ARMORY SHOW RETOOLS: SMALLER, MORE FUNSept. 26, 2011
Seventeen years ago, Paul Morris teamed up with three other New York art dealers to launch the Gramercy International Art Fair in the Gramercy Park Hotel at the foot of Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. The fair would morph into the Armory Show several years later. Last week, Morris came back to the hotel to preside over a press lunch in the rooftop Gramercy Terrace restaurant in anticipation of the 14th installment of the Armory Show, Mar. 8-11, 2012.
Morris had some news, to be sure. After 11 years at the helm, Katelijne De Backer has resigned as executive director of the show to pursue other things. Morris, who is V.P. of art shows and events at Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. (MMPI), which owns the Armory Show, is to take over her duties, at least for the time being.
The 2011 Armory Show had drawn record-breaking attendance of nearly 65,000 visitors, which “broke catering records and the elevators,” Morris joked. Sales were fantastic, but Morris had received some complaints from participating dealers, collectors and other visitors. The place was too big, too crowded, too busy. The show had nowhere to sit and relax. Going to the Armory Show had become, in short, not fun.
Now, the Armory Show is being scaled down by some 50 exhibitors (from more than 270 in 2011). Booths are being made larger, and more cafes and lounges are being added, in a design overhaul by the New York architectural firm Bade Stageberg Cox (which has just completed the renovation of the National Academy Museum and School on Fifth Avenue).
Some see the move as a reflection of an increasingly crowded art-fair market in New York -- notably, the arrival of the Frieze Art Fair, May 3-6, 2012, on Randall's Island in the East River. Though a handful of exhibitors may choose Frieze over the Armory, this isn't thought to be a major factor, as both fairs have plenty of applicants vying for empty booth space.
Morris insisted that the dramatic move -- in today’s economy, to choose a path that leads to smaller revenues (booth rental ranges from $12,000 to $60,000) -- was necessary to preserve the show’s identity and popularity. The strategy was accepted by Morris’ corporate overseers at MMPI, which purchased the Armory Show in 2005. MMPI president Christopher Kennedy has recently stepped down after 11 years in the post, to be replaced by his lieutenant, Mark Falanga.
The MMPI fair empire does continue to grow, however. In addition to the Armory Show, the Chicago real estate firm (a branch of Vornado Realty Trust) also owns Art Chicago, Art Toronto, Volta and the new Los Angeles fair, ArtPlatform, Oct. 1-3, 2011.
One final note: Chicago artist Theaster Gates has been selected to design the visual identity of the 2012 edition of the Armory Show. A potter and urban organizer whose works revolving around the Civil Rights movement have caught the art world’s imagination, Gates is currently a Loeb Fellow at Harvard; he is represented by Kavi Gupta gallery and is the subject of an upcoming survey at the Chicago MCA. In addition to designing the Armory Show’s printed matter, Gates will also make a limited edition multiple for the fair..