If you want a quick snapshot of how contemporary art fairs have changed in recent years-moving from a clubby way of sharing resources to an essential part of how galleries do business-New York's Armory Show fits the bill. In 1994, it debuted in a run-down hotel as the Gramercy International-a scrappy gathering of dealers trying to drum up business during a tough art market recession. By 1999, the little enterprise had metamorphosed into the slicker, more professionalized Armory Show, and in 2007 it was bought by the trade show corporation Merchandise Mart Properties (which also owns Art Chicago and the International Antiques Show, among others).
From Mar. 5 to 8, the Armory returns to the piers on Manhattan's west side, promising 240 exhibitors-176 devoted to contemporary art on Pier 94, and another 64 in a brand-new section for modern masters on Pier 92. It arrives hot on the heels of another major New York fair-the Art Show, sponsored by the Art Dealers Association of America (Feb. 19-23)-and comes surrounded by satellite fairs, including Armory affiliate Volta, plus Scope, Pulse, Bridge and Red Dot, and others.But amid the usual hype of "bigger and better than ever," there's one tiny drawback: the economy, which last fall cast a pall over Frieze in London and Art Basel Miami Beach. Although the downturn for both was less severe than feared, dealers are entering the current season with diminished expectations. And according to Los Angeles's Marc Foxx, a member of the Armory selection committee, the mood has actually grown more optimistic. Whether for good or ill, he says, "the financial situation will be somewhat clearer by the time this fair opens."
Giovanni Garcia-Fenech, communications director for the fair, concurs. "We had a number of people drop out really early on because of their concerns about the economy," he recalls. (He adds that the fair experienced something similar in the wake of 9/11.) Fair organizers then began going down the waiting list and assigning smaller booths. "But after FIAC in Paris and Art Basel Miami Beach, people were feeling reassured and they wanted back in, so we had to accommodate them. That's why there are more exhibitors this year than last."
Still, ask a handful of dealers how they are re-strategizing and you get a range of responses. The knee-jerk reaction to a downturn, of course, is to approach a fair more conservatively. London-based dealer Kenny Schachter predicts that "galleries will show safer, more recognizable artists with more palatable subject matter," adding, "they are already bringing smaller, more portable works to cut down on shipping, which one cannot imagine the costs of."
Yet many in the business have observed that the spoils sometimes go to galleries that take the biggest risks, such as Chelsea-based Schroeder Romero, which last December, amid convulsing financial markets, decided to stick with the larger Pulse Miami booth it had chosen earlier in the year, and took oversize work, including a 9-foot-tall tapestry by Andy Diaz Hope and Laurel Roth, a wall installation of text pieces by William Powhida, and a 10½-foot-wide, three-panel drawing by Michael Waugh. "Right before the fair started we were a little nervous," said Sara Jo Romero, "but we decided to take a chance." Sales were strong and "almost all were to new clients."
Chelsea dealer David Zwirner says that quality will be key. Today, he says, "the active collectors are the seasoned ones and they know a good work from a not-so-good work." At the Armory, Zwirner will keep his prices moderate-$50,000 to $250,000, as he claims he's always done for this fair-for work by such artists as John McCracken, Thomas Ruff, Francis Alÿs and Adel Abdessemed. For the Art Show [which took place after this issue went to press], Zwirner was planning a slightly different approach: a solo show from the estate of abstractionist Al Taylor, with works ranging from $10,000 to 200,000. "Solo shows seem to be a smart way to go," and, he suggests, it's important "not to only worry about sales, but to connect with curators."
Indeed, solo shows and tightly themed booths are gaining favor. James Cohan was preparing a themed exhibition for this year's Art Show, "Body as Prop," which was to include works by Bill Viola, Trenton Doyle Hancock and Vito Acconci. Like some well-established dealers, partner Jane Cohan feels that a slight slowdown in the market isn't so bad. "The flip side of this financial disaster," she says, "is an opportunity to get back to some of the values that made us get into art, by engaging the viewer on a different level."
Judy Lybke, the owner of EIGEN + ART in Berlin, usually does solo shows for Frieze and the Armory because of the presence of curators and others affiliated with international museums. Mounting a defining solo show is also a savvy way for a European dealer to maintain control of an artist's market in the U.S. For example, Lybke, who has reportedly been besieged by galleries wanting to represent Matthias Weischer, is turning his Armory booth over to the hot Leipzig artist. Time will tell whether any of these dealers' strategies pays off.
Above: Sterling Ruby, SP54, spray paint on canvas, 2008, courtesy Marc Foxx