Artworks are being flown in from overseas, the showroom has been spruced up, and ticket sales have begun for the Armory Show, which is poised to become the first major American art fair to return amid the pandemic when it opens on September 9 in a new location at the new location Javits Convention Center.
“We have to be prepared for everything,” said fair managing director Nicole Berry in a telephone interview. “We are hosting this event and we have a plan A, B, C, D and E.”
When plans for the Armory Show came together earlier this year, Berry envisioned the fair as the anchor of the fall art season, symbolizing the art world’s triumphant return to personal selling and browsing. She planned to open nearly all of her event, welcoming thousands of visitors to browse the works of nearly 500 artists presented by more than 200 galleries from 37 countries.
“We believe NYC will emerge stronger than ever from this pandemic,” said Berry at the time, describing the fall season as a “crucial moment when the city’s cultural organizations reopen.”
Then came a summer resurgence of the coronavirus, stagnating vaccination rates, and travel restrictions that prevented many galleries from participating in the typically economic engine of the art market. And earlier this month, several trade shows decided to cancel their shows, making the champagne and oyster shell celebrations of the past seem unlikely. The New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, the New York International Auto Show and PAD London, an art and design fair, have decided to forego their 2021 editions.
The Armory Show continues to intend to feature dealers such as David Zwirner, Stephen Friedman and Marianne Boesky, and to showcase key artists such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Deborah Roberts and Jeffrey Gibson. But not all are on board. Almost a quarter of the more than 200 exhibitors have postponed attending the physical show due to travel restrictions – even though they will attend online. Gallery representatives who cannot attend will carry over registrations to next year’s edition, Berry said.
Some European collectors wishing to attend the fair have their own contingency plans. Alain Servais, a Belgian investment banker and collector, has considered spending two weeks in Mexico to bypass travel restrictions in his home country to enter the United States. “This is nonsense and something few people can afford,” he said. “So the American art world will be largely left alone for the time being.”
According to the Art Basel and UBS Art Market 2021 report, sales at global art fairs reached an estimated $ 16.6 billion in 2019, nearly 43 percent of annual retail sales. That percentage was cut in half during the pandemic, when more than 60 percent of art fairs around the world canceled events and dealers found ways to reach customers online.
“When the vaccine first became widely available, it seemed like a switch was flicking and suddenly everything was going around – including large public gatherings like trade shows,” said Natasha Degen, chair of art market studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Events like the Armory Show will attract a core group of actors in the art world, but not the wider audience that has given the fairs their energy in recent years.”
The Armory Show organizers said the bulk of ticket sales happen just before the event and without a reservation, so it’s hard to say how full the showroom floor will be. In a typical year, the show welcomes around 54,000 people during its run, but the pandemic has resulted in some health and safety measures that could limit the crowd. This includes a mask requirement within the exhibition, time-limited tickets and either proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours of entering the Javits Center. Two other fairs that open the same week have adopted the same guidelines: the Spring / Break Art Show at 625 Madison Avenue and the Future Fair at 601 West 26th Street. However, visitors wishing to visit Independent at the Battery Maritime Building and Art on Paper at Pier 36 must be vaccinated.
Despite setbacks and uncertainty, the Armory Show continues with a program revamping its model. The new location in the Javits Center enables trade fair organizers to combine their areas of modern and contemporary art under one roof. The fair is also investing more heavily in public art and is launching a new program called Armory Off-Site, which has commissioned four artists, with the help of community groups such as the Parks Department, the Hudson River Park Trust, and the Hell’s Kitchen Alliance.
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One of the off-site programs is at Pier 64, where artist Katja Larsson presents “New Neo Classics”, a series of sculptures that give everyday objects such as a crumpled baseball cap an aura of antiquity reminiscent of the ancient Egyptian fragmented statues Metropolitan Museum of Art found. Another off-site work will feature a large RV parked on Astor Place, where artists Johnny DeFeo and Aaron Zulpo from a collective called the Guild of Adventure Painters are holding painting sessions with visiting artists and sharing an exhibition of new work.
In Chelsea, the Future Fair rebuilt its program from the ground up after postponing its inaugural edition last year due to the pandemic. Almost half of the show’s presenters are unable to attend and are being replaced with new galleries. Of the new list of 34 exhibitors, 25 percent are owned by People of Color and half are owned by women – a rarity in the world of art fairs that lacks diversity.
“We have been working on it since 2018 and it was an affair of the heart,” said Rachel Mijares Fick, one of the organizers of the Armory Show, about the fair. “There were moments when we asked ourselves, how are we going to get through this?”
A similar question floated through the minds of other gallery owners who had to make a decision about whether to attend the Armory Show.
“It was a disappointment that we wouldn’t make it this year,” said Nadia Gerazouni, whose Athens gallery The Breeder decided to participate online. The Armory Show would have been the trader’s first physical show since the pandemic began and an opportunity to introduce her young artists to the American market. A few other galleries have chosen to hire proxies to run their stands, but Gerazouni was skeptical. “It is not possible for a new employee to just show up and take on the job of a gallery director,” she said.
Daniel Faria, a Toronto-based dealer, is determined to make the Armory Show successful for the sake of his artists. Last year, Jennifer Rose Sciarrino was scheduled to attend the Frieze Sculpture at Rockefeller Center when the program shifted due to the pandemic. She lost that opportunity but will have another chance to exhibit through the Armory Show.
“We have a responsibility to show their work,” said Faria, who is preparing to wear an N95 mask on the exhibition floor for safety reasons.
“To say that I am 100 percent comfortable wouldn’t necessarily be true,” he added. “But at this point we made a pledge to go, and it would be some time before the Armory Show itself was canceled so we wouldn’t go.”
The Armory Show runs September 9-12; Tickets are available at thearmoryshow.com.
Independent art fair, 9.-12. September; Tickets are available from independighq.com.
Future fair, 9.-12. September; Tickets are available on futurefairs.com.
Art on paper, 9th-12th centuries September; Tickets are available at thepaperfair.com.
Spring / Break Art Show, 8.-13. September; Tickets are available at springbreakartshow.com.