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Visual Arts

What’s Going on With the Dallas Art Fair?

The Fair offered credits, not refunds, to exhibitors. Now 34 galleries are threatening not to return.
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A rough year just got rougher in the Dallas arts scene. The Dallas Art Fair, originally scheduled for April, then made into a digital event, then rescheduled for October, has officially been canceled for 2020. That’s not particularly surprising, considering. But now 34 galleries that would have participated are asking that the art fair reimburse their exhibitor fees–or risk losing the relationship with those galleries forever.

The gallerists sent a letter to fair founder and chairman John Sughrue in response to the decision to offer exhibitors credit for future fairs rather than a refund. The group says that if that doesn’t change, they plan to take further action–and skip future editions of the lauded event. 

“We are not in the financial position to issue cash refunds to our dealers, but in the spirit of collaboration, have offered dealers credits equal to their payments to be used at future fairs,” reads a statement from the DAF. 

The fair had collected 60 percent of the booth fees, adding up to about $1 million. Those funds have since been spent on salaries, office expenses, marketing, and some production costs. Some of the galleries are angry that the Dallas Art Fair hasn’t followed the example of more established fairs, like Art Basel and Frieze, which fully refunded exhibitors after coronavirus-induced cancelations. 

“The Dallas Art Fair is a small, independent business, and our revenue base is less than many of our participating gallerists. Despite that, we have continuously provided a vital service to our dealers in facilitating access to an ever-growing and enthusiastic collector community. Comparisons of our financial capabilities to those of the Basel and Frieze fairs, while flattering, are misguided,” fair representatives said in a statement. 

Barry Whistler Gallery is the only local exhibitor to have signed the letter, which also included Galerie Lelong & Co., Carlos/Ishikawa, James Cohan, and Richard Saltoun, among others. Whistler is hesitant to disclose how negotiations are going–or whether or not his gallery will return to the Dallas Art Fair in future years–and would only say that the parties are still in conversation to find a resolution.

For other local galleries, the news that the Dallas Art Fair wasn’t offering refunds was certainly a hard loss, but they appreciate that the fair has offered some kind of reimbursement. 

“The solution that the Dallas Art Fair has presented to me is going to work,” says gallery owner Erin Cluley, one of the exhibitors who had not yet paid in full. “It’s just so unfortunate for everyone involved. This is a hard time for galleries, of course …  but it’s also really unfortunate for the fair, too, especially that they had to decide to cancel so close to the fair actually happening. Expenses are being paid well ahead of the event, and so I know that it’s a tough situation for them financially.” 

The majority of participating Dallas galleries, like Cluley, did not sign the letter. The gallery is not requesting a refund nor is it threatening to pull out from future editions of the fair. For them, the Dallas Art Fair is a valuable event for finding new clients and contacts. They also support the impact it has on the local arts landscape. 

“I didn’t want to seem like I wasn’t standing in solidarity with these other galleries, but at the same time, as galleries here in Dallas, we’re really immersed in the community and all the relationships of various things, including the Dallas Art Fair,” says Cluley.

She spoke with some fellow local gallerists who were also willing to work the fair’s offer of credit; most of those galleries would be returning next year, anyway. For exhibitors traveling from Tokyo or London, the deal doesn’t make as much sense. “In the future, I know that some of these New York galleries, or other out of state or international galleries, it may not be economically advantageous for them to participate in this fair.” 

The pandemic just made that reality more visible. So, what will the Dallas Art Fair look like next year? Most likely a smaller, scaled-down event than the behemoth Dallasites have gotten used to in the past couple years. 

The fair closed out its statement in response to the gallerists’ letter with a subtle hint of shade: “We will continue to build the Dallas Art Fair working in concert with dealers with whom our relationships run deep and strong characterized by a shared mission to contribute to the cultural vitality of Dallas and Texas. Those dealers willing to invest in our community are the ones rewarded with the support of our community.”

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