Fairs Comment USA

Beyond the commercial

Like museums, fairs are learning how to educate their audiences

The ground-breaking 1913 Armory Show of Modern art in New York. Photo: Bettmann

Ask people what they think of when the words “Armory Show” are mentioned, and many will say a commercial art fair that takes place in New York on two piers in the Hudson River each spring. I am always amused, because the name of course stems from the 1913 exhibition in which Modern art was introduced to a broad American public, first in New York and then in Chicago and Boston. But lately I have been thinking about analogies between the two Armory Shows, similarities that situate them, and contemporary art fairs, within a more general history of exhibitions and art institutions.

The 1913 Armory Show was organised by a group of artists to display and sell their work; titled the International Exhibition of Modern Art, its Manhattan venue was the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue. Inspired by the 1912 Cologne Sonderbund exhibition, the show’s organisers brought to New York a large and outstanding group of European Modern works of art, which generated controversy and garnered most of the attention. One participant, Stuart Davis, described it in retrospect as “a masochistic reception whereat the naïve hosts are trampled and stomped by the European guests at the buffet”.

The Armory Show art fair was also created by a self-organised group intent on introducing its wares to a larger public. Put together by the dealers Pat Hearn, Colin de Land, Paul Morris and Matthew Marks, it was first held in 1994 at the Gramercy Park Hotel as the Gramercy International Art Fair. As in Chelsea Hotel precedents such as a 1965 Daniel Spoerri exhibition, the works were displayed in small hotel rooms that were little-changed for the occasion. The new name came in 1999 with the fair’s relocation to the site of the 1913 Armory Show, and remained despite the event’s move two years later to the Hudson River piers.

Having been organised by a group of artists to present their own work and that of their fellows, the Armory Show typifies a critical feature of many important shows of the classic avant-garde. Examples range from the Impressionist exhibitions of the 1870s and 1880s in Paris to the “First Exhibition of the Editors of the Blaue Reiter” (Munich, 1911), the “First International Dada Fair” (Berlin, 1920) and the “International Exposition of Surrealism” (Paris, 1938). After the Second World War, however, the most significant shows of contemporary art were increasingly organised by professional exhibition-makers. The self-organisation of the Armory art fair connects it to its namesake in this regard. And, as with major exhibitions in general, the fair’s future lay with institutional growth and professional organisers.

The professionalisation of exhibition-making is essentially tied to the development of the group thematic exhibition. Although a principal function of large international exhibitions was to display the new, with the profusion of artistic innovation in the 1960s and 1970s, it was felt that there was a need for exhibitions to facilitate audience comprehension by providing some conceptual framing. The demand was filled by curators such as Harald Szeemann, whose first major exhibition, “When Attitudes Become Form”, has been restaged this year by the Prada Foundation alongside the Venice Biennale. Complex exhibition narratives proliferated with the growth of international biennials outside the Euro-American centres, generating ambitious conference, publication and commissioning programmes. And as biennials and other major exhibitions have taken on a highly thematic character, one might argue that contemporary art fairs have become the primary places to go to see what is new.

Ancillary programming is now also found at all key art fairs, as with Frieze Talks, Frieze Projects and the curated Armory Focus exhibitions. Some consider such events to be merely high-cultural amenities to elevate the tone of commercial enterprises, much like works of art in new condominium complexes or art lectures on Cunard cruises. But these programmes also connect the art fair to changes in other art-world institutions, many of which have moved from conceiving of themselves solely as sites of display to becoming platforms for the exploration of broad issues. The presentational function of art fairs remains central. Yet as fairs have joined museums and biennials as places that attract wide-ranging audiences, it is not surprising to see them move into the educational and the discursive. To understand them fully, we must think about their participation in such cultural developments and convergences.

Bruce Altshuler is in conversation with Vivian Sky Rehberg, Frieze Talks, Friday 18 October, 5pm

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