New York Print Fairs - Changing Experiences

Summertime is when art dealers plan their fall and winter activities.  Normally we at Mesh would now be looking towards the New York Print Fairs which take place in late October.  This year we’ll be sitting these out.  A number of factors have pushed us to reflect on the effectiveness of so-called “Print Week” and the shows many print collectors have visited at some time in the past.  As we take a hiatus as exhibitors at one of the New York shows this fall, we wanted to reflect on where these fairs came from, what made them great and what we believe could come next.  This article starts with a historic look.  If you’re not interested in the history of art fairs in general, or print fairs in particular, you can skip this part or our article and go straight to the overview of what things will look like come fall 2019.

New York Print Fair - IFPDA - EAB Fair - Satellite Print Fair

A little history

It might surprise art collectors today to know that, until the late 1990s large international art fairs were rather scarce.  Worldwide, approximately one major international show took place per week.  While the upper crust of contemporary art galleries would head to Basel, Switzerland in mid-June, one month earlier, in mid-May you’d be attending Art Chicago on the city’s Navy Pier.  And if you were a dealer in 18th century paintings, you needed to be at Tefaf in Maastricht in mid-March.  And only a handful of higher-end galleries could afford to travel to more than one or two of these fairs each year.  Often art dealers sought out real estate in areas with plenty of foot traffic of people who liked to gallery hop, rather than to meet new buyers at fairs.  That’s why in places like New York, galleries concentrated in particular areas, like the Upper East Side or 57th street, later in Soho, and in Chelsea today.  By being close to one another galleries’ clienteles were cross-pollinating.  Similar concentrations were found in other major art centers, like Paris’ Carré Rive Gauche or Chicago’s River North.  Galleries realized that they benefited from banding together.

Art Chicago Logo - before Art Expo - Contemporary Art on Navy Pier - organized by Thomas Blackman
(for more on Art Chicago, see Wikipedia article)

What had existed prior to the massive multiplication of art fairs, were myriad community arts and antique fairs.  Mostly found in suburbs, and catering to affluent populations, these shows existed near most major wealthy urban centers.  They provided well-off patrons of the arts an opportunity to buy refined home furnishings without having to travel far from home base.  In the 1980s, well before the proliferation of art fairs occurred, print dealers realized that this way of selling art worked well for them.  By bringing together 15 or 20 dealers in one place, they could easily afford a venue rental and a bit of promotion to get their clients to come out.  In diverse places, from San Francisco to the DC area, and from Saint Louis to Boston, print fairs appeared.  When the success proved easy to replicate, a few dealers decided to do the same in New York City.

New York Print Fair - IFPDA - Seventh Regiment Armory - Park Avenue Armory

The first print fairs in New York, organized co-op style by dealers, appeared in the mid-1980s.  This event grew, and eventually resulted in the creation of the International Fine Print Dealers Association in 1991.  The IFPDA professionalized the event.  By contracting the 7th Regiment Armory on Park Avenue in New York, the Print Fair almost instantaneously became a blue-chip event.  Soon print collectors flocked to the fall-time event, as did print curators and arts enthusiasts of all stripes.  The event was very successful for many years.  It even survived the hiatus of 2001, when the Armory was taken over by the army and the annual fair had to be cancelled.  That year some 40 dealers retreated to the Lyden Gardens hotel (called today the Affinia Gardens) on East 64th, and showed in the hotel’s rooms.

Print Fair - New York - NY - Browsing inventory - flipping through the print racks

In the wake of this success, other similar New York events started to appear.  Starting in 1988 and continuing for more than 20 years, the show promoter who helped the IFPDA put on The New York Print Fair also organized a springtime show, also held at The Armory.  Works on Paper, put on by Sanford Smith (Sanford L. Smith + Associates) featured drawings and photography, alongside original prints.  It was a late-winter event (late February or early March), liked by many because of it featured a great diversity of art on paper: drawings, photography, prints, book arts...  It did not however survive the financial meltdown of 2008.

Opening Night EAB Fair - Print Fair New York

Another show that came in the wake of the New York Print Fair is the Editions/Artists’ Book Fair, or EAB for short.  Founded in 1998 it brought a contemporary dimension to Manhattan, at a time when the “big” print fair was dominated by dealers who specialized in secondary market prints.  At that time French Impressionism, British and American Modernism, German Expressionism or Japanese Ukiyo-E were what brought collectors to the Armory.  Print publishers like Pace Prints or Marlborough Graphics were in the minority, and most of them featured a mix of contemporary and modern prints.  This has now changed completely.  Many mid-market dealers who sell older prints no participate in the large Print Fair, housed today at the Jacob Javits Center, in the Hudson Yards neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan.  About 15 dealers who sell secondary market material have gone back to a co-op show named The New York Satellite Print Fair.  More information about that below.

What does it look like today?

Today the IFDPA Print Fair is held at the Javits Center.  A few years ago the Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy terminated contracts with most fairs (aside from TEFAF), so it could focus its programming on performing arts.  Because of the lack of large exhibition spaces in Manhattan, the IFPDA had to migrate to New York City’s convention center.  It is not beloved by New Yorkers.  But with the development of Hudson Yards, its proximity to Chelsea, and its many galleries nearby, the Print Fair is rather conveniently located.  For its first two editions in this new locale, attendance has been solid.  In 2018 there was a slight drop in attendance.  This year’s edition will tell whether this is a trend or a fluke.

New York Print Fair - IFPDA Print Fair - booth with contemporary prints

What is clearly not a fluke is the makeup of the New York Print Fair.  While the Armory would host about 90 dealers, the Javits’ incarnation of the fair this year will only house about 70.  Looking at gross square footage this seems to be a function of size.  However, the decrease in dealers is not a function of square footage, but rather of cost.  Without going into details, it’s accurate to say that the cost of participation in the print fair has grown fast.  For most dealers participating in the Print Fair is no longer financially rewarding.  This reality was already pronounced in the last years of Armory fairs.  It has been exacerbated by the move to the Javits.  The makeup of the membership of the IFPDA and its fair have also changed drastically.  Today the fair’s exhibitors are overwhelmingly contemporary publishers or art dealers who specialize in art by living artists.  A solid contingent of dealers in old master prints remains at the fair.  And in addition to a few who specialize in high-end modern European prints (think Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch and Cyril Power), you’ll also find a few dealers who sell high-end 20th century American prints, such as the work of Martin Lewis or Gustave Baumann.  But the cost of the fair has made it almost impossible for dealers to sell anything in the low four figures, let alone any work priced in the hundreds of dollars.  The print fair as a place where anyone with a bit of disposable income could buy a work of art on a whim, is no longer.

The Editions/Artists’ Book Fair was, and still might be, more democratic.  Held until last year at The Tunnel, it will move this year to The Caldwell Factory (a.k.a. Cedar Lake).  The venue of The Tunnel was sold this past year and the rental fee seems to have gone up a lot.  This is certainly the reason for the E/AB Fair to be moving a few blocks away.  Today managed by the Lower East Side Printshop, a non-for-profit, the fair is thus undergoing a transformation; not its first.  Despite the venue change the booth rents at the fair have also increased.  In the case of the E/AB Fair this price change is not gradual, like it has been at the IFPDA Fair.  Most booth options at E/AB have increased 35 to 40 percent over last year’s fees!  This surely puts the event out of reach for certain small print shops, co-ops or non-for-profits.  Then again, when it comes to exhibiting in New York, transportation to Manhattan, hotels and assorted expenses play a big role in overall cost.  But spending at least $7000 for any booth option with walls makes it hard to have a profitable show for all but the most competitive players in the contemporary print scene.  Now that the fair has announced this year’s roster, it is clear that the price increase is dramatically changing the size and composition of the fair.  E/AB has shrunk from 47 exhibitors in 2018, to 36 only in fall 2019.  27 exhibitors are returning, 9 are new, and 20 vendors who exhibited last year will not return.  This radical transformation is obviously happening for reasons described above.  The question that remains is whether the event can weather it.  Having a little turnover in exhibitors is generally good.  It keeps an event fresh.  When you shrink nearly 25%, and lose nearly 45% of previous participants, it can be a challenge to entice regular visitors to return.  While this change might be an opportunity for a necessary reset; it may also prove to be too drastic a change.  Time will tell.

Editions and Artists Book Fair - EAB - new venue - Caldwell Factory facade

The last show to be added to the mix, starting in 2013, and the one that today seems the steadiest is The New York Satellite Print Fair.  For the sake of full disclosure, I will mention that “yours truly” was an IFPDA board member for 6 years, a frequent exhibitor at the Print Fair for a couple decades and then joined the Satellite Print Fair in 2016 (under the identity of secondary market dealer Armstrong Fine Art).  The fair used to be held at The Bohemian National Hall, because of its proximity to the Park Avenue Armory.  When it moved, the Satellite Fair found a venue called Mercantile Annex 37, located a block from the Javits.  It has hosted 15 to 17 dealers, for the past two years, most of which sell older art in a range of price points.  Because it is mostly a table-top show (with limited wall space assigned to each dealer), and because it is run by volunteer dealers (of which we were one), it remains by far the most affordable print fair in New York during Print Week.  Most dealers who have participated remain dedicated to it.  There is little turnover in its roster.  This fall’s edition is no exception. The show added two contemporary print publishers last year and will have two more joining this year.  So, along with a few dealers who show contemporary prints as part of their activity, it too is becoming an event showing more contemporary works on paper.  It does however remain focused primarily on dealers who show older prints.

Print Fair - New York - NY - Taking a photograph of art at New York Print Fair

As we ponder all these changes it becomes apparent that something’s afoot.  In our opinion, the cost of participating in New York fairs has become prohibitive for many print galleries, dealers, publishers, and co-ops.  When being in one place for three to four days costs a dealer somewhere between $10,000 and $30,000 (or more), making it worthwhile is hard.  The way to counter this is obvious for most dealers.  It means going upmarket.  Selling works in the hundreds of dollars or low thousands will likely not make for a profitable event.  Therefore dealers sell works in the thousands, tens of thousands, or beyond.  Old master print dealers, who can sell a rare work by Albrecht Dürer or Rembrandt, can make it.  A publisher or a dealer selling blue-chip contemporary artist’s prints (think Ed Ruscha or Alex Katz) can probably make it as well.  All others have to ponder their options seriously before taking the plunge.  The direct effect of this trend has been that many collectors who used to come to Manhattan from near and far, ready to spend a few hundred or a couple thousand, don’t visit any longer.  And so, one trend exacerbates the other.  The question is now whether the trend can be reversed.

New York Satellite Print Fair - NY - Annex 37 - New York Art Fair

We at Mesh will visit the shows in New York this year, as we always have.  We’ll keep our ear close to the ground and report on what we see.  We are also looking for other opportunities to show the wonderful works on paper we have the privilege of bringing to collectors, in New York or elsewhere.  While New York has been the arts capital of the world for a half-century at least, it may not remain so.  Or at the very least, part of the activity that converged there, like the art fairs, may head somewhere else.  After all, once upon a time, Chicago was the North American Mecca of contemporary arts one week each year.  And to this day a little city named Maastricht in The Netherlands puts on the most famous art fair of secondary market artwork in the world.  We’re not saying New York will not host the most important print fairs in the US in future.  We’re saying it might not; and maybe that’s okay.

 New York Print Fair - Satellite Print Fair - EAB Fair - Mesh Art Gallery selection of prints

On a final note, we want to mention that you should keep us in mind: we’re always looking for new ways to “get out”.  It may very well be that a new dynamic starts to build in New York during “Print Week”, in which case we will be back in 2020.  In the meantime, if you attend a show in which you think Mesh should consider participating, or you are part of an arts organization that would like to put together a fundraising event, let us know.  We’re always looking to show the wonderful works of art in our care, and meet new art aficionados and art collectors.

Print Dealer writing up an invoice - New York Print Fairs - Satellite
Yours Truly (a.k.a. Bernard Derroitte) writing up an invoice
at The NY Satellite Print Fair, fall 2018.

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