A Meditation on Collaboration with a Miami Art Fair by Cara Ober

This week I discovered why I love art fairs.

Instead of racing in the mad dash of Miami Art Week, attempting to visit twenty or so fairs and multiple museums in just three days with full on #FOMO #seeitall #doitall in overdrive, this year I opted for a slower ride. I chose to participate, instead of my typical role of observer and critic. I wanted to bring Baltimore art and artists to Miami but I don’t sell art, so hosting a booth didn’t make sense. Plus, at the average cost of $100k for a booth at a smaller fair, I’d need to sell a terrifying amount of magazines to make that work.

I was fortunate to meet up with the curator of Untitled art fair, Omar Lopez Chaud, last spring in Venice. After I had gushed that his art fair was my favorite for a variety of reasons – light-filled, spacious, on the beach, friendly vibe, good size, with the inclusion of experimental artist projects, not just salable works – I wondered aloud if there would be some way to participate, to bring Baltimore artists to the fair without being an official media sponsor or taking up expensive art sale real estate. We traded emails over the following months and I sent multiple proposal drafts until it clicked.

What I didn’t realize initially was that Untitled presents a collaborative sound project, Untitled Radio, curated by Programming Director Amanda Schmitt, which offers a selection of talks, discussions, sound and performance-based work mixed and monitored by Adrian Olivares of Wynwood Radio, an independent radio station in Miami.

If you check out the schedule online, you’ll see that it’s an eclectic mix of sound art, experimental music, performance, and podcast style interviews with artists and art professionals. Tucked into the center of the fair, the radio station is hosted on a raised wooden platform bordered by a small lounge where listeners can tune in via headphone. All the programming is recorded and archived, and will be available soon for a listen at BmoreArt as well.

What this arrangement meant was that I was required to be at Untitled for three days of interviews. Instead of running around frenetically, it forced me to slow down, spend time with the art, the participants, and to experience the fair itself from a new perspective. What I gleaned from my perch on the radio platform and my repeated meandering around this fair was a clarity about why I was there and how artists, art professionals, and art media can be more deliberate about our choices and values.

Why I Like Art Fairs.

It’s official. I like art fairs. I’ve been on the fence about this for years, feeling simultaneously enchanted by the art and repulsed by the overwhelming emphasis on sales, but I have now turned the corner. Here’s why:

Number One: Art !

Art fairs are filled with art. While you’re never going to love everything, good art fairs offer mostly good art. It’s a pleasure to experience contemporary work in a riotous and commercial hodgepodge.

I realized this week I like being around art that has just been created, that exudes a freshness and energy of possibility, as opposed to older, established work, in a fair context. This kind of art energizes my brain and my heart, makes me itchy to get into the studio. At Untitled, the art was well curated, new, beautiful, and smart. It wasn’t as hip, cool, or ironic as the work at NADA and it definitely wasn’t blue chip like Art Basel, where a sea of famous art history names abound in an over-crowded sell-or-die atmosphere.

At Untitled, a majority of the work was intelligent and well-made, with a balance between process-based and conceptual work and a solid dose of humor. By the end of the week, they felt like familiar friends.

Loving these limited edition Obama shoes from The Hole gallery, NY !

Number Two: Art Galleries!

Art galleries are the glue of the art world, largely ignored by the art history books, and run by individuals who take on significant financial risk because they love art and artists. I especially like those mid-level galleries who have mastered their craft through experience, who don’t feel the need to be in New York if they’re not, and choose to treat human beings relationally and not like potential dollars.

Not only did the art at Untitled come from relatively new artists at a consistently high level, the galleries were earnest and humble in their support of the art. You could ask questions, interact, and have a conversation. Hugs abounded. Aside from a few art hubs in the world, there are few locations where hundreds of art galleries (in this case around 170) are all grouped together and you can experience them en masse. There’s nowhere else but art fairs were you can have a taste of what’s being offered in Brooklyn, Santa Fe, London, and Paris all at once. This is such a treat.

Also, it was fantastic to see significant works by black women, including Micklene Thomas, Zanele Muholi, Deborah Roberts, Ebony Patterson, Baltimore-based Amy Sherald and former Baltimorean Theresa Chromati in this context.

Zanele Muholi at Yancey Richardson Gallery

At Art Basel, I didn’t find the same level of engagement or hospitality. Even during Vernissage night, many gallerists sat with heads down over screens and ignored the crowds, as if completing that last email was more important than making eye contact. While I understand that I’m not their desired audience (press pass – not a collector), this culture of snobbishness in the art world is such a turnoff. When you’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an art fair booth, you want to focus your energy on making money. I get it, but why not be friendly to everyone regardless? Why be so short-sighted? You never know who you might meet and there is nothing to lose in having a conversation. Do these galleries think their stand-offishness makes them seem more appealing? I still have not figured this out.

Number Three: Ephemerality.

Fairs are fleeting and this makes them special. After a few days it’s gone, but the energy catalyzed is enormous. In this brief amount of time, hundreds of works of art and galleries come together as one entity and, when done well, there’s an alchemy. There’s a sense that the sum is greater than the parts, that the connections, conversations, and collective energy grows beyond all the effort that went into it.

The energy is slightly manic all over Miami during this week because the fairs exist to show (and sell) you an insane amount of art from all over the world. It’s way more than you could ever consume, see, or do. The parties only intensify the vibe. Nothing gets stale and the documentation of the fairs never quite captures the energy.

Speaking of ephemerality… Installation by Cory Imig at SCAD Museum of Art/SCAD Art Dealers

Number Four: The audience.

No, really. Art fairs bring out the eccentric, the art world royalty, the weirdos, the crisp-suited museum curators, and the smelly art hippies. They’re all together because they love art. I know this is a simplistic read, but I’m not a collector and I don’t work at a museum so I am allowed to feel this way.

This week I sighted Eva & Adele in the Walgreens next to my Miami Beach Airbnb in their matching pink dresses and heels, and I got to meet Chuck Close, looking regal in an African printed jumpsuit at the Untitled radio station. I got to talk to collectors, dealers, and artists from all over the world and also those who are none of these things, but were curious and wanted to know more. I know that contemporary art isn’t for everyone, but Miami Art Week catalyzes energy and enthusiasm in a way that no art museum or single opening can.

Number Five: Non-Traditional, Artist-Centric Art Fairs.

I knew there was a reason I wanted to be at Untitled and it had everything to do with the fair’s willingness to take on creative risks and a certain adherence to aesthetics. They offer a selection of free limited edition art posters by various artists at the entrance. You can take as many as you like and they even provide appropriately-sized plastic bags for storage. Their tote bags were awesome. They even commissioned an original beer for the fair.

There was an experimental collaborative project featured in the front of the fair where Florida International University students recreated  the Untitled version of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Garbage Wall using debris collected south of Miami from Hurricane Irma, including plastic and glass bottles, flip-flops, and even a buoy. This was not a commercial project, but a chance for students to engage the audience in a pressing environmental and social issue; as the now-deceased artist instructed, the piece can be recreated on-site with materials from the place where it is shown, and then demolished at the end of the exhibit.

Gordon Matta-Clark, “Garbage Wall” (1970/2017), mixed media debris colelcted from Miami Beach and Marina, cement, dimensions variable, presented by the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark

At the Untitled radio station, participants were given creative freedom to say whatever they wanted and an additional partnership with SiTE:LAB, whose special project “Miami Folly II” involved a tabletop letterpress station where participants created an entire series of prints based on radio programming.

Just imagine a printmaking station in the center of Art Basel where colored ink was being slathered on printing plates?? The anxiety and insurance would have melted the place down. Instead, visitors at this fair got to see artists doing what they do best: solving problems, asking questions, and making new things.

Podcast 3: Zoë Charlton & Tim Doud of |’sindikit| art space in Baltimore with Sharon Louden, Author of Living and Sustaining a Creative Life and Artist as Culture Producer

The Listening Lounge with original letterpress prints by SiTE:LAB and Podcast 2: Collector Don Rubell of the Rubell Family Collection

Podcast 1: Curator René Morales from the Peréz Art Museum (PAMM)

Conclusions:

After my time at Untitled, it became obvious that the fair was conceived by artists and those who appreciate the unique culture that contemporary artists create. It’s not an accident that the lighting is beautiful, the ceilings are soaring, the booths are spacious, and that it offers non-commercial and experimental projects alongside commercial galleries. I also love that you can glimpse the aqua hues of the ocean outside the tent as you stroll around. When artists are involved in the planning, there’s always a sense of ‘Why not?’ and this plays out in unexpected and interesting ways at this fair.

In an age where many mid-level galleries are being squeezed out in New York, it’s even more important that a fair exists where collectors, artists, and general audience members can be offered a consistently high level of quality by up-and-coming artists you’ve mostly never heard of before they become the artists everyone knows. This fun, smart, and risk-taking enterprise proves that artists don’t have to succumb to the staid rules of established and hierarchical art culture; even within art fairs, when you collaborate with artists it is possible to build your own kind of community and market.

 

Highlights from Untitled, Photos by Cara Ober:

Amy Sherald paintings and Ebody Patterson mixed media fiber work at Monique Meloche

Jody Paulsen felted paintings at SMAC Gallery

Pastel on Sandpaper drawings at The Hole, NY by Eric Yahnker and Bert! the cutest gallery dog ever.

Mixed Media works by Trish Tillman at Aysa Geisberg