Imagine you’re a wealthy art lover looking for something new for your collection. You might get on a private jet to swing by Art Basel in Switzerland or Frieze New York to pick up a Basquiat. Or maybe you have a relationship with a gallery, so you seal the deal ahead of the fair, and by the time the art-loving masses see the piece at market, it’s already technically off the market.
So it goes at the world’s biggest, most prominent art fairs. According to Artsy, last year the global art market topped $63.7 billion in sales, and it’s reported that dealers make as much as 46 percent of their annual sales at art fairs. But particularly at the big tent international fairs, the whole affair seems to exist mostly so the top tier of galleries can sell the top tier of (often dead) artists to the top tier of wealthy collectors, while everyone else gets to watch.
Emerging and outsider artists have long bristled against this model, creating satellite events and offshoots, some of which promise a lighter or more affordable fair experience. Superfine!, which will host its first D.C. event next week, was born out of a similar frustration with the art world’s status quo. Until 2015, co-founder Alex Mitow was working in the restaurant industry, including owning his own spot in New York, but found he most enjoyed catering for arts spaces and events. Around the same time, his partner and Superfine! co-founder, James Miille, was beginning to break into the gallery scene as a photographer—and discovering its pitfalls.
“If every artist was doing well and every gallery was doing well, I don’t think we’d have a place,” Mitow says. “Galleries are closing left and right and artists are perpetuating the starving artist thing. We saw an opportunity for everyone we work with to actually prosper.”
Superfine! now has offshoots in New York and Los Angeles and has since been named the best art festival in Miami by Miami New Times, a tall order when you’re surrounded by the biggest and boldest art gathering in the United States. Now, they’re launching their first D.C. event, and Mitow says, “To date, it’s our largest fair and the response has been great.”
He’s optimistic that the success of Superfine! can be replicated in D.C., a city that has struggled over the years to maintain a recurring art fair.
Back In 2007, when “creative” was still an adjective and one of D.C.’s best-known art offerings was the unjuried free-for-all of Artomatic, many seemed to think that a major art fair was the missing ingredient that would finally make the city a serious contemporary art center. Organizers from Art Miami mounted the much-reviled artDC fair, which was beset from the beginning by communication breakdowns and a dour setting thanks to the Washington Convention Center.
D.C. galleries were at the top of their game for artDC, facilitating thoughtful displays that boosted local artists. But despite the promise of international acclaim, the fair failed to attract much noteworthy art from outside the District. artDC’s website promised “modern, contemporary & cutting edge work of the highest quality,” but a DCist review of the fair described it as “an Artomatic with suits and stilettos”—a far cry from the desired effect.
For several years D.C. had no art fair, until (e)merge art fair was launched by gallerists Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith of Conner Contemporary Art, with Don and Mera Rubell, the legendary art collectors and transformers of Miami’s art scene, playing host. Though (e)merge was dreamt up by big art world players, it also had a funky and offbeat side.
The Rubells provided their Capitol Skyline Hotel for the venue, which offered the novelty of browsing art in hotel rooms and performance pieces conducted in the pool and parking garage. In a departure from most art fairs, which tend to segregate presentations of solo artists and galleries, (e)merge showed both, providing a platform for up-and-coming artists without gallery representation.
(e)merge injected a jolt of energy into D.C.’s art world, quickly establishing itself as an essential event for the local arts scene. The fair was largely considered a success for both the participating artists and fairgoers, gaining a reputation for showing great performance art and nabbing acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei for the 2014 vetting committee. Then, in 2015, Conner and Smith announced that they’d be hitting the pause button that year, hoping to be back in a bigger venue in 2016. Such plans never, well, emerged.
Though Superfine! hails from out of town, they’ve taken great strides to connect with D.C.’s art community. Their exhibitor relations team began poking around the local market well over a year ago to establish connections, and has worked with local organizations to supplement the programming during the fair, including a performance art series from Transformer and ASL tours of the fair conducted with Gallaudet University. More than half of the artists and galleries at the D.C. iteration are locals.
It also doesn’t hurt that some area artists were already somewhat familiar with the fair. Kelley Ellsworth manages her husband, artist Rogelio Maxwell, and says, “Our daughter visit- ed Superfine! in Miami last year and thought it was the perfect venue for her dad’s work.” Dennis Crayon, a realist painter who works at Torpedo Factory, says “I went to Superfine! in New York and there was nice turnout and it was really nicely presented.”
Seeing evidence of the fair’s success elsewhere certainly helped persuade many artists and gallerists to sign on, but there’s no denying that desire for fresh fair in D.C.’s own backyard has helped Superfine! Crayon has previously avoided the hassle of decamping for other cities’ art fairs, but says, “I didn’t have to invest in traveling and storage and the hotel. I’m going to be able to just drive over, set up, then go home.”
Mixed media artist Brianne Lanigan twice took part in Superfine! Miami, once as part of a group showing with the New York gallery that exhibits her work, and once as a solo artist. Despite being a D.C. native, Lanigan notes, “This is actually going to be my first big show in D.C.”
In recent years, D.C.’s artists and galleries—lacking an art fair of their own—have been making the pilgrimage to Miami or New York to reap the benefits of big-name fairs. Hannah Sarfraz has found that showing at fairs like The Other Art Fair in Brooklyn to be a gratifying and lucrative experience. “I’ve been constantly looking for something of this caliber in D.C.,” she says.
Adah Rose brings the work of many of the artists she shows at her Adah Rose Gallery to several art fairs annually. She finds it beneficial to participate in fairs each year around Miami Art Week. “There’s a lot of camaraderie with the exhibitors, I’ve learned a lot from my fellow gallerists being at the fairs,” she says.
Although art fairs can be valuable both for sales and forging connections, they can also be prohibitively expensive for individuals and smaller galleries. Superfine! offers booth space at rates considerably cheaper than most art fairs, and galleries and artists pay the same cost per square foot for booth space. On the affordability front, Superfine! appears to have been ahead of the curve by recognizing that exorbitant booth fees are squeezing out all but the most prominent galleries. Even art fairs like Art Basel have begun to offer tiered pricing to smaller galleries.
But it’s not just artists who can have a wallet-conscious experience at Superfine! The price point of the fair is designed to reach across income levels, and be accessible to more people. Nothing on display will sell for more than $15,000, and 90 percent of the works shown will be under $6,000, considerably low figures in the contemporary art world.
“We’re trying to change that perception of what a collector is,” says Lauren Fairbanks, who works on the marketing team for Superfine! “You might be purchasing a painting for $5,000 or something that’s $100. You’re still a collector, you’re still supporting an artist.”
Not only is the work priced so that someone with a reasonable amount of disposable income might actually buy something, but as Mitow says, “Every artwork in the fair has a price on it, nothing is ambiguous. We don’t have any price upon request.” He’s hoping that this environment smooths out the awkward conversations around art pricing and lures in a crowd of more casual art lovers, who may or may not walk away with a work of art.
Since the goal is to cater to underserved markets of both collectors and art sellers, rather than to establish D.C. as a contemporary art capital, the proceedings may seem a bit more laid back than the typical art fair. Many in the art scene are eager for a centralized gathering of the city’s art community. Ksenia Grishkova, director of Touchstone Gallery says, “There’s quite a big group from D.C. and artists from D.C. It will be nice to see everybody in one place because we’re all so scattered across the city. There’s no specific area where you can find everybody.”
Rose, for one, is excited for the spectacle, but knows that D.C.’s art scene will be fine regardless of how Superfine! goes off. “It creates a really wonderful sort of buzz and ambiance, and there’s a celebratory feeling at art fairs,” she says. “But I think we already have a thriving, wonderful artist scene here in this city.”
Superfine! Will run from October 31 to November 4 at 1309 5th Street NE.