The Seattle Art Fair is gaining momentum. In 2015, its inaugural outing attracted more than 15,000 attendees. The next year that number increased to 18,000. This year, some 22,500 people turned out, and the fair had over 100 exhibitors—more than ever before.
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Although my favorite moments of the weekend were the ones that managed to transcend the commercial art fair vibe—including the excellent satellite exhibitions Out of Sight and BorderLands—it’s the sales that will ultimately secure the future of the fair, so as things were winding down on Sunday afternoon, I went around asking dealers how they made out.
“We love Seattle!” exclaimed Amanda Uribe of New York’s C24 Gallery. Among the red dots in their booth were an oil painting on reclaimed floppy disks by Nick Gentry and two blown-glass-and-video sculptures by Katja Loher.
It was C24’s first year here, and they’re excited about returning. “Media-related work is selling,” said Uribe. “That’s great to know so we can be strategic about what to bring next year.”
This enthusiasm was echoed by Jane Beebe of PDX Contemporary Art, who sold around 20 photographs by Masao Yamamoto, as well as works by Northwest favorites Jeffry Mitchell, Joe Rudko, Jenene Nagy, and D. E. May, whom Beebe calls “an artist’s artist”—many of the people who collect his intimate, textured collages are curators, artists, and other dealers.
The bigger blue chip galleries tended to be a bit more tight-lipped about sales, but Whitestone Gallery sold several paintings by Yayoi Kusama and Other Criteria’s pharmaceutical-themed Damien Hirst prints “do very well in the large biotech community here.”
It wasn’t just out-of-town dealers that were basking in a sales-induced bliss. “This year was beyond my expectations,” said Linda Hodges, whose booth emphasized young artists working with narrative storytelling themes.
“I think this was our best year,” said Gail Gibson of G. Gibson Gallery. “We’ve been selling things off the walls. I had to replenish them.”
Davidson Galleries found success with an entire booth devoted to the work of John Grade, whose massive wooden sculpture based on the form of a 140-year-old tree currently adorns Seattle Art Museum’s lobby.
“On the opening night, we sold the smallest piece,” said Contemporary director Miranda Metcalf. “The next day we sold the medium piece. And then finally the big one!” (Full disclosure: I served as the director of Davidson’s Antique Print Department from 2005-2010 and it warms my heart to see them doing well.)
This is a recurring theme I heard from the dealers: Seattle collectors tend to take things slow and make studied decisions. “This isn’t like other fairs, where there are sales right out of the gate,” said David Mitchell of Chicago’s Kavi Gupta. “People are taking time to look around, coming back, and buying things on the last day.”
One of my favorite booths belonged to KUK Galerie from Cologne, Germany, who were showing tiny, voyeuristic multimedia dioramas by Tracey Snelling. On Saturday, gallerist Markus Kersting was optimistic, but still awaiting a sale. By Sunday, he was following up on at least two, and there was a line outside the booth just to view the work.
Another standout booth belonged to Miami-and-Paris based 55Bellechasse, who were exhibiting some powerful images by Niloufar Banisadr that included a disclaimer from the artist to please not photograph them—a bold command in our era of overexposure.
And there were even a few places where you could almost forget you were at an art fair, such as the immersive theater that housed the world premiere of Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly’s choreographic two-channel installation Modern Living, and Jessica Jackson Hutchins’s outdoor sculpture Reason to Be, installed just north of the stadium.
Consisting of a decommissioned public bus shelter decked out with bespoke stained glass and a hammock, Reason to Be subtly addresses the tension between the rapidly expanding wealth underlying the art fair and the rampant economic and social inequality left in its wake. Intended to invoke both “public citizenship and personal spirituality,” this piece may be read as a nod to the more than 11,600 people in King Country who are currently homeless. (In many parts of the city, the benches from our bus shelters have been removed so that people can’t sleep on them.)
By asserting our public spaces as potential sites for safety, comfort, and spiritual transcendence, Hutchins hints at what art can be, when we look beyond capitalist constructs for its meaning. Art has the power to encourage contemplation, and even stir empathy in us, if that’s how we choose to use it. Whether or not we absorb this message is up to us.