Last year, even the birds showed up.
Under the silent gaze of a few unticketed pigeons in the rafters of CenturyLink Field Event Center, 15,000 people swarmed the inaugural Seattle Art Fair, a network of 60 booths of paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos, and at least one virtual reality trip.
Outside, a city typically art-dead in the summer came alive. The fair fanned out into group exhibitions, walking tours, talks, drink specials, shuttle rides. It turned out to be the biggest single art event in the history of Seattle.
But it wasn't a gold mine for galleries. Nobody talks specifics unless they want to brag (and there has been very little bragging), but the hints are there that there weren't enough major buyers last year to sustain the fair in perpetuity—and certainly not enough buyers who actually live in Seattle.
This year, Seattle Art Fair is riding on the excitement left over from last year, and a lot of hope and perceived potential. It really was a good party, and in many ways it should be better this year.
Art Market, the company that produces this fair and others around the country, is hoping for a crowd of 18,000 to 20,000. Along with partner company Vulcan, they took an iron to last year's wrinkles, such as slow lines down the block and VIPs not feeling terribly VI. They had more time, so they worked harder to try to attract collectors outside Seattle. They hired an artistic director.
They know, too, that it will not matter whether 30,000 people show up to Seattle Art Fair. It cannot succeed unless galleries make money. It's expensive and exhausting to rent a booth, ship art to another city, and staff the place. It has to be worth it.
But hey, more galleries than last year—80 instead of 60—are taking the bet.
Greg Kucera is on the fair's dealer committee.
"The fair is much more organized this year," he told me. "The first year, it's a novelty. The second year, it's here to stay. It's going to be a force to be reckoned with."
Beth DeWoody is a major collector based in LA who traveled to Seattle Art Fair last year, bought work, and plans to come again.
"For the first year, I thought it was a really nice fair," she told me by phone. "I managed to find some interesting things."
She has friends here, so the fair gives her an excuse to travel to a city she loves in its best season. Last year she met Monte Clark, a very good dealer in Vancouver, BC (who is slated to return), and was pleased with the overall adventure. But she has concerns.
For one, Seattle's inadequate base of collectors. For those of us who live here, this problem is nothing new. To DeWoody, the fair could offer a little training, maybe, the kinds of experiences, like docent tours, that can cut through the intimidation of art and cultivate new buyers. Vulcan curator Greg Bell said existing events fill up so fast that setting up tours is a complicated proposition, but one they're considering.
DeWoody's impression was that "things that... were very inexpensive sold well, and I think there's the potential there."
What about the big money? DeWoody wonders if billionaire fair founder Paul Allen could help with that.
Nobody should believe that one man makes an art fair go around, at least not in any sustainable way. But while Allen was able to talk major galleries into bringing their art, his involvement so far hasn't drawn many other high-flying buyers. What is Allen's, or Vulcan's, long-term strategy? Allen, as well as the director of Vulcan's art team, declined to be interviewed for this story.
The Microsoft cofounder and Seahawks owner created Seattle Art Fair because he was inspired by other international art events he attends. Vulcan is his company, and Vulcan provides the funding and staff for the fair's noncommercial projects and talks.
Behemoth Gagosian Gallery is not returning this year. But other great galleries will be here from out of town, including Petzel, Pace, Marlborough, Allan Stone, and Jane Lombard from New York; Roberts & Tilton and Charlie James from LA; Richard Gray from Chicago; Paul Thiebaud from San Francisco; and Kaikai Kiki from Tokyo (Vulcan is also organizing Juxtapoz x Superflat, a simultaneous exhibition with Kaikai Kiki mega-artist Takashi Murakami at Pivot, Allen's private art space in South Lake Union).
"It is a stronger group overall," said Robert Goff, director of David Zwirner Gallery, which is returning. "You have more good galleries at that upper tier. I really hope people support them and buy from them."
Last year, Zwirner's booth, right there in the front row of galleries near the potted-tree-lined VIP lounge, was like a tiny, eclectic museum, and this year it's planned to be similar, featuring major artists whose works make it only rarely to this region, including Giorgio Morandi, Alice Neel, Yayoi Kusama, Wolfgang Tillmans, Luc Tuymans, and R. Crumb.
Zwirner is one of the most important art galleries in the world. Why come to Seattle?
"My impression is that we don't see collectors from Seattle very often," Goff said. He explained that Seattle collectors aren't often spotted visiting New York galleries or other art fairs; Zwirner is looking for them at home. Yet last year, "we did well overall with collectors from elsewhere, from Portland and Los Angeles"—but those hoped-for new Seattle collectors did not materialize.
Even Allen did not buy anything from Zwirner last year.
Given the wealth in Seattle and the legacy of important art collections assembled here by tech giants—Allen, Bill Gates, and Jon Shirley, to name the early Microsoft generation—it's common to hear the question "Where's the next generation?"
In the Bay Area, a few big collectors are becoming mentors. Seattle could use mentors stepping up in the same kind of way, Goff said.
For brick-and-mortar galleries in Seattle, it hasn't been a great year. Several veteran venues have closed doors, including Platform, PUNCH, and Roq La Rue, all of which were part of the fair last summer. Others, including Bridge Productions, Foster/White, and Kagedo are Seattle-area additions to the fair this year. The Northwest lineup also includes returning dealers Greg Kucera, James Harris, G. Gibson, Mariane Ibrahim, Winston Wächter, Abmeyer + Wood, SEASON, and Woodside/Braseth from Seattle, and Upfor and PDX Contemporary from Portland.
But "from the very beginning of this thing, the idea was to put together something that was going to do more than just create a commercial marketplace," said Art Market cofounder Max Fishko. "We wanted to... make real contributions to the artistic culture of the city."
Independent curator Laura Fried is the fair's artistic director. Based in LA, she commissioned artists from Seattle and LA to make works for the occasion, to drag attention upward, which Seattle does need. "It can seem like Seattle and LA are not even on the same coast," she said.
Fried scheduled continuous projects and talks throughout the fair and off-site. We’ll see a display of ceramics by Jeffry Mitchell at the fair; Wynne Greenwood’s soft sculptures out in Occidental Square; a growing archive of video made for public-access television by Public Fiction, appearing both at the fair and the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington; renowned Japanese collective teamLab is creating an installation for kids; curators and artists are flying in to do public talks.
Satellite events have mushroomed, things like Juxtapoz x Superflat, two local shows including the 21,000-square-foot Out of Sight at King Street Station, the site-specific group exhibition In Context one block away, and Pioneer Square's First Thursday Art Walk, Seattle galleries at the fair are also open in their usual locations.
It's also Seafair Weekend. The Mariners have home games every day. Take public transit. The two miles of the Sodo Busway will be lined by new street murals from Northwest and European artists in honor of the fair.
James Harris, the Seattle dealer, hopes the fair will encourage big Seattle collectors to expand their commitment to local art.
Soon the troops of art handlers will descend on Sodo. This time, Harris will spread out in a bigger, more ambitious booth. He doesn't really want to talk about last year. "Let's put it that way," he said. "I'm taking the stance that this is the year for Seattle Art Fair."