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Casual and benevolent Dallas art world rubber-neckers thought the fair marvelous, jolly and very successful. People who had little interest in contemporary art no doubt found it utterly mystifying. The participants who will ultimately underwrite its success are more critical.

The Secret Life of Plants: An Artist’s Assessment of the Dallas Art Fair

Three questions and three possible answers: What is an art fair? What does having one mean for Dallas? Was it any good?

What is an art fair?

And from here I will adopt the voice of Miss Jean Brodie: Now girls, pay attention! (you brazen little hussies).

An art fair is a place where the international art world congregate to sell their wares, to make connections and build relationships. It is a place where art can be tested both in terms of its aesthetic and commercial value. It is a place that disseminates the very idea of art to a very broad audience, who can, if they have the inclination and the funds, purchase – and hence patronize – the cultural exchanges that define a fair. A fair can act as a barometer for trends in arts’ substance, its meaning, its increasing commodification and the manner in which it is displayed – which in itself can be an indicator of its current cultural worth.

To be clear – commerce is good for art. Art’s monetary value sometimes clouds its real value, but mercantile cities historically have always provided great hotbeds of cultural exchange and learning. Venice, Rotterdam, Paris, New York, London, Berlin….you know the list.

What does it mean for Dallas?

If ever there was a case for being careful for what you wish, this may be it. Several of Dallas’ biggest collectors mysteriously vanished this last week, possibly pacing some corridor or other like nervous expectant parents, wondering what havoc the fair may wreak on literally decades of careful collecting, museum finessing, and city building.

So let’s be crystal clear about one essential point: This is the Dallas Art Fair in name only. It does not mean that the fair is about exclusively promoting Dallas art, and this should absolutely not be a vehicle for sleepy regionalist thinking and self-indulgence. The fair – like all others – is designed to draw outsiders into Dallas as well as to galvanize Dallas from within. This has a hugely beneficial cross-fertilizing effect, and it oxygenates the city’s culture. It connects different individuals from all over the world and has an invaluable spillover for the city.

For all these reasons, it is critical that the fair is of the highest standard. Gaile Robinson recently suggested I was an advocate of raising the bar to unrealistic heights. Other quarters have left that same bar at ground level for fear that even the mildest elevation will result in a great pile of tumbling bodies.

Since arriving here I have heard the phrase, “we must take baby steps” in relation to Dallas’ art and culture, to which I say: “Time to step into daddy’s shoes, ready or not”. The world is too competitive not to, and third chances are rare.

Valley House Gallery's space at the 2009 Dallas Art Fair (Photo: Courtesy Dallas Art Fair)

So back at the fair: we’re on year two. Year one had a ‘get out of jail free card’ because Lehman Brothers had just collapsed, and, frankly, everyone was so traumatized that the fair could simply have been a meet-and-greet and it would have still sufficed. And so it was. Year one was good for Dallas, but, then, it was a complete novelty. No one expected sales, even though money changed hands; and enough sales were made for many to come back, while one or two of the very best galleries did not return.

Pay attention Emily! And Annabelle, stop fidgeting! There is a snag. The fair is so far extremely patchy in terms of quality and it cannot afford the luxury of being a catch-all. Why, for example, were there private secondary dealers in the fair who don’t represent artists at all and therefore have limited overhead and investment in any artists? Why so many abysmal or very mediocre galleries merely displaying tired-looking consigned inventory in poorly arranged stands. To those that know, this is not exciting. Art emanates from real people’s energy and ideas, promoted by real people and their ideas – it is not just about the art objects as discrete tokens or trophies. Filling the FIG space at any cost is hugely detrimental and consequential damage is almost instantaneous and hard to undo. Casual and benevolent Dallas art world rubber-neckers thought the fair marvelous, jolly and very successful. People who had little interest in contemporary art no doubt found it utterly mystifying. The participants who will ultimately underwrite its success are more critical.

As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg likes to advise, ‘always be building,’ and to this end next year’s fair has to be significantly and exponentially more impressive.

The organizers and participants have to consider the hard facts. Was it good enough when judged against other comparable fairs? It seemed almost like a boutique fair, as one experienced Dallas dealer put it to me. But I feel strongly that they have only one more chance to get it right. After that, it may be dead in the water.

However, due to a unique situation among the collector base here, Dallas holds a trump card in its hand. There is warmth and cohesion to the Dallas collector base that is discussed and envied from afar. At the highest level there is an extraordinary degree of cooperation and forward thinking that sets a precedent that is already being emulated among younger collectors here. People ask not what Dallas can do for them, but what they can do for Dallas (slightly nauseating, but mostly true).

It is this community spirit that drew the two London galleries, for example. The big Dallas collectors opened their collections to tours. There were one or two examples of extraordinary generosity and hospitality to some of the guest dealers, by some of the host collectors. For a weekend trip to Houston,  one prominent Dallas collector loaned my dealer, Tim Taylor and me a swiftmobile so elegant and perfect that Tim was compelled to name it the most ‘f**k off’ car he’d ever driven – and the likes of which I may never have the opportunity to drive again. It is such acts of disarming friendliness that will perhaps ensure repeat visits. The more high profile dealers who risked the higher overhead of getting here, did so because of relationships with clients previously forged with a view to expanding breadthways. The experienced out-of-town dealers that did well, did so because they have invested time for many years in relationships within the city. They are nuanced players that worked far in advance to guaranty success. But to attract more from further a field, the fair has to be much more sophisticated in order to first lure them or coax them back. And don’t forget – they all know each other and solicit each other’s opinions constantly. A couple of poor report cards will resonate quickly and damagingly.

Pace Prints' space at the 2009 Dallas Art Fair

Here’s what needs to change. The opening night felt too gala-like and lacking in urgency right from the front door. Dallas threw itself headlong into the social aspect and not the nitty gritty. Hence the bottle neck of catering and drinks in the entrance that forced people to congregate and party long before even entering the fair. This was both a missed opportunity and also sent out the wrong signal. The opening night is traditionally the biggest selling opportunity. Dignified senior collectors have been known to don running shoes and sprint to certain booths in the good old days at the big fairs. (One famous collector once blagged his way in ahead of time disguised as a janitor in order to get the jump.) More focus, and less fluff. You get drunk afterwards, not before.

Next, the space is not ideal in many ways. The upstairs space feels purposeful, despite a regrettably low ceiling. Conversely, the downstairs space is way too eccentric and ‘funky’. Downstairs galleries automatically felt less serious as a consequence which is an unfair disadvantage to those exhibiting there. The placement of galleries needs to be more considered. If there is inevitably a range in quality, then don’t put the worst next to the best. This is bad for both of them,

There were a few obvious mistakes. None of the advertising in art magazines, etc listed the participating galleries. Given that there were some big named galleries, this is an inexcusable lost PR opportunity for this year and next. The fair-organized tours did nothing to include participating galleries from afar, another black mark that made the fair feel parochial and gauche.

But by far the biggest issue, and this is make or break: the fair has to be curated properly next year through application instead of slightly random or desperate invitation. If they can’t guaranty a far higher number of respected bigger galleries to participate, the Dallas art fair will be an entirely meaningless hoedown by year four and gone by year five. One of the London galleries will probably return; the other may well not. Rhona Hoffman from Chicago was here last year but declined this year. For the fair, this is very much a case of three strikes and you’re out.

Most people sold enough to break even, some did not and some did better. There were some six figure sales. There was a price range from the hundreds of dollars through to the high six figures. But consider this: the fair was being scoped out by people that would be invisible to many.  Michael Fuchs – a top Berlin dealer and Lorcan O’Neill, the number one Irishman in Rome – were here probing the fair as non-participants. The internationally acclaimed and senior artist, Michael Craig-Martin was in town for his show at Kenny Goss and both were present at the fair. Art fairs provide such possibilities for the coalescing of activities and opportunities. But all of these and others will have been watching and assessing carefully and reporting home.

The fair was bigger this year, but the overall quality was no higher than last year and it is still a way short of a benchmark even for a smaller fair. Remember, this is not the number two or three fair in Miami, this is the Dallas fair and needs to measure up as such.  The best five or six Texan galleries looked fresher to me than some of the second fiddle participating NY galleries. But there was way too much hokey stuff, some of which was Texan and some of which was from elsewhere. The hokey stuff is fine for hoke-sters, but it will (and already has) drive(n) away serious players. The more serious players are not even necessarily the biggest players. Lora Reynolds from Austin is a case in point. She has arguably one of the best Texan galleries and looked excellent both years, so we need to keep her. All galleries require visibility, but only on the right terms. If the context of the fair has a tarnishing effect rather than a polishing effect, then good galleries will naturally shy away.

Dallas has nowhere near a big enough collector-base to support a whole fair. It is certainly not the responsibility of the big collectors to artificially buoy it up. The middle rank Dallas collectors – of whom there are only a handful – now bear the brunt of any buoying that needs doing, and they have thus far been adequately floatational –  as far as can be expected. But the key will be drawing more collectors from out of town, not relying heavily on our home team.

The fair must get higher-grade galleries next year or it will fail. It’s do or die time. And be ruthless with the locals from both here and there. Of course Dallas and Texas should have a presence in the fair, but not at any cost.

The only way to truly promote the region is to include the very best and cut away the dead limbs. It’s what you have to do with plants too. It’s fairly basic.

Home time, and no running in the corridors, girls.

Born in the UK in 1963, Richard Patterson graduated from Goldsmiths College in 1986. He has exhibited internationally with group exhibitions including Damien Hirst’s renowned Freeze. Patterson currently lives and works in Dallas, Texas. Click for a full bio.

To Read Dallas Art Fair co-founder Chris Byrne’s response to this piece visit here.

6 comments on “The Secret Life of Plants: An Artist’s Assessment of the Dallas Art Fair

  1. I am, of course, biased. But I loved that recap. Smart, funny, hard hitting. Thank you, Richard. And thanks for introducing me to the phrase “f**k off” car.

  2. I don’t know from art fairs, be they in Venice, New York, or Cairo. But I do know Dallas, and this critique has broader applicability than to just the Dallas Art Fair.

    This town is trying hard to grow up, which is invigorating. But to be a really grown-up city, it needs to get beyond mere titles, surfaces, and appearances.

    We have a new, cool performing arts complex – great, but that’s not enough. The PAC needs to present truly excellent performances. Excellence comes in many forms, but I haven’t seen it thus far at the Wyly, at least. We have a cool “art fair,” but it needs to offer truly excellent and exciting art. We’ve got a new high-profile downtown park under construction. It will cover a freeway! How cool! But just building it won’t be enough. Like the PAC, it needs thoughtful programming.

    Having stuff isn’t the point. How we use the stuff is what matters. This requires getting past the cocktail line, and really paying attention. It’s takes real care and real thought. And thinking is hard — sometimes especially so in this town, which in the past has been suspicious of too much thinkin’. But we can do it. So let’s get to it girls.

  3. Great article. The comment on setting the bar too high is a problem that has existed in Dallas for as long as I have lived here. Keep up the great writing and great work in the Dallas art community and we will certainly rise above!

  4. As an addendum to this sentence in the introduction,

    “A fair can act as a barometer for trends in arts’ substance, its meaning, its increasing commodification and the manner in which it is displayed – which in itself can be an indicator of its current cultural worth”.

    Please see the following link to the new online VIP Art Fair invented by NY art dealer, Jim Cohan.

    http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/35501/exclusive-gallerist-james-cohan-speaks-about-his-online-vip-art-fair/?page=1

    This timely idea apparently refines and adds dimension and flexibility to the business of buying and selling art online as well as learning about new artists and exploring relationships with dealers. For anyone who attended the 2010 Dallas Art Fair who wishes to expand their art knowledge/art fair savvy, experience and/or collection – or who is just plain curious, it would be a good visit I would think. And it will happen shortly before the 2011 Dallas Fair, so will provide invaluable points of reference since the standard will be fairly stellar judging from the list of participants. Carry on Dallas.

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