Josh Spero meets Armory Show director Noah Horowitz over an awkward Coca-Cola to discuss what the fair can learn from its era-defining ancestor, which introduced America to Modern art, and whether art fairs are really like the 99 Per Cent protest movement
THURSDAY: I TURN up at the Saatchi Gallery Mess to meet Noah Horowitz, director of the Armory Show, America’s most prominent Contemporary art get-together, which is on 7-10 March in New York. No Noah. A quick call; a foreign ringing; oh, the interview’s tomorrow?
Friday: Noah Horowitz, returned from a whistle-stop tour of Europe which has left him looking a little fatigued, is at the back of the Mess most of the way through a peppy Coke.
He offers me a postcard for the show, which is celebrating a quasi-centenary this year. In 1913, Modern art hit America at the original Armory Show (so-called because it was held in a National Guard weapons store; pictured below) when Arthur Davies and Walt Kuhn decided to bring across the works delighting and shocking Europe.
Pictured above: A photograph of artworks at the 1913 Armory Show
Pieces by Matisse, Kandinsky, Picasso and Duchamp, including his volatile Nude Descending a Staircase, all arrived and, as The New Criterion recently wrote, ‘No admirer of modern art can help but dream of walking through those galleries.’
JUMP TO THE mid-Nineties and the Gramercy International, a hotel art fair in New York set up by gallerists like Matthew Marks and Paul Morris. The Gramercy moves to the Armory on Lexington Avenue and inherits the name. (Now it’s at Piers 92 and 94.) So it the Armory’s centenary – after a fashion. The way I ask my first question, however, evidently suggests to Horowitz that I think the fair has been going for a hundred years, so I get a long, slightly tense answer about the origins of the fair.
I try again. What can the Armory of today learn from the Armory of 1913? ‘The Armory Show as an exhibition-slash-commercial enterprise was shocking, people despised it. Now we’re in this kind of global community, very post-modern, everything’s already been done in a way, [but] I think a fair in New York City can still be fresh, introduce people to ideas, to an audience in a way that we do an amazing job of.’
Pictured above: The image on the Armory’s promotional postcard, featuring the piers it is held on
One of the major complaints about the Armory is its size: two years ago it was 290 galleries, and this year it will be 210. If you consider that Frieze has 175 and it’s impossible to get round with any meaningful appreciation of the work, the engorged Armory must have been hellish.
Horowitz, whose book Art of the Deal looks at how art, money and globalisation interact and corrupt, says size is no longer everything: ‘The age of the ever-expanding art fair I think is maybe not the right model for the next model. You need a different model, you need something more in tune with the fact that there is in many ways an oversupply of fairs and galleries can’t do them all.’
WE STIFFLY TALK about the difference between the high end of the art market, exemplified by box-office-breaking evening sales at auction houses, and, well, the rest, which is suffering and even slumping. Does he recognise this?
‘Yes. I think in a weird way it almost parallels this 99 per cent/1 per cent argument, that a lot of art-market journalism has talked endlessly about the strength of the blue-chip auction segment and what a handful of David Zwirners and Gagosians and Iwan Wirths are doing with their gallery programmes, which are really growing at an incredible click internationally, but I think if you cut below the surface of that, there’s a core upper-middle market of galleries for whom business is increasingly tough – they’re not necessarily selling name-brand artists and they are finding things difficult and things become a little less predictable.’ It seems a little rich, perhaps, to compare the social protest movement of the 99 Per Cent to the problems suffered by art dealers operating within the 1 Per Cent, but the art world has never been accused of not taking itself seriously enough.
This is going to be a problem for anyone below the top tier: too many art fairs, costly in cash and manpower and artistic resources; expensive gallery overheads; and a shrinking market. ‘At some point there’s going to have to be a coming-down to reality and a check about how you prioritise things and what things you participate in. It’s all part of people becoming more particular and selective about things.’
So, to go back to his earlier idea, will you end up with 1 per cent of galleries doing big international fairs with brand-name artists and 99 per cent doing fewer? ‘No, I think that they will but they’ll be more specific so they might do this, that and the other fair, they’ll do one regional fair a year. There’s been a real free-for-all recently where every good gallery so to speak has had to have a presence in so many different things simultaneously, but that’s not sustainable. So I think there will be a coming-back to reality for some of these guys.’
Not all, though: the mega-galleries, with their wild resources and perpetual popularity, ‘are the exceptions, not the rule, in that they’re very de-linked at a fundamental level from a lot of what else is going on’.
THE ARMORY HAS a whippersnapper at its heels: Frieze held its first, well-received New York fair last year. So did he enjoy it? He looks caught off guard. ‘Did I enjoy Frieze New York? Yeah, I mean, look, they produced a very nice fair in a part of New York that hasn’t even had an art fair before, and I think they did a commendable job in the venue and it was widely-praised as a site, as a space, great catering, great food, and there was a great group of galleries, so I enjoyed Frieze but I go to a lot of art fairs and enjoy [them].’
He points to the Armory’s easier location – not on a nearby island but in Midtown – and its long-standing institutional and collector relationships, but with controversy over its ownership (a recent deal to sell it to art publisher Louise Blouin looks like it’s fallen apart) and Frieze in the ascendant, it’s not clear the Armory is launching into its second ‘century’ with as much vigour as it did the first.
As I’m about to leave, he presses on me a copy of the Armory’s promotional postcard. I add it to the one already in my bag.
The Armory Show runs 7-10 March 2013 on Piers 92 and 94 in New York