San Francisco's grandly named International Art Exposition, now in its sixth year, opened Jan. 16-19, 2004, with nearly 100 galleries from the Bay Area, elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad, all with high hopes of finding buyers for the work of some 2,000 artists.
This year, exposition organizers Thomas Hart and Tom Blackman consolidated the fair into a single building at Fort Mason Center, unlike previously, when the fair occupied two. Considering the increasing competition in the art-fair business, however, its no mystery that several prominent out-of-state galleries chose not to take part.
That said, the art on view was broadly appealing to collectors at every level. San Francisco's Paul Thiebaud Gallery boasted a magnificent panorama by Wayne Thiebaud, titled Riverscape, priced at $750,000. O.K. Harris Works of Art, one of the pioneers of New York's SoHo district, showed a trademark Ralph Goings diner still-life, a close-up view of a salt shaker and napkin dispenser, priced at $175,000. An impressively large Alex Katz painting of a female swimmer reclining on a raft was for sale at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery from San Francisco.
San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier brought outstanding blue chip contemporary works to the fair, including a major John Chamberlain sculpture, a Warhol Brillo Box and several Gerhard Richter paintings. The John Berggruen Gallery featured works Christopher Brown and Squeak Carnwath, two local favorites, while works by another hometown artist, Debra Oropallo, were on view at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery. And Michele Pred's Encirclement (2003), a post-9/11 installation piece of found objects -- a collection of confiscated airline contraband, measuring six feet in diameter -- stood out at Brian Gross Fine Art, San Francisco.
Despite brisk attendance, most of the dealers reported that sales remained in the lower price range. Despite modest results, dealers were upbeat about the San Francisco venue. "There is a level of excitement from visitors that we haven't seen in the past few years," said Paul Thiebaud Gallery director Kelly Purcell.
Still, art fairs live and die not only by the level of enthusiasm but also by commerce. In addition, the media plays a crucial roll in the success of every art fair -- and several dealers noted that a local art critic Kenneth Baker had given the show a less-than-glowing review, calling it "provincial."
In the end, the San Francisco fair must offer collectors a reason to come and buy. As Ethan Karp, director of O.K. Harris, commented, "If I had the space and wherewithal I would buy from every ninth gallery."
Still, there remains a high level of optimism for future San Francisco art fairs -- at least from organizer Tom Hart, who deemed this year's event "a rousing success." Hart went on to claim that "everyone loved the consolidation of the show into one hall. . . and everyone seems to be planning to come back."