The Armory Fair’s predecessor, the Gramercy International Art Fair, was born in 1994 when dealers Matthew Marks, Colin De Land, Pat Hearn, and Paul Morris installed artworks on the walls of several rented rooms in the Gramercy Hotel. The fair expanded over the years to increasingly larger spaces at the Park Armory Building and the Pier, attracting enough satellite fairs and collateral events to fill “Armory Arts Week” as it was dubbed this year. Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers six months ago, art dealers, collectors, and institutions have been bracing for the worst. A couple of blocks away from Lehman’s former New York headquarters, the Armory Show provided a testing ground for a market that generally remains less volatile than financial markets (though not entirely immune to economic trends). To the relief of artists and dealers, however, sales during the fairs exceeded expectations, even if they were slower than in previous years; the Armory even registered a thirty-percent increase in attendance.
Chelsea gallery Cheim & Read reported the sale of a $1 million piece by Louise Bourgeois; Lisson gallery sold two Anish Kapoor sculptures bearing six and seven figure price tags, while Berlin-based Galerie Michael Schultz managed to sell a $340,000 Sigmar Polke. Though at lower price levels, Los Angeles and Berlin gallery Peres Projects and Paris-based Galerie Frank Elbaz sold out their booths, while Daniel Templon sold a complete edition by Williamsburg-based Chilean artist Iván Navarro.
Although sales were considerably lower than 2007 and 2008, this week’s auctions held by Phillips de Pury, Christie’s and offered another dose of tacit optimism: Phillips de Pury made $1.6 million, with 52% of lots sold; Sotheby’s netted $3.3 million, with 62% of lots sold; and Christie’s pulled down $3 million, with a remarkable 75% of lots sold. As Robert Manley, Head of Christie’s New York Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sales assessed “there has been a healthy amount of activity.” Christie’s staggering sales at the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé auction several weeks back made it clear: Collectors will buy when important works come to the market – even in the worst of times.
The Armory Show´s extensive program of collateral events, which included visits to private collections, openings and parties, was certainly a smart strategy at a time when fairs must reposition themselves in order to deal with the economic downturn. As Paco Barragán, author of “The Art Fair Age” says, “Some collectors don’t go to galleries anymore. They prefer the excitement of buying at art fairs and at auction. They like to see their peers, and talk about their recent discoveries and acquisitions.” Art fairs are more than just a bunch of galleries booths, claims Barragán. Rather, he considers them “major social and cultural events, offering exceptional networking opportunities, and a good excuse for collectors to come to town.”