For art-world pilgrims decamping for the summer to Long Island’s East End, Harper Levine, the rare-book dealer with spaces in East Hampton and New York City, and Bill Powers, the founder of Half Gallery, will launch the inaugural edition of Upstairs Art Fair in Amagansett in July. The weekend-long fair, scheduled for July 14-16, will make its debut in the wake of cancellation news from Art Hamptons and Art Southampton, the area’s two major art fairs. Upstairs, however, is not angling to fill the same blue-chip niche.
“I didn’t feel like Art Hamptons or the other fairs that people expect out there are something I could relate to or that our audience would be interested in,” said Powers. Those fairs, he added, diplomatically, were “more for the equestrian crowd.”
Upstairs has more in common spiritually with smart, scruffy alternative spaces like Fireplace Project, the East Hampton gallery housed in a former garage, than it does with lavish white-tented to-dos with valet parking.
“No one should worry about what they wear to the Upstairs Art Fair,” said Powers. “You can come in your bathing suit if you want. It will be serious art but a casual atmosphere.”
The setting will be an old red and white barn that once housed an art school, and the fair’s name reflects the same nonchalant ethos. “We only got the upstairs of the barn,” said Powers.
The fair adds to a growing number of deliberately laid-back ventures that offset the East End’s upscale art scene, with its tony openings and glitzy summer galas. “I feel like the Hamptons has seen a resurgence in contemporary art in the last few years,” said Powers, pointing to New York galleries and booksellers with anti-posh outposts such as Karma, which opened an Amagansett branch in a shingled two-story house in 2012, and Boo-Hooray, which celebrated the launch of its Montauk space last month. “It seems like there’s more of that energy out there now.”
Last summer, Powers curated a Walter Robinson show at the Melet Mercantile branch in Montauk, where he owns a house with his wife, the fashion designer Cynthia Rowley. The store and exhibition space also staged a 20th-anniversary screening of the movie Basquiat hosted by director Julian Schnabel. “It’s those sorts of activities that made the room to do something like the Upstairs Art Fair,” said Powers.
There can be something refreshing about seeing—and buying—art in unorthodox spaces set off from the city’s familiar white-box circuit, noted Powers. “I think people get kind of tired of going to the same venues all the time, so the trick is how to bring a level of novelty and stability to an art crowd,” he said. “I feel like doing it in a place people have never seen before but with galleries that people recognize gives collectors a sense of what to expect.”
Upstairs came together quickly, when Powers and Levine began inviting like-minded dealers to participate one month ago. The 11 exhibitors include Lower East Side mainstays Rachel Uffner and James Fuentes as well as New Release, the two-year-old gallery founded by Half Gallery director Erin Goldberger. Among the other exhibitors are East End locals including Halsey McKay, which opened in East Hampton in 2011, and Rental Gallery, the new East Hampton iteration of dealer Joel Messler’s first galleries in Los Angles and New York. Most dealers, Powers said, are bringing paintings and small sculptures. He and Goldberger will devote Half Gallery’s booth to paintings by Genieve Figgis and Duncan Hannah. Other participants on the Upstairs roster are Ceysson & Bénétière, Harper’s Books, Karma, Magenta Plains, and Yours, Mine & Ours.
With its insouciant attitude, Upstairs might evoke projects like B-Pad, the tongue-in-cheek riff on the uptown photography show Aipad that was organized by Richard Prince’s erstwhile book store and publishing house Fulton Ryder. The last iteration of B-Pad, in 2014, featured Karma, Harper’s Books, and Fulton Ryder, which published Power’s book Boat People around that time. Upstairs Art Fair is something of a reunion for the close-knit group. “Upstairs is in that same spirit,” Powers said—“almost like a shadow fair.”