be able to acquire the Art Fair from Vulcan,” Freeman said. “It seemed like the perfect natural progression.”

Previously, Freeman and AMP ran the exhibitor intake and retention, going out and finding galleries from around the world to bring to Seattle. AMP also worked on the fundamental building out of the event, meaning the look and feel will remain what folks who have attended in the past expect. For artists, gallery owners, collectors and attendees alike, not much has changed from previous iterations of the fair. Judith Rinehart, owner and director of Seattle’s J. Rinehart Gallery, called the transition to AMP’s role as sole organizer “seamless.”

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Like many industries, the Art Fair has felt the impact of pandemic-related shipping issues, necessitating exhibitors from outside of the Seattle area to plan far in advance to make sure work arrives on time. This year’s festival will feature exhibitors from around the world, including Japan, Taiwan, Ireland, Spain, Argentina, Canada and more. Freeman said the logistical questions around shipping has resulted in exhibitors from similar regions banding together to consolidate shipping costs by shipping artworks together. The cost benefits are great, but it’s the sense of community that Freeman really loves to see.

“One of my favorite moments in every art fair is when all of the exhibitors start gabbing with each other,” Freeman said. “You’ll see these really cool things happening from it, like joint exhibitions. It’s a really lovely part of the art fair industry.”

Despite travel concerns, Freeman said ticket sales for this year’s fair are in line with past years. The 2019 fair saw around 25,000 attendees. After two pandemic years that hammered arts organizations around the country and kept art lovers away from in-person art, Art Fair artistic director Nato Thompson said it is amazing just to be able to have the event in-person again, allowing art to be the embodied, social experience that it’s meant to be.

“To have the Art Fair back isn’t just an opportunity to see art,” said Thompson, “but probably more importantly, to see each other see art and experience these things that were civically driven.”

First time? Here’s some encouragement

For those who attend the Art Fair, it can be a great way to get to know the local art community. Thompson said the Art Fair made a bit of a pivot toward having more local artists and art space participation, calling this year’s fair a “celebration of the cultural community that exists here.”

This year’s fair will feature presentations from a slew of Seattle-area organizations, including Wa Na Wari, J. Rinehart Gallery, Pilchuck Glass School, Chihuly Garden and Glass and the Seattle NFT Museum, among others. The fair is a chance to engage with new local artists or catch the work of local artists or organizations you may have heard of but haven’t had the chance to see in person. Importantly, the chance comes in a welcoming and inclusive environment for attendees of any level of arts enthusiasm.

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“I always tell fair attendees, ‘You have access to 80 of the top minds in the contemporary art world in that room,’” Freeman said. “They know so much about the work they are showing. They shepherded these artists through their careers. They’re encyclopedias, and they’re there to speak with attendees. There’s just so much at your fingertips.”

Gallery owner Judith Rinehart knows that attending an art fair may fall outside of some people’s comfort zones, but she encourages folks to take that leap. 

“I think there’s this myth that you have to have a robust arts education to engage with artwork,” Rinehart said. “You don’t.”

What’s in store this year?

When asked what he is looking forward to at this year’s fair, Thompson referenced a friend of his who pointed to the pandemic as a sort of global boot camp on using the internet. This year’s fair will feature the Seattle NFT Museum, which opened its doors in 2022 to bring the digital art and NFT community together in a physical space; it will be presenting “Bridging the Digital and Physical: The Case for a Physical Space for NFT Art.” Additionally, Seattle nonprofit design lab Amplifier will present “The Future of Storytelling,” which will dive into storytelling, dissemination tactics and the rise of sophisticated technologies in the era of misinformation.

“I think the integration of digital stuff into the contemporary art landscape,” Thompson said, “that’s here to stay. The art world has shifted a little bit, and it’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out.”

Additional art talks and panels will be available for attendees, including the chance to attend a talk from award-winning photographer Carrie Mae Weems, who Thompson called “one of the most important artists that’s ever existed.” Overall, Thompson, who is in charge of commissions and artistic programs, said he’s excited about the talent assembled for this year’s fair.

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“I try to always focus on both thought provoking, but also pleasurable and fun,” said Thompson. “There’s a lot of eye-popping local talent highlighted that will be an exciting, strange experience, which is what art’s supposed to be.”

Rinehart said her gallery’s booth will be very Northwest specific, with all artists featured either currently living or working in the region or who have previously done so. One artwork the gallery will be presenting is Clyde Petersen’s “As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined.” Using recycled cardboard, Petersen maps their time in the Pacific Northwest in this investigation of choices, life-altering moments and the culmination of lived events.

“For Seattle as a whole, it’s so ingrained in our visual culture to have these large-scale trees,” Rinehart said.

Jim Wilcox, assistant director at Seattle’s Greg Kucera Gallery, said that when they’re looking for which work to bring to the Art Fair, they’re looking for work that will be impactful. For these artists, it’s not the full show they might get normally at a gallery or museum, so the gallery is looking for singular works that can draw people in.

For this year’s festival, they will be highlighting the work of Humaira Abid, a Seattle-based artist scheduled to have an exhibition at the gallery opening this September. Multiple works from Abid will be available to view, including folded clothes and protest signs carved into pine wood. As part of the Art Fair’s public projects, larger-scale installations of which Petersen’s will also be a part, the gallery will present Abid’s “THIS WORLD IS BEAUTIFUL, AND DANGEROUS TOO.” 

The installation features a set of swings, with each featuring a painting on the seat, and 3D wood carved elements like bloodstained shoes as Abid explores both the difficulties refugee children face and the moments of joy and escapism.

“They’re in what could be very dangerous situations,” Wilcox said, “but there’s also this wonder that a child brings to pretty much every environment they go into. It’s a really touching approach.”

Seattle Art Fair

Opening evening 6-9 p.m. Thursday, July 21; public hours: noon-8 p.m. Friday, July 22; 11 a.m. -7 p.m. Saturday, July 23; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, July 24; Lumen Field Event Center, 800 Occidental Ave. S., Seattle; masks and proof of vaccination required; $25 single day ticket, $50 fair pass (includes opening evening); 212-518-6912, seattleartfair.com

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