What Becomes of a Broken Art
All's fair in love and war, and on this Valentine's Day, there's more war than love in fairs. The organizers behind artDC, an international art fair that had its inaugural run in April 2007, informed media today that this year's annual installment would be canceled "due to uncertainty in the current economic climate." (Read: It's not you, it's not me—it's the market.) The release noted that dozens of exhibitors had signed on to participate—indeed, both fair and galleries were pledged for three years, the run of time it typically takes to get an event like this off the ground and out of the red. Nevertheless, the release promised that "this decision has been made in the best interests of exhibitors." (Read: One day you'll see that this is really for the best.)
George Hemphill, director of Hemphill Fine Arts and a participator, was never told that the fair would be canceled. He says, however, that he's not surprised. "We participated in Art Chicago for several years"—whose director of eight years, Ilana Vardy, oversaw artDC—"and they refused to see the signs of a changing time in terms of art fairs," says Hemphill. "Their branding material remained the same for 10 years."
Hemphill explains that the fair failed to draw attendance from outside or inside the Beltway. "It's not [the fair's] fault, but there is not enough hotel space near the Convention Center. People are buying packages when they're coming for an art fair and they're not super-moneyed," he says, noting that museums often arrange deals for junior collectors to travel to fairs. He says that the fair started static by negotiating costs with dealers individually, not collectively, and adds that the charities associated with the fair (charities are to art fairs as remoras are to sharks) were all unknowns. Plus, there was no effort to reach out to the local collector base. "This is an extremely smart town, with people who understand—I don't mean this in a bad way—luxury living," he says. "If you don't respect them and cater to them in a way they're used to, you'll never get them." (Read: The signs were there all along.)
Problems like these, regarding the way that the fair approached the city of Washington, D.C., and its galleries, were the subject of an April 2007 arts feature. Losing money, though, was not on the list of problems. That was considered a feature, not a bug, of the inaugural version, on the theory that you have to spend money to make money. As Vardy wrote in e-mail just before the first fair, "Your question should be how much ArtDC expects to lose. The answer is hundreds of thousands."
Some dealers never saw this news coming. Rody Douzoglou, director of Douz and Mille and the curator of the new-media section at the first artDC fair, reportedly met with fair organizers last week to plan public art projects in coordination with the return of artDC. That meeting was at the request of artDC, and only in the last few days did they stop returning to Douzoglou, according to one source. (Read: Why didn't I see it coming?)
Hemphill says that there's still room for an art fair in D.C. "It's the last city in the United States in which you could roll in and expect to do well in the long haul"—a city in which income and education levels are high and the wealthy congregate in fairly dense, identifiable urban and suburban pockets. About this fair's failure, he says, "In truth, it might be a relief." (Read: There's always more fish in the sea.)