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Smaller Fairs Mean Great Art, Closer to Home


To many participants, the international art fair phenomenon has become a traveling circus of sorts — if it’s Thursday, this must be Art Basel Miami Beach.

Or could it be Frieze London? Wake me when it’s time for the next TEFAF.

But in the age of the coronavirus, with such events being canceled or postponed — along with many other cultural happenings — the same participants who used to complain about the rigorous schedule may find themselves wistful for the days of regular programming.

Two fairs that were scheduled for this spring but delayed because of the pandemic illustrate why such events can thrive: There are serious collectors everywhere, particularly for contemporary art, and they do not always want to get on a plane to look at a work they may want to buy. The majority of art fairs are for the people who live in the host city.

Catering to the local base of collectors is something of a specialty for the Dallas Art Fair, a gathering of about 94 dealers that was scheduled for April and has moved to Oct. 2 to 4, and Art Brussels, which was also scheduled to be a gathering of nearly 160 dealers in April and has even more optimistically chosen June 26 to 28 as its new slot.

In some ways, the fairs are as different as their host cities. The Dallas fair, established in 2009, is newer and brasher and is held in the Fashion Industry Gallery of the city’s arts district. The Brussels event, founded in 1968, evinces Old World charm, not least for its grand home in the restored, multiuse Tour & Taxis building, dating from the early 1900s.

But they share an upside in terms of an accessible atmosphere, noted even by New Yorkers who attend all sizes of such events.

“The larger art fairs can be a slog, while the more regional art fairs tend to have more flair and are less intimidating,” the dealer Jane Cohan, of New York’s James Cohan Gallery, wrote in an email.

Ms. Cohan noted that many of the gallery’s artists had had institutional shows in Dallas, including Spencer Finch, Trenton Doyle Hancock and Yinka Shonibare. Her April list included Josiah McElheny and Michelle Grabner, among others.

For locals, the charms are self-evident: The fair brings the people what they want, and hometown pride helps ensure that key players turn out in support of the event.

“The thrust and excitement for collectors here is around contemporary art,” said Alden Pinnell, a Dallas-based investor and philanthropist who has hundreds of works by the famous (Donald Judd, Ed Ruscha) and the not-so (Cameron Rowland, Yuji Agematsu).

He and his wife, Janelle, display them in a separate gallery adjacent to their home and sometimes lend them to museums. They also founded a Dallas exhibition space called the Power Station, which shows artists’ projects and starting April 15 plans to present the work of Mathew Cerletty.

“The Dallas art fair is approachable, friendly and fun,” Mr. Pinnell said. “It’s great for people just dipping their toes in the water.”

He added, with a touch of Texan grit, “It’s easier than going to Chelsea and being ignored in a gallery.”

Katherine Brodbeck, a curator of contemporary art at the Dallas Museum of Art, noted that community ties were unusually strong.

“Collaboration happens, with collectors buying things together and sharing them,” Ms. Brodbeck said. “You don’t see that on the coasts.” John Sughrue, the Dallas fair’s chairman, put it this way: “Relationships are sticky here. Maybe it’s the frontier mentality.”

Since founding the fair, Mr. Sughrue has worked to attract new blood, like the collectors Kristen and Joe Cole.

“We spend all our money on art,” said Ms. Cole, the president of the boutique chain Forty Five Ten. Some of it has been spent on works by Kevin Beasley, Sarah Cain and Ann Craven.

Their trove of about 40 works by mostly younger, emerging artists has a distinct character. “We have very specific taste,” Ms. Cole said. “We like color, pink and purple especially. Humor and texture are important.”

Mr. Cole, creative director for the Headington Companies, which is owned by the local billionaire and fellow collector Tim Headington, noted that he and his wife had lived in Dallas for only a year, after stints in New York, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas.

“The collecting scene here really blew our minds,” Mr. Cole said, adding that he regularly attends fairs outside Dallas, including Frieze Los Angeles. “We just weren’t aware of it. The depths that people have gone to, it’s impressive. It’s done with purpose.”

Last year, the Coles held a small, invitation-only exhibition at their house during the fair, and plan to do so again in October. “The works are for sale, but it’s very casual,” Ms. Cole said.

As Mr. Pinnell and the Coles demonstrate, sharing one’s art at home — or sharing it in a private museum, or by lending it out — is part of the current collecting ethos. The days of keeping a trove all to yourself are waning.

And the same is true in Belgium.

Galila Barzilai-Hollander, a local patron of Art Brussels, opened an exhibition space a year ago called Galila’s P.O.C. — which stands for Passion — Obsession — Collection.

“I became an artoholic,” she said of her collection, representing about 1,800 artists. Fittingly, the first show at her space is called “Overdose.”

Ms. Barzilai-Hollander got the collecting bug later in life, on a trip to New York City, and can date her interest in art precisely: March 2, 2005, the anniversary of her husband’s death. “March is a painful month,” she said.

“I saw that the whole city was full of ads for the Armory Show,” she said. “I didn’t know what that was. I had never been to a contemporary art fair.”

She went to the event and it made an impression, launching her on an art-buying tear. “I focus on young emerging artists and I don’t listen to professionals and critics,” she said. “I follow my instinct.”

Anne Vierstraete, the director of Art Brussels, said that the “compulsive” collecting of Ms. Barzilai-Hollander — which she meant as a compliment — was merely the extreme example that proved the rule.

“Belgium is a country where collecting is a tradition,” Ms. Vierstraete said. “We’re said to have one of the highest amounts of collectors per capita in the world.”

She added, “It’s almost like a sport here.”

The idea of art as a national pastime resonates strongly for dealers, who could be said to sell the equipment so the players can enjoy the game fully.

Barbara Gladstone, a longtime gallerist who helped establish the Chelsea art neighborhood in New York, has had a space in Brussels since 2008.

“It was important for us to have a footprint in Europe given the international nature of our artist roster,” Ms. Gladstone wrote in an email, adding, “I’ve always been fascinated by Belgium and its significance throughout art history.” From May 6 in New York, she plans to show the painter James Ensor (1860-1949), one of the best-known Belgian artists. Her Brussels gallery is scheduled to exhibit the work of Richard Aldrich from April 21 to June 13.

The Brussels-based dealer Laurent Mercier, of Maruani Mercier, is a veteran of the fair in his town and had planned to show the work of Arne Quinze, Justin Brice Guariglia and Titus Kaphar, among others. An adjacent solo-artist booth was scheduled to focus on the abstract painter Paul Kremer’s “Float and Drop” series.

“It’s our hometown, so all our collectors pass through,” Mr. Mercier said. “We have to be there.”

Like Ms. Barzilai-Hollander and collectors in Dallas, he said cutting-edge artists were drawing the most attention these days.

“It’s a fair where you can discover new artists,” Mr. Mercier said. “People bring their young and up-and-comers.”

And his buyers, he said, are mostly from Belgium. “The other fairs, people pass through and attend auctions in the city at the same time — then they ship the works home,” he said, adding: “Every fair has its flavor, and ours is very relaxed. We like to enjoy ourselves.”


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