By F. Lennox Campello
If you have read this column regularly over the years, then you know that around this time I am always harping about the importance for artists and art dealers/galleries to explore and then have a presence at one of the reputable fairs in Miami during Art Basel week (which is usually the first week in December).
In the past I’ve also warned artists and galleries to stay away from predatory fairs, and to explore first, ask questions second and then ask more questions before investing the significant amount of money that it takes to participate in the art world’s “big dance.”
And yet every year, I run into dejected DMV artists and gallerists and art dealers looking gloomy in the face as they face the financial disaster that can result from doing a fair where nothing sells. As every participant learns sooner, rather than later, the art fair phenomenon is all about the commoditization of art.
I have been doing the Miami art fairs for over a decade now, and I continuously offer myself to gallerists, dealers and artists as a source of that most precious of things: information! It is all based on empirical data, rather than theory.
This year, as we have done for the last five years, Alida Anderson Art Projects participated in the Context Art Miami fair held in the Wynwood district of Miami. The gallery featured work by Dulce Pinzón (Mexico), Jodi Walsh (Canada), and local DMV artists Alma Selimovic (Bosnia), Elissa Farrow-Savos (US), Tim Vermeulen (US), Georgia Nassikas (US), Audrey Wilson (US) and yours truly. The gallery also sponsored former DMV artist (now living in NYC) Matthew Langley, and he hung 35 of his small works series in one of the fair’s public spaces.
Over in Miami Beach, the gallery had another booth, this one at the Scope Art Fair and focused on a solo booth for DMV blue chip artist Tim Tate, who had a series of his latest sculptural video works.
Doing three separate booths in two fairs is a lot of work, and one key lesson to learn here is that both Langley and Tate are excellent at “manning” their own space, discussing their work, managing sales, etc. If an artist can help the gallery during the fairs, then you’re one step ahead of the game already.
We all happened to be in Miami when the ancient and brutal Cuban dictator Fidel Castro Ruz finally died, and Miami being the heart of the Cuban Diaspora, exploded in joy. “Don’t judge my happiness,” began a sign being carried by a very happy woman on the streets of Little Havana, “Unless you have lived my pain,” it ended.
The day before the opening of the Context Art Miami fair, one of the cleaning ladies was nearby our booth and speaking on her cell phone using the machine gun staccato of Cuban Spanish that drives other Spanish speakers crazy. “Cubans,” once wrote the Argentinian writer Jacobo Timerman, “use Spanish as a weapon.”
I could tell that she was trying to calm someone down on the other side of the conversation. When she hung up, she burst into tears. Alarmed, I walked up to her and asked what was wrong. Prior to this event, we had exchanged pleasantries and she had told me that her family was from Matanzas. With tears on her face, she related that she had been speaking with her niece in Cuba. It seems that her niece was in the middle of her Quinceañera party when the Cuban police showed up.
A Quinceañera party is the coming of age party that Cuban girls, and girls throughout Latin America, celebrate on their 15th birthday. It remains one of the most important and strongest traditions of the Spanish-speaking world. In Cuba, because of the extreme necessities of the Cuban people, setting up a Quinceañera party often takes years of preparation, usually in close coordination with relatives in other countries who can hand-carry and bring the required items needed to stage the most important social event in a young girl’s life. In this case, the teary cleaning lady told me that she had made half a dozen trips in the last two years binging party items, shoes, dress, candy, stockings; the list went on and on as she sobbed and related what had happened.
The local Cuban police showed up to the party, and informed the girl’s family that they were in violation of the official nine days of luto (mourning) for the death of Fidel Castro Ruz; parties and music-playing was strictly forbidden. All guests’ names were taken down and all were ordered to leave. When La Quinceañera‘s mother began to cry and complain to the police, she was pushed to the ground and punched in the mouth. When La Quinceañera‘s father tried to help his wife, he was also beaten and then arrested.
That’s why this nice cleaning lady was trying to calm her abused family members across the miles, and then broke down once she hung up. “Even after that desgraciado is dead, he’s still abusing us,” she sobbed in Spanish. I hugged her, and we cried a little together. That’s was Cuba after Fidel, week one.
Opening night at art fairs are usually social events, with a few sales here and there, but mostly a “seen” and “be seen” event in Miami’s social scene. This year there was the usual sighting of impossibly slim women in impossibly high heels, and handsome young dudes in tight pants and sockless long shoes. There was also a lot of very good tasting food and plenty of Prosecco flowing.
Most of my family lives in Miami, and they started arriving in waves, and I spent much of opening night speaking to them… collectors also came by, most notably Texas übercollector Ardis Bartle, who hasn’t missed a Miami art week in years and who visits the top art fairs and always goes home with new art for her formidable collection.
With most of my family members in one place together, I brought out a folder with around 100 lithographs and etchings that I had done 1977-1981 while I was a student at the University of Washington School of Art, as I wanted to give them a choice of some prints as gifts.
Soon my familial peeps were spreading out the prints on the table and selecting them. A few minutes later I noticed that several other random people were also gathering around the table and selecting work. When I say “other random people” I mean strangers.
Before my mind got this fact clear, I realized that people were helping themselves to the artwork – not just my family, but perfect strangers.
By the time that I reached the folder, about 20 prints remained – I say maybe a third of the original 100 or so were in my family’s new art collection; the rest now belong to perfect strangers who never bothered to ask a question, but just angled in, got some prints and left. And that’s how I significantly expanded my collector base!