Miami Art Fairs – Real Deal or Hype? First-Hand Perspectives from Experts and Newcomers

By Eric Hope on January 16, 2013

Several dozen artists and arts-lovers braved a cold drizzle this week to attend a lively panel discussion on how art fairs (chiefly those in Miami and New York) affect the DC arts community.  The panel discussion, titled Miami Art Fairs – Real Deal or Hype? First-Hand Perspectives from Experts and Newcomers, provided an eye-on-the-ground view of what it was like to participate at Art Basel Miami this past December.  Hosted by Hive 2.0 (an office incubator) and Arch Development in the historic Anacostia neighborhood, the discussion was the first public event for the newly formed Catalyst Projects, an artist-run group whose mission is to support a thriving DC art community while pushing it to explore beyond the boundaries of the District proper. (In the interest of full disclosure, Catalyst Projects member Gail Vollrath contributes to East City Art).

Standing far left: Zofie Lang.Seated (from left): Lenny Campello, Tim Tate, Sean Hennessey, Shaunte Gates, Adah Rose Bitterbaum
Standing far left: Zofie Lang.
Seated (from left): Lenny Campello, Tim Tate, Sean Hennessey, Shaunte Gates, Adah Rose Bitterbaum

Catalyst co-founder Zofie Lang kicked off the event with panelist introductions.  Seated around the table were well-known DC glass artists Tim Tate and Sean Hennessey along with mixed-media artist Shaunte Gates.  Gallery owner Adah Rose Bitterbaum (of the Adah Rose Gallery in Kensington, MD) discussed her experiences as a first-time fair participant, while artist/gallerist/dealer Lenny Campello provided his insight into how the fairs have grown over time.

In her opening comments, Lang gave the audience a quick primer on Art Basel Miami, noting that the annual fair has become a conglomeration of several art fairs with Art Basel Miami at its epicenter.  Founded in 1970 in Basel, Switzerland, Art Basel expanded to Miami in 2002 and will open an inaugural exhibition this year in Hong Kong.  In just a decade, the umbrella of Art Basel Miami has expanded to include over 23 satellite fairs in venues (mainly hotels) adjacent to the Miami Beach Convention center (the host location for ABM).  Panelists participated in three of these satellite fairs.

Given the logistics and costs, a gallery owner’s decision to show at an art fair is not taken lightly.  Bitterbaum described the research she undertook to decide which fair suited best suited her needs as a first-time vendor.  She contacted ten galleries in New York and Los Angeles and the feedback she received was that Pulse Miami would best suit her needs.  She ended up showing at the Impulse show, a section of Pulse which presents solo exhibitions from emerging galleries.  In order to apply, she had to present a complete exhibition schedule a year in advance.  For Bitterbaum, the cost and work to attend the show were worth it.  “I can sit in my gallery for a month and get ten guests, or see 4,000 people in one day,” she told the audience.  She noted that her artist, Jessica Drenk, also attended the fair and participated in installation – a big help to a fledgling gallery. Indeed, having the artist in attendance and providing detailed information (well-written artistic statement, etc.) was important in her being able to market her artist’s work.

Campello noted that there is a hierarchy of sorts when it comes to the plethora of Miami fairs.  Art Basel sits at the top as perhaps the most highly regarded, with Pulse coming in close behind.  He exhibited at another well-regarded fair, Aqua, where he has shown previously (and had his best sales ever he noted).  Campello provided the audience with a greater understanding of the financial risks galleries take to exhibit at fairs, noting that booth costs in Miami range from $5,000 at smaller satellite shows up to around $15,000 for Art Basel Miami.  These figures don’t include costs such as transportation and lodging for staff or freighting fees for artworks.  And yet Miami (and New York) continue to generate a critical mass of consumers willing to spend; Campello stated that based on sales tax figures, 15%-20% of all yearly art world sales occur over this long weekend in Miami Beach.

Gates and Hennessey both spoke eloquently about what it was like to be a first-time participant in Miami while Tate, a returning exhibitor, gave the audience a first-hand perspective of how fairs operate.  Gates exhibited in a four-person show at the Select art fair, an emerging-artist fair near the convention center.  Hennessey participated in Mr. Campello’s group exhibition at Aqua.  This year Tate exhibited with an Irish gallery at Art Miami.  As newcomers, Gates and Hennessey highlighted the fact that the networking and connections made where a highlight of the trip (even in the face of lackluster sales for Hennessey).  Gate’s booth received a write-up by the New York Times – a coup for an artist at any stage of their career.  Hennessey told the audience his goal was to balance a desire to see as much art as possible whilst still being available at Aqua to interact with perspective patrons.

With venues scattered all over Miami Beach, this requires scheduling acumen; Tate recommended artists interested in exhibiting at a big fair weekend like Miami actually attend once prior to exhibiting just to get one’s feet wet.  He went on to stress the importance of maintaining a presence at your own fair to court buyers.  Tate provided the most amusing anecdote of the evening.  He had not worked with this gallery prior to the fair, and when he arrived in Miami, his gallerist requested that stay at least two rows away from the booth to “promote an air of mystery”.  Tate bemusedly complied, but was critical of the experience.  In a setting where, “you almost have to stand there and lob urine-filled water balloons at people [not to make a sale]”, Tate did not close any deals.  His hard-lesson advice for the audience was to work closely with a dealer you know and trust.

The moderator took questions from the audience that ranged from how sales prices are determined fairs to which galleries in D.C. regularly attend these events.  Prices at fairs, says Campello, should be the same as for an exhibition in an artist’s home city; “The artist should not be competing with themselves,” he stated.  Tate jumped in to state that what is important, long-term, is to see a gradual price appreciation over time rather than sharp spikes.

The five panelists were all pleased at the number of DC-based artists they saw exhibiting and attending throughout the weekend.  It was wryly noted at several points during the hour that though DC has a plethora of wealthy patrons and a well-developed network of curators and arts professionals, the cognoscenti tend to overlook local talent and venues in favor of travelling to larger art “hubs” and national fairs for their acquisitions.  Tate noted though that this dynamic is slowly shifting, which ultimately is good news for our community.  The next time one of these high-profile collectors makes a purchase, perhaps they will drive across town rather than fly across country!

For more information about Catalyst Projects, visit their facebook page here.