The Uncertain Fate of the Dallas Art Fair
Artist and FrontRow critic Richard Patterson warns that organizers have only one more chance to get the the city’s annual art fair right.
Fifty-five art dealers from 18 cities came to our fair city in February for the second annual Dallas Art Fair. The event was more than a curiosity to me, as my London dealer, Tim Taylor, hung one of my paintings at the fair, which was staged in downtown’s Fashion Industry Gallery. Too, I saw the fair as a good lens with which to scrutinize my adopted hometown of Dallas.
So three questions and three possible answers: what is an art fair? What does having one mean for Dallas? And was it any good?
What is an art fair? (And from here I will adopt the voice of Miss Jean Brodie, from the Muriel Spark book: “Now, girls, pay attention! You brazen little hussies.”) An art fair is a place where the international art world congregates to sell its wares, to make connections and build relationships. It is a place where art can be tested both in terms of its aesthetic and commercial value. It is a place that disseminates the very idea of art to a broad audience, which can, if it has the inclination and the funds, purchase—and hence patronize—the cultural exchanges that define a fair. A fair can act as a barometer for trends in art’s substance, its meaning, its increasing commodification, and the manner in which it is displayed—which in itself can be an indicator of its current cultural worth.
To be clear: commerce is good for art. Art’s monetary value sometimes clouds its real value, but mercantile cities have historically proven to be hotbeds of cultural exchange and learning. Venice, Rotterdam, Paris, New York, London, Berlin—you know the list.
What does the Dallas Art Fair mean for Dallas?
If ever there was a case for being careful for what you wish, this may be it. Several of Dallas’ biggest collectors mysteriously vanished during the fair, possibly pacing some corridor or other like nervous, expectant parents, wondering what havoc the fair may wreak on literally decades of careful collecting, museum finessing, and city building.
So let’s be clear about one essential point: this is the Dallas Art Fair in name only. It does not mean that the fair is about exclusively promoting Dallas art, and this should absolutely not be a vehicle for sleepy regionalist thinking and self-indulgence. The fair—like all others—is designed to draw outsiders into Dallas as well as to galvanize Dallas from within. This has a hugely beneficial cross-fertilizing effect, and it oxygenates the city’s culture. It connects individuals from all over the world and has an invaluable spillover for the city.
For all these reasons, it is critical that the fair is of the highest standard. Gaile Robinson, the art critic for the Star-Telegram, has suggested I am an advocate of raising the bar to unrealistic heights. Other quarters have left that same bar at ground level for fear that even the mildest elevation will result in a great pile of tumbling bodies.
Since arriving here, I have repeatedly heard the phrase “We must take baby steps” in relation to Dallas’ art and culture. To which I say: “Time to step into Daddy’s shoes, ready or not.” The world is too competitive not to, and third chances are rare.
So back at the fair: we’re on year two. Year one had a get-out-of-jail-free card because Lehman Brothers had just collapsed, and, frankly, everyone was so traumatized that the fair could simply have been a meet-and-greet and it would have sufficed. And so it was. Year one was good for Dallas, but, then, it was a complete novelty. No one expected sales, even though money changed hands; and enough sales were made for many to come back, while one or two of the very best galleries did not return.
Pay attention, Emily! Annabelle, stop fidgeting! There is a snag. The fair is so far extremely patchy in terms of quality, and it cannot afford the luxury of being a catchall. Why, for example, were there private secondary dealers in the fair who don’t represent artists at all and therefore have limited overhead and investment in any artists? Why so many abysmal or very mediocre galleries merely displaying tired-looking consigned inventory in poorly arranged stands? To those who know, this is not exciting. Art emanates from real people’s energy and ideas, promoted by real people and their ideas. It is not just about the art objects as discrete tokens or trophies. Filling the Fashion Industry Gallery space at any cost did damage that was almost instantaneous and hard to undo. Casual and benevolent Dallas art world rubberneckers thought the fair marvelous, jolly, and very successful. People who had little interest in contemporary art no doubt found it utterly mystifying. The participants who will ultimately underwrite its success are more critical.
As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg likes to advise, always be building. And to this end, next year’s fair has to be significantly more impressive.
The organizers and participants have to consider the hard facts. Was it good enough when judged against other comparable fairs? It seemed almost like a boutique fair, as one experienced Dallas dealer put it to me. But I feel strongly that organizers have only one more chance to get it right. After that, it may be dead in the water.
However, due to a unique situation among the collector base here, Dallas holds a trump card in its hand. There is warmth and cohesion in the Dallas art world that is discussed and envied from afar. At the highest level, an extraordinary degree of cooperation and forward thinking has set a precedent that is already being emulated by younger collectors here. People ask not what Dallas can do for them, but what they can do for Dallas (slightly nauseating, but mostly true).
It is this community spirit that drew the two London galleries, for example. The big Dallas collectors opened their collections to tours. Some of the host collectors showed extraordinary generosity and hospitality to their guest dealers. For a weekend trip to Houston, one prominent Dallas collector loaned my dealer, Tim, and me a swiftmobile so elegant and perfect that Tim, in his inimitable British way, was compelled to name it the most “f--- off” car he’d ever driven. It is such acts of disarming friendliness that could perhaps ensure repeat visits. The more high-profile dealers who risked the higher overhead of getting here did so because of relationships with clients previously forged. The experienced out-of-town dealers who did well at the Dallas Art Fair did so because they have invested time for many years in relationships within the city. They are nuanced players who worked far in advance to guarantee success. But to attract more from farther afield, the fair has to grow in its sophistication. And don’t forget: they all know each other and solicit each other’s opinions. A couple of poor reports is all it takes to turn prospective dealers away from Dallas.
Here’s what needs to change: the opening night felt too gala-like and lacking in urgency right from the front door. Dallas threw itself headlong into the social aspect and not the nitty-gritty. Hence a bottleneck of catering and drinks in the entrance that forced people to congregate and party long before they even entered the fair proper. This layout represented a missed opportunity, and it sent the wrong signal. Opening night is traditionally the biggest selling opportunity. Dignified senior collectors have been known to don running shoes and sprint to certain booths in the good old days at the big fairs. (One famous collector once blagged his way in ahead of time disguised as a janitor in order to get the jump.) More focus, and less fluff. You get drunk afterward, not before.
Next, the space is not ideal in many ways. The upstairs space feels purposeful, despite a regrettably low ceiling. Conversely, the downstairs space is way too eccentric and funky. Downstairs galleries therefore felt less serious, which is an unfair disadvantage to those exhibiting there. The placement of galleries needs to be more considered. If there is inevitably a range in quality, then don’t put the worst next to the best. This is bad for both of them.
There were a few obvious mistakes. None of the advertising in art magazines listed the participating galleries. Given that there were some big galleries, this was an inexcusable lost PR opportunity for this year and next. The fair-organized tours did nothing to include participating galleries from afar, another black mark that made the fair feel parochial and gauche.
But by far the biggest issue, and this is make or break: the fair has to be curated properly next year through application instead of slightly random or desperate invitation. If they can’t guarantee that more respected, bigger galleries will participate, the Dallas Art Fair will be an entirely meaningless hoedown by year four and gone by year five. One of the London galleries will probably return; the other may well not. Rhona Hoffman from Chicago was here last year but declined this year. For the fair, this is very much a case of three strikes and you’re out.
Most people sold enough to break even; some did not and some did better. There were some six-figure sales (with other prices going as low as a few hundred dollars). But consider this: the fair was being scoped out by people who would be invisible to many. Michael Fuchs, a top Berlin dealer, and Lorcan O’Neill, the No. 1 Irishman in Rome, were here probing the fair as nonparticipants. The internationally acclaimed and senior artist Michael Craig-Martin was in town for his show at Kenny Goss, and both men attended the fair. Art fairs provide such possibilities for the coalescing of activities and opportunities. But all of these people and others watched and assessed carefully and reported home.
The fair was bigger this year, but the overall quality was no higher than last year, and it is still short of a benchmark even for a smaller fair. Remember, this is not the No. 2 or 3 fair in Miami; this is the Dallas fair, and it needs to measure up as such. The best five or six Texas galleries looked fresher to me than some of the second-fiddle participating New York galleries. But there was way too much hokey stuff, some of which came from Texas and some of which was from elsewhere. The hokey stuff is fine for hokesters, but it will (and already has) drive(n) away serious players. And the serious players are not necessarily the biggest. Lora Reynolds from Austin is a case in point. She has one of the best Texas galleries and looked excellent both years, so we need to keep her. All galleries require visibility, but only on the right terms. If the context of the fair has a tarnishing effect rather than a polishing one, then good galleries will shy away.
Dallas does not have a collector base that’s big enough to support a whole fair. It is certainly not the responsibility of the big collectors to buoy it up. The middle-tier Dallas collectors—of whom there are only a handful—have to this point provided adequate buoyancy. But the key will be drawing more collectors from out of town, not relying heavily on our home team.
The fair must get higher-grade galleries next year or it will fail. It’s do or die time. And be ruthless with the locals from both here and there. Of course Dallas and Texas should have a presence in the fair, but not at any cost.
The only way to promote the region is to include the very best and cut away the dead limbs. It’s what you have to do with plants, too. It’s fairly basic.
Home time. And no running in the corridors, girls.
Richard Patterson is a painter who has exhibited internationally with group shows too numerous to list here.
Sticks and Stones: a Rebuttal From Chris Byrne
I agree with several of Richard Patterson’s criticisms, but the overriding problem—which he either fails to recognize or chooses not to address—is that the Dallas Art Fair has to represent more than his or a select group of collectors’ tastes (no matter how well-received these individuals’ contributions have been by the community).
The fair’s goal has never been to mimic or to try to duplicate Miami Basel. It has been, instead, to provide a strong roster of national (and now international) exhibitors for our regional audience. The assumption that Patterson makes—that fairs are hyper-retail experiences for collectors who ideally begin each preview by running to certain exhibitors’ booths—is something that I strongly challenge (and in fact, the prefabness of the “mega fair” with its “super sales” may—in subsequent years—be viewed as a cartoonish anomaly). To my mind, our exhibitors’ primary role is to cultivate friendships and professional relationships with collectors and institutions in the area.
The tacit criterion for the Dallas Art Fair exhibitors is that they are already working with collectors, museums, or have some pre-existing connection to the community. I may not personally respond to the work in a particular gallery, but if it’s strongly recommended by one of the members of the community, it should be invited to participate. As for the inclusion of Texas galleries and dealers, their presence guarantees an important segment of the local and regional audience. (Again, why have a fair in Dallas that is indistinguishable from any other fair in the country?) I do think that there is tremendous potential to adapt and grow; Tony Meier’s installation of Donald Moffett’s work is an example of the Dallas Art Fair at its best (Moffett will have a one-person show at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston next year).
The danger of trying to put together the “ideal” art fair is that unless it becomes a meaningful experience for the attending audience, it is only a hollow and self-congratulatory exercise for the organizers. An art fair does not exist in a vacuum, and it makes no sense to “curate” it in that manner (also, anyone who has ever perused back issues of Artforum can attest to the short shelf life of some of the most sought-after artists and prestigious galleries of their time). Unfortunately, what Patterson seems to be unwittingly advocating—like many self-appointed tastemakers and guardians of culture—is the Crate & Barrel, one-size-fits-all approach (i.e., any fair to his liking should work in any city). And this is simply not the case.
Saying this, and recognizing Patterson as a member of the local art community, we welcome his specific recommendations with regard to next year’s Dallas Art Fair.
For the record: both the ADAA’s The Art Show and The Armory Show accept private dealers. The two private dealers who participated in this year’s Dallas Art Fair were from Texas. Also, it is my understanding that the collectors that Patterson obliquely makes reference to had prior commitments (both nationally and internationally) the weekend of the fair.
Chris Byrne is the Dallas Art Fair co-founder, chairman of the board of the American Visionary Art Museum, and an internationally recognized art consultant and dealer.