Paul Morris cofounded the Gramercy International Art Fair in 1994 with fellow dealers Colin de Land, Pat Hearn and Matthew Marks. When the fair moved to the 69th Regiment Armory in 1999 it acquired its current title, the Armory Show, which it kept despite moving to a West Side pier in 2001 (the fair expanded to a second pier, for modern art, in 2009).
Morris, who resigned in 2012 after directing the Armory Show for 18 years, revisits the earliest days of the fair, when he bribed a hotel employee with Scotch, scheduled manicure appointments and, per his recollection, had no idea what he was doing.
After our first fair was over, I said, let’s all take a class picture. Anyone who could make it downstairs did. I’m kneeling down in the very front, on the left. Colin de Land is standing behind me in the blue blazer, and Pat Hearn is standing second from right, in a headband. Most of the rest of the people are art dealers: the woman on the far left is Carolyn Grasso, a private dealer. She died a few months ago, from cancer. She was an extraordinary woman and a great force. She helped me open my first gallery. Looking at her is Peter Kilchmann, who has a gallery in Zurich and shows in all the art fairs. The fellow in the leather jacket and blue sweater is Patrick Painter. The woman in the flowered scarf is Nicole Klagsbrun. David McDermott is in front in a bowler hat, and Peter McGough is on the far right in a blue blazer. We’re all holding the labels that were on our doors.
Matthew, Pat, Colin and I had all done art fairs in the ’80s, before the market crashed. We were looking for something to do together that was cheerful, so to speak. So we said, let’s organize something in a hotel and take over the rooms. We picked the Gramercy Hotel because we knew a lot of artists liked to stay there. This was way before it was renovated. Pat and I went over there to speak to the banqueting manager, who was in charge of events. We said we were going to bring some like-minded individuals together for an event to exchange ideas—that’s how we sold it. Every time we went to see him he was like, “Wait, who are you?” And we said, “What do you mean, who are we? We’re the people who booked three floors, 60 rooms . . . !” Finally I realized that he probably had a drinking problem. Pat suggested that we had to go in and grease the wheels. So we got him a few bottles of Scotch and from then on he remembered us.
I remember pulling up to the hotel the first day. There were trucks outside and people moving canvases, and I thought, “We’re so screwed.” We didn’t know what we were doing, and didn’t realize it was going to be such a big deal! But the hotel acted like it was just a normal day. Everyone paid their own hotel bill, and we charged $50 extra to be in the fair. There was no admission fee. But then David Ross [former director of the Whitney] said that if we didn’t charge his trustees wouldn’t take the fair seriously. So the next year it cost $15 to attend. We broke all the hotel’s banqueting records. They made a fortune off the bar and restaurant and room service. At the end of the fair that first year, [hotel developer] André Balazs said, “This was a really great event, I’d love to do it at the Chateau Marmont.” And then we also did it at the Raleigh in Miami, so eventually we were doing three fairs a year.
Some galleries rented their room early and had their artists come in to install. One year David Zwirner took all the furniture out and filled the room with Franz West sculptures. Clarissa Dalrymple did a group show and had Sam Reveles install the bathroom. He made it seem like it was a young boxer’s bathroom, with taped up pictures of boxers and stuff like that. She also had a very small Jasper Johns painting, and every night she’d give it to me to hide under my bed, because I was staying at the hotel and she wasn’t.
Andrea Rosen didn’t want a room, but she wanted to participate, and asked if she could have models wear Andrea Zittel’s clothing. So every night we’d have a performance. In Los Angeles John Waters did his stand-up act in the Chateau Marmont lobby. Vincent Fremont [now the CEO of A.i.A.] helped us get Brigid Berlin to do “breast paintings.” She took off her sweater, painted her breasts, pressed them against paper and handed them out. Tom Sachs did a project called Sick Nails. He got two nail technicians to do manicures, with everything donated by some nail polish company. I was the concierge with a clipboard, scheduling appointments.
The whole experience felt very community-spirited. The fair had hours, but we were around each other all the time. A lot of us were just starting out; we’d just opened our first galleries. It was really nice to all get together and work together without it costing an arm and a leg. None of the current hotel fairs, or fairs like Liste in an old brewery or Frieze in a tent, existed before we proved that a fine art fair could happen somewhere other than a convention center.
—As told to Leigh Anne Miller