Since November 2017, Nicole Berry has been the executive director of the Armory Show in New York, which opens with a VIP preview on Thursday at its new home the Javits Center and runs through Sunday, September 12. Over 200 international galleries will participate in this year’s edition. More than 50 of them, mostly ones from Europe, will participate only digitally.
Prior to leading the fair, Berry was the Armory Show’s deputy director, and before taking on that position, she led the Expo Chicago fair for five years. Ahead of the fair’s opening, ARTnews spoke with Berry to discuss her career, staging this year’s fair, the art market’s general outlook, and the future she has in store for the Armory Show.
ARTnews: You spent almost a decade in elementary school education. What led you to pursue working in the arts?
Nicole Berry: I was always incorporating art and art history into all of my lessons. As that was occurring, I realized that it was passion that I needed to pursue. I made a transition from teaching to working at a nonprofit arts organization, Art in Action, started by Judy Sleeth, where I was developing curriculum for public schools that had cut arts programming. I then decided to get my master’s in art history at the University of California, Davis. But that time as a teacher really has influenced everything that I’ve done since. It gave me skills that translate well to art, management, organization, leadership, and teamwork.
How did your experience at UC Davis shape what you thought your career in the arts might be?
The experience was great because Wayne Thiebaud was still teaching in the art department there. I wrote my thesis on Betty Parsons and Peggy Guggenheim as gatekeeper dealers. I didn’t know how I wanted to move forward after I graduated. I wanted to experience lots of different things. I ended up as an intern in the contemporary art department at Sotheby’s in London during the bubble of the early 2000s. It wound up being a wonderful training ground. Then, I knew I wanted to experience something else. I tried to get as much experience as possible and figure out where I wanted to land. So I started working in secondary market at galleries on the Upper East Side, which gave me a new skill set, from developing and curating exhibitions to interfacing with artists and collectors.
When I moved to [doing] fairs, coming from the gallery side was tremendous because I knew the challenges galleries face. But it wasn’t as if, in grad school, I set out to become an art fair director. I think having had a professional career prior to my art world experience, I was very thoughtful about the positions I took and where I wanted to gain experience. At the same time, I started my own art blog, Accessible Art, and that developed organically because I was in New York City and attended everything I could related to art. I wanted to share that with people who couldn’t be there in person. I had friends who were intimidated by the art world. My philosophy is that art should be a part of everybody’s life, that it enriches it. It was a great way to merge my passion for art with my education background.
After five years in Chicago working as deputy director of the Expo Chicago fair, you joined the Armory Show as its deputy director.
I knew I always wanted to get back to New York. Armory was the perfect fit for the skills I had gained from my time in Chicago. It was an opportunity to work for a beloved institution in one of the great cultural capitals of the world. I had been a visitor to Armory for years, and there were elements of it that I knew could be improved, and so I looked forward to that challenge. I built personal relationships with curators all over the country during my time in Chicago, and I wanted to build upon that at the Armory Show in a meaningful way. The Curatorial Leadership Summit that was created at the Armory Show grew out of those relationships. Curators often attend fairs, but they’re often running from one thing to the next, so how can we create a moment to have a meaningful interaction?
Why do you think it’s important to connect curators to the fair in a meaningful way?
Curators have their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in the art world and that’s why we also work with curators on our program because I think they are really in the know and provide a different perspective. We want to create an opportunity for curators to gather with peers to talk about challenges in the profession. Each year a different curator is the chair of the Curatorial Leadership Summit and they build a program to foster open and honest conversation so they can learn from one another. It’s also important to us to not just have that closed-door session of the Curatorial Leadership Summit, but to bring some of those topics to a talk for the public because these topics are interesting to everyone.
Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is our 2021 Curatorial Leadership Summit chair. She has put together this program which is going to address the recent issues of racial injustice and how it’s impacted our cultural institutions, particularly in the way that it’s pushing museums to rethink their history and become more inclusive spaces. On site, we will have a closed-door session and a public discussion.
Speaking of being on site, how does the fair’s transition from the Westside piers to the Javits Center represent a next step for the Armory Show?
The Pier 92 situation [in which a city inspection declared the structure unsafe about a week before the fair opened] was obviously very much out of my team’s control, but we worked tirelessly to make sure there was as little disruption as possible for exhibitors. The Armory Show team has remained resilient and we continue to adapt to ensure we’re doing the best we can for our clients, our galleries, collectors, and visitors. The bottom line is that the piers became untenable and the silver lining of that is that it forced us to look for a new venue long term. We are thrilled to be at a state-of-the-art facility like the Javits in a centralized location. The Javits was really the only one that fit the bill across the board. We’re excited about activating the western corridor of Manhattan from the Javits down the Highline to Chelsea, the Whitney, and down into Tribeca.
Focusing on the quality of galleries at the Armory has always been an important part of my vision for the fair. It’s been great to reengage with the major galleries who had not participated in quite some time and to interest younger galleries in emerging markets. For us, this brings a sense of discovery to the fair, and ensures that there’s something for the most seasoned collector as well as those just starting out. This space is a blank canvas that allows us to really rethink how the fair functions.
What should visitors to the fair this week expect, both from in terms of art and health and safety?
The Armory Show has developed robust health and safety protocols in partnership with the Javits Center, adhering to all New York State and CDC recommendations for events, including but not limited to mandatory masks and proof of vaccination or negative PCR test for entry. We have also instituted timed entry to allow for social distancing and the safe flow of traffic for staff, exhibitors, and visitors. The health and safety of everyone at the fair is and will continue to be our top priority.
Our new open floor plan, thoughtfully designed by Frederick Fisher and Partners, offers excellent sightlines throughout the fair to facilitate the discovery of new artworks and artists. Frederick Fisher and Partners has also designed an inviting central Agora where visitors may pause, connect, and experience the large-scale installations in Platform, curated by Claudia Schmuckli. And perhaps the most exciting change is that all our exhibitors will be integrated under one roof for the first time in over a decade, offering collectors the opportunity to view modern masterpieces alongside cutting-edge contemporary art.
Additionally, for the first time, the in-person fair will be accompanied by our new digital platform Armory Online. The platform includes special tools for favoriting and creating collections, and discovering new artists. Armory Online will offer enhanced and sustained engagement for our visitors to the in-person fair, as well as an opportunity to attend digitally for those who are not able to travel.
What has been the biggest challenge in navigating holding the fair this fall?
The pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges for all live events, one of which has been dealing with the unknown and shifting circumstances. Thankfully, we’ve been able to navigate the uncertainty of this constantly changing landscape, in close partnership with the Javits Center and our galleries, and move forward with our plans for an in-person fair.
Did you and your team ever consider calling off the fair? What led you to decide to go forward with it?
Over the past 18 months, many galleries and collectors have expressed how much they miss in-person fairs, particularly in New York, and the opportunities they provide for strengthening and building new relationships. As vaccination rates increased and New York City began to reopen, we remained hopeful that we could proceed and made safety our first priority. Hosting our fair at the Javits Center—a New York state–run facility with the highest industry standards for Covid-19 safety measures and space for social distancing—gave us further confidence to proceed.
What would you say to the people who think the fair should be called off entirely?
We understand that people have varying degrees of comfort when it comes to attending large scale events. Working with the Javits Center, we have put safety measures such as limited capacity, timed entry, social distancing, mandatory masks, and proof of vaccination or negative PCR test in place. We have also created the Armory Online platform which allows those who choose not to attend to participate in the Armory Show experience.
The 2020 edition of the Armory Show happened just before New York City and much of the world went into lockdown because of the pandemic. Were there ever plans to cancel it then or close early?
New York was fully functioning when we were preparing for the 2020 fair, so we were in touch with galleries to say this is what we’re doing. We had no idea what was coming down the pipeline. There was incredible success at that fair. It wasn’t until later that we realized how serious the situation was. But hindsight is 20/20. We didn’t have any information. We were going by the guidelines, which were that we could go ahead with the fair.
With that hindsight, do you think going forward with the fair was still the right call?
In the immediate aftermath of New York becoming an epicenter, there was great grief for everyone. The number of deaths happening here in New York, happening in the world—I think we were feeling a communal grief and shock at what was happening. But I’ve had conversations with art advisers and galleries who have said, “Thank you for happening.” They said that that event happening allowed them to be financially okay for what became a very difficult year.
As you said, art galleries have had a rough year financially, and many have had to rethink their participation in several fairs a year. How is the Armory Show still essential to their businesses?
We’re a quintessentially a New York fair. We’re embedded in the cultural fabric of this city and deeply committed to the community, which is appealing to gallerists. We have a loyal collector and exhibitor base and we always have new galleries joining. We’ve consistently played a really crucial role in bringing New York’s art community together with the more global art world. In our new location and with the new date patterns [the fair used to be held in March], we’re excited about the impact that we can have. Based on the conversations I’ve had with gallerists, they’re excited to get back to fairs and they miss New York. They want to return to that in-person experience. As much as the digital sphere has certainly become an important part of the equation and has created useful tools for galleries, we all agree that it can’t replace the physical experience of standing in front of a work of art. The ability to wander in and out of booths and showcase a diverse range of artists through a wide range of collectors is vital to the success of the international art market. Fairs bring people together and provide a vibrant marketplace for sales. The vitality of New York’s art market and its deep collector base is a core part of our success. I think that puts us in a strong position, not only for 2021, but for years to come.
The Armory Show has been around for over 25 years. How are you thinking about the history of the fair and what the future is for it?
I really learned a lot more about the history when working on our 25th anniversary edition. There’s so much love for early days of the fair—the Gramercy International Fair, which grew into the Armory Show. Some of the world’s top gallerists were just beginning their careers when they participated in those early editions. We can never recreate what that fair was, but our roots are really important to consider as we grow and as we reassess our identity as a fair, particularly with this move to the Javits. We have grown with the market. We’re always adapting to meet the needs of galleries and visitors. I want to make the founders proud of who we have become as we look to the future.