Fairly Concerned A new international fair intends to put D.C. in the fine-art big leagues. So why were locals slow to get involved?

Nonprofit Motive: The DC Arts Center will be at ArtDC, but director B. Stanley wishes he knew about cheaper ways to take part.
Photograph by Pilar Vergara

Gawkers roam a vast hall oversaturated with visual stimuli. Paintings and photos hang on the walls, sculptures line the walkways, multimedia installations blink and mew for attention. More than 100 booths fill a large open space, arranged with no apparent rhyme or reason. Quiz: What D.C. art event is this?

No, it’s not the ongoing fest of local claptrap, Artomatic. It’s the scene that will likely greet attendees at the Convention Center starting Friday, April 27, when the city’s first annual mega art fair kicks off. (It runs through Monday, April 30.) Modeled after international events like Art Basel Miami and New York’s Armory Show, ArtDC is the latest contender in the national circuit of heavyweight art fairs. But for many local participants, especially nonprofits, ArtDC has arrived with a few glitches and concerns—including whether it’s worth their while to participate.

One issue involves booth pricing. To accommodate local groups amid the international gallerists, ArtDC organizers established tiered rates for nonprofits, from free for the smallest booth (4 feet by 6 feet), to $600 (6 feet by 8 feet), and up to $1,500 (10 feet by 10 feet); only paying groups would be permitted to exhibit art, while the free spaces serve as info booths. (By comparison, the smallest booth available to a commercial gallery, 200 square feet, costs $8,000.) Adams Morgan’s DC Arts Center (DCAC), however, claims that it was never offered the free option. In early February, DCAC director B. Stanley received an e-mail from Joelle Rabion, ArtDC’s show coordinator, offering DCAC one rate: a 10-foot-by-10-foot space for $2,000. Stanley agreed to those terms, but he was angered after he spoke with other similar organizations—other noncommercial galleries that sell artwork—and learned that they were notified earlier and got a better deal. “You gotta figure that this group that’s putting [ArtDC] on...this must be their business,” he says. “You’d think they’d have a scheme, a timeline—this is what it takes to make this happen.”

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In February, for instance, Transformer Gallery purchased space for a 10-foot-by-10-foot booth for $1,500 but was offered the free and $600 options. Transformer director Victoria Reis says she first discussed rates with ArtDC director Ilana Vardy last summer. “The first booth rate they discussed was $5,000, profit or nonprofit,” Reis says. “Then they asked us what we could afford to pay. I told them $500, thinking, ‘If they’ll meet that, I’ll pay for it.’ ”

Kim Ward, director of the nonprofit Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran (WPAC), says she also worked closely with ArtDC to address the way nonprofits could be included. “Early on, I encouraged Ilana to create a separate space for nonprofits from cultural organizations and to charge a token fee for a larger space. We were trying to find some sweet spot in the middle to give nonprofits higher visibility and their own identity in the fair.”

Vardy declined to address negotiations or specific offers made to galleries, commercial or nonprofit, but denied that any nonprofit was given a nonstandard deal. “We’re probably the only fair that donates so much space to the nonprofit [sector],” she says. “We have 22 nonprofits participating in the fair. Seven of them are paying for small space to do mini-exhibits. The rest are getting free space.”

Last month, DCAC received the bill for its ArtDC booth. The rate fell to $1,500, in line with the other nonprofits. (Vardy would not comment on the change in billing.) Stanley can’t say what the DCAC board would have decided to do if they had been given the terms offered to others from the start. “Of course, if someone were to say to us, ‘I’ll give you this free 4-by-6 space at this art fair,’ and that was all they said, we’d say, ‘Sure, thanks.’ ”

The discussions among local nonprofit organizations about ArtDC speak to the unusual position the fair puts them in: They can’t afford not to participate in the largest art fair that will hit the District this year, but they’re small fish in a very large commercial pond. World-class art fairs aren’t typically thrown with the nonprofit set in mind. At Art Basel Miami last December, $10 flutes of Champagne zinged off silver platters in the VIP lounge, where corporate sponsors UBS, BMW, NetJets (a company that sells fractional ownership in private jets), and others boosted their presence. The likes of Vanity Fair hosted parties where entertainers like Devendra Banhart, Dita Von Teese, and the Misshapes performed. Consider the free Grolsch beers handed to anyone who attended the Scope satellite fair at Art Basel Miami: The moneyed scene nearly competes with the art as a draw.

Though ArtDC has advertised in national papers and major art glossies, no one should expect that kind of spectacle here. It took years for Art Basel Miami to grow into a calendar event kicked off by free Peaches concert on the beach and a fashionable destination attracting the likes of art collectors like Leonard Nimoy and moguls such as Jay-Z.

“Those are better-heeled supporters than we’re used to having,” says Stanley. “These are people who are ready to buy a $20,000 or $30,000 painting....Obviously if they come to our space, and they see something that’s 3 or 4 [thousand dollars] that they’re only passing-by interested in, they might think, ‘Well, sure, I could take that.’ That’s a big boon for an emerging artist to sell on that level.”

Still, participating has forced nonprofits to think about the fairest way to show art under their banners. WPAC is presenting “Index,” a juried exhibit of miniature works, but isn’t selling its members’ works at the fair; Ward says that would require the organization to present some members while excluding others. DCAC is presenting “Sparkplug,” featuring a select group of artists whose shows will be exchanged with shows from art collectives in other cities. Reis will unveil Transformer’s “Flatfile” at the fair, a collection of small- to medium-sized work that the gallery will represent on an ongoing basis. The artists, among them up-and-comers like Nathan Manuel and Lisa Marie Thalhammer, are those whom Transformer has “presented or has an affinity to,” according to Reis.

Why D.C.? Summit Business Media, the Cleveland-based producer of ArtDC, was formed in November 2006, when Wind Point Partners acquired Pfingsten Publishing, producers of fine-art shows such as Artexpo and Art Basel Miami. Pfingsten identified D.C. as potentially fertile ground for a fair franchise in early 2006. “The D.C. area has not had a major fair since the ’70s or early ’80s,” says Vardy. “The company I work for that owns Art Miami and other sorts of trade shows, they asked, since the art market is so hot, is there another fair that we could launch? Initially I didn’t think so, but we landed on D.C. I was surprised it doesn’t have an art fair.”

She acknowledges skepticism within the art world about whether ArtDC will take off. “People thought D.C. might be too provincial,” she says. “But the more I talked to people and visited galleries, I realized it’s not so conservative. The galleries were a little skeptical. Those that do art fairs—and there aren’t that many who do international fairs—were concerned that people wouldn’t come. I think it took a group from outside D.C. to bring a vision of an international fair to the venue.”

Doubts haven’t been isolated to the nonprofit sector. Several commercial galleries, including Adamson Editions, Curator’s Office, G Fine Art, Marsha Mateyka, and others delayed making any decision after the initial talks; just before March, many likely participants still hadn’t signed on. One participating dealer, who wished not to be named, ignored all of ArtDC’s deadlines before finally committing, suggesting that the fair needed the gallery, not the other way around.

D.C. gallerist Leigh Conner believes that ArtDC will “draw heavily from the region” instead of internationally, and Vardy agrees. “This is what we’re setting out to prove: not that we can bring galleries to D.C., but that the people in the area can support a fair,” says Vardy. According to the ArtDC Web site, of the participating commercial galleries, 33 are international, while 50 galleries are drawn from nine states and the District. Eighteen of those domestic commercial galleries are local. In addition, the fair boasts 22 regional nonprofit and cultural organizations.

A three-year commitment from the Convention Center to host ArtDC, says Vardy, gives the fair time to establish its base and work out its kinks. That’s a conservative timeframe, and it hardly guarantees success. Asked how much the fair expects to make in its first year, Vardy responds in an e-mail, “Your question should be how much ArtDC expects to lose. The answer is hundreds of thousands.”

Vardy is certain about one thing—it won’t float or sink on the backs of nonprofits.

“They’re paying so little, it doesn’t even cover the lights in the booths,” says Vardy. “I’m taking a much bigger risk than the nonprofits are.” Vardy adds, “The potential is for commercial galleries to be unhappy with me for working with the nonprofit galleries, if they see that as competition.”

Of eight participating commercial gallerists interviewed for this article, none considered nonprofits to be competition. Commercial dealer George Hemphill says that, in fact, the art fair needs the nonprofits “to show what the young people are doing, to sex it up.” To that end, Hemphill argues that ArtDC’s organizers might have been more flexible in its opening year. “It may have behooved [ArtDC] to collectively bargain,” he says. “ ‘We need you, we want to make a deal that benefits everybody, we want to make this as folksy and familylike as possible, since we’re all in the same boat getting this fair off the ground’—that’s the way I’d do things.”

After all, local galleries have cultivated a homegrown personality, and ArtDC forces them to adjust. “[Hemphill Fine Arts] has created an environment that’s personable,” Hemphill says. “People can commune with art in a slowed-down, personable fashion,” he says. “The idea of taking my operation virtually six blocks away to a place with blazing fluorescent lamps, to invest in what is essentially a promotional activity, when I’ve got my gallery here, my Starbucks right there, my Whole Foods down the block—good God! Why do I want to do that?”

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