The Curious Case of the DMV and Art Fairs

By F. Lennox Campello

The Curious Case of the DMV and Art Fairs

By the time that you read this column, an international art fair will have come and gone to the DMV.

This is important and a key arts event for our area, as art fairs in cities across the world continue to remain as one of the key components of the planet’s cultural tapestry, with Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) still holding the title of the “big dance of the art world” each December in the Greater Miami area.

Other cities around the world, London, Toronto, Madrid, Capetown, Frankfurt, Basel, Buenos Aires, etc., all host and have really good art fairs as well, and many American cities – besides Miami – also host excellent fairs, most notably New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, etc.

And yet, in spite of several attempts by art fair world giants such as the Art Miami group, and by ubercollectors such as Mera Rubell, the DMV’s attempts to enter the art fair circuit have failed in the recent past. We are all hoping that this new attempt – titled SuperfineDC art fair – will succeed and return each year.

Why is the DMV such a tough nut to crack for art fair organizers? It’s a paradoxically confounding issue! After all, according to a recent census data release, the DMV has the planet’s second highest concentration of multi-millionaires; the disposable income is present in the Greater DC area and surrounding counties (six of the top 10 richest counties in the United States are in the DMV).

But it is also a fact that although the money is here, as anyone who’s ever tried to sell a piece of art in the area knows, the collectors themselves are far and few in between, and a significant number of the 125,000 millionaires who (according to Census figures) live in the DMV region do not generally buy artwork with the same zest and zeal that they obtain giant mansions in Potomac, and ride around in huge SUVs, or expensive weekend motorcycles.

Why? Because to a certain extent, many of them lack the “formation” (as a Communist would say) to really understand, appreciate and know the difference between a “picture” and a work of art.

It’s not that they are stupid or uncultured – after all, most of them are first generation, self-made “progressive” men and women, often from blue collar backgrounds, and who worked their way up the capitalism food chain and made themselves what they are today.

Savvy businessmen, too many sharp lawyers, brilliant computer geeks, enviable technocrats – and all with little, if any, exposure to the arts in their upbringing, and more importantly, exposure to the availability of the arts. The last due to the exceptional apathy that our local DMV mainstream media usually has towards the local visual arts.

We also have a really good art scene, especially in Alexandria and anchored by the Torpedo Factory and the Art League, but mostly centered around the many museums which we’re lucky to have in the area – mostly all “national” museums, which sucks for DMV artists, since these same museums seldom pay attention to their own backyard, but there are a lot of museums nonetheless, catering to a national (tourist) audience. We also have a lot of great art education programs, since we’re surrounded by dozens of world class Universities and colleges in the area with terrific art programs.

We also have highly attended and highly ranked outdoor art festivals – most notably in Bethesda, Alexandria, and Reston, and the Artomatic open show draws as many as 1,000 artists and 75,000 visitors!

Our area also has the lowest unemployment rate in the Universe. All of those things are ingredients which would lead one to think that an art fair would do well around the DMV.

No one has cracked that nut yet, and if you are a constant reader of this column, then you know that (since I have been participating in art fairs for well over a decade now), I have often offered advice via this pulpit on how to stage a potentially successful art fair in the DMV, and how local visual arts organizations (art leagues, coop galleries, etc.) can “play” at the art fairs.

Art fairs are a huge financial risk to art galleries – You drop $10,000 to $15,000 bucks on an art fair, and if you come home with little or no sales, and an empty bank account… that often means that it is lights out for the gallery. I’ve seen and heard this happen multiple times in the decade plus that I’ve been doing art fairs.

What are the art fair costs? There are direct costs and associated costs.

Direct costs are:

(a) Cost of the basic booth

(b) Cost of additional booth stuff (extra walls, extra lights, storage)

(c) Some fairs have a “shared” advertising cost

Associated Costs are:

(a) Cost of required insurance

(b) Cost of transportation of the art. If using own vehicle, then also cost of parking it and gas

(c) Cost of people transportation to the fair, food and hotel, etc.

Bottom Line: Commercial galleries take huge chances at art fairs. My very first art fair all-around cost was about $8,000 over a decade ago in New York – all that was charged on the gallery’s credit card and we held our breath while at the fair. We sold about $30,000 worth of art, and thus after commissions to the artists we cleared $15,000 and paid off the credit card, and then had $6,000 to put towards the next art fair fee.

I can count on one hand the number of times that we have ever sold that much art in any gallery art show in the DMV; and as a reference, I’ve had a physical brick-and-mortar gallery here of one sort or another since 1996 and through 2009.

Since those galleries closed – the last one in 2009 (three years after I left it and we went virtual) – I’ve focused mostly on doing art fairs and done well.

But, in the 21st century, doing art fairs is a “must do” not only for independently owned commercial fine art galleries, but also as I noted earlier, for any and all other genres of visual art spaces (nonprofits, artists cooperatives, art leagues, art schools, etc.).

What’s in an art fair for the artists?

Usually a lot more than for the gallery. I will repeat this: just as often, an artist reaps more good things out of an art fair than the gallery does.

These things include:

(a) Exposure to more art collectors, curators, press, etc. in a few days than in years of exhibiting art around the DMV. You will see more people in 4-5 days than in five to ten years at a gallery in the DMV.

(b) Exposure to other galleries who may be interested in your work – I have multiple examples of this – Just ask DMV area artist Judith Peck what has happened to her career once she started showing at art fairs.

(c) A significantly higher chance of getting critical press, as art fair openings are a magnet for nor only the usual press, but also for every other scribe who has anything to do with writing about art.

(d) A significantly higher chance of getting your work noticed by both freelance and museum curators. The chance of getting your work noticed by a DMV museum curator is probably worse than the chance of winning the lottery. Most DMV area museum curators (AU’s Jack Rasmussen being the brilliant exception) would rather take a cab to Dulles to fly to Miami to see emerging artists’ works at Miami fairs than taking a cab to see a gallery show in Georgetown.

(e) Being part of the art fair “wake effect” — what happens after the fair ends.

(f) A much better chance to getting invited to participate in other shows such as university shows, themed-shows, group shows, etc. Ask Virginia artist Sheila Giolitti about that, or (now) Ohio artist Audrey Wilson.

Twice in the last five or six years I’ve been retained as an advisor to two giant international art fair conglomerates which were exploring the DMV as a potential site for expansion.

I was pretty brutal with them on the negatives (which I’ll gladly expand on upon demand, but most of which have been documented here in the two decades that this column has been documenting the DMV art scene), and the many great positives, as well as what I thought was the secret code to break the art fair losing streak of the DMV.

And thus kudos to SuperfineDC on trying to crack the DC art fair conundrum – I hope that you’ll be back and grow and grow; what’s good for art, is good for the DMV.

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