If you’ve spent any time on the trendy art fair go-round (Frieze, Scope, Art Basel Miami & Hong Kong) you could be forgiven for thinking the art might exist in service of the spectacle. Indeed, artnet’s Kenny Schachter recently referred to Miami as “the end of art history,” calling it, “an art market bon-bon, rich with calories but not particularly good for you.”
Standing athwart is Brussels’ Accessible Art Fair. Launched by Stephanie Manasseh in 2007 as an artist (rather than gallery) driven event, it has become the successful new art fair paradigm, handing over control to the artists themselves.
That success has also emboldened Manasseh to take on New York. She has teamed up with Maria van Vlodrop, Founder & President of New York’s MvVO Art, to bring a new version of the Accessible Art Fair to Gotham this November 1-25, taking over the storied National Arts Club on Gramercy Park. An impressively high profile jury was assembled, including Kevin Doyle of Sotherby’s, Gagosian’s Shaune Arp, artnet‘s Rozalia Jovanovic, and art advisor Joyce Varvatos.
We caught up with Manasseh, van Vlodrop and Jovanovic to discuss art, the art market, and how Accessible Art Fair just might change it all.
What has most distinguished the Accessible Art Fair Brussels these last ten years? What has it done differently?
Rozalia Jovanovic: It’s a boon for artists because it offers them a platform to show their work directly to the public, whether or not they’re represented by a gallery. And it gives the public a chance to discover artists from outside the traditional channels.
How did you come to choose the National Arts Club?
Maria van Vlodrop: What we love about the NAC is the rich history they have in the New York art world and their mission to stimulate, foster and promote public interest in the arts. We also love the idea of showcasing contemporary art in a Victorian Gothic revival brownstone in one of Manhattan’s most historic districts. This is the first time NAC is hosting an art fair.
Art Basel Miami and Frieze have become big champagne brand sponsored celebrity schmooze fests. Do you feel there is any diminishment to the art itself in that context?
Stephanie Manasseh: We wouldn’t say “diminishment to the art itself,”… but as press-driven events, of course the press covers celebrities and influencers, which can divert attention from the art. Celebrities have the income to buy art and champagne is a natural fit for discerning audiences; but the art might get lost in the party if the artists are not present…which is the case in most fairs.
RJ: The art world thrives in the social space, so art isn’t diminished by that context. I also don’t see why this new social element should alter the experience of the fairs for the industry veterans who have been doing this for decades. They’re still there pounding the pavement, looking for new work to get excited about. What maybe does affect it is when the art starts to reflect the tastes of its wealthiest collectors and becomes safe.
The 19th and 20th centuries attempted to wrestle art away from the wealthy patron model. Do you feel we’re returning to that, with all the emphasis on “the market” and on collecting the right artists?
MVV: The wealthy patron model holds a place in the art world. However, it is also a good time for artists to create relationships directly with their audience. Accessible Art Fair is supporting the discovery of great new art and its creators. But corporate sponsorship will allow more artists to be more accessible to more people. And for the brands, it’s an opportunity to engage, and engage their audience, in the discovery of new art and artists.
RJ: Under the wealthy patron model, such as existed during the Renaissance with the Medici, etc., artists generally wouldn’t create anything unless it was commissioned. But that’s not the case anymore, unless you’re talking about something that’s incredibly expensive to fabricate, like a Jeff Koons Balloon Dog – in which case wealthy patrons need to be assembled through his dealers to even get the work produced. So in some situations, it can seem similar to the wealthy patron model. But cultural institutions, not just patrons, still play a major role in the support of artists’ careers.
Are young artists prodded to make art that will sell at fairs and give them a career?
SM: It is difficult to speak for the artists – some are more influenced by trends. Others carve their own path.
RJ: Until very recently, there has been a mania for the work of young artists, and a corresponding pressure for those artists to produce a lot of work. I think the lawsuit against the twenty-something artist Ibrahim Mahama for declaring hundreds of works that were signed by him inauthentic is a good example of the pressures that young artists face today, and the vulnerable position they’re in.
Let¹s put aside the buying and selling of art. How does a work exhibited in a gallery or at a fair in New York Or London or Brussels and seen by an arguably “elite” audience, vie for cultural relevance with a YouTube posting that could go viral and be seen by millions of people all over the world in a matter of days?
RJ: For better or for worse, art is getting integrated into the world of social media. If posting a selfie from Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room installation at David Zwirner gallery happens to be the trend of the month on Instagram, I don’t see that as a bad thing. It might not generate as many hits as the Damn Daniel or Pizza Rat videos, but at the same time hundreds of people were lining up around the block each day at David Zwirner to check out the work of a Japanese conceptual artist and sharing their experience with their friends. We’re seeing blockbuster museum and gallery shows like we’ve never seen before, and it does seem like social media is playing a role in that.
Do art fairs actually “break” artists?
SM: Traditionally, art fairs are gallery-led, so they are already determining the market. At the AAF, artists have launched their careers and also have gained more confidence in their talent because they have sold artwork at the fair.
How can Accessible Art Fair challenge the New York art orthodoxy? What will be most unique about it?
MVV: The Accessible Art Fair is a disruptor because it is artist-led and removes barriers between artists and the art buying public. This is quite different from the way the majority of art is being acquired. The artists are selected based on their work and talent, not their education or pedigree.
Following on from that, other than as a market, why does art still matter?
SM: It is about having a human experience that is becoming a rarified moment in our daily lives of computers and digitized communication. Our goal is to create an environment where people can genuinely engage with the art.