When Nicole Berry left her position as deputy director of the Expo Chicago art fair in September 2016 to become deputy director of New York’s Armory Show, she could hardly have anticipated that a little over a year later she would be leading the fair—a position she now finds herself in after the Armory Show’s director of two years, Benjamin Genocchio, resigned over allegations of sexual harassment. In the wake of that announcement in October, Berry has given ARTnews her first interview as the Armory Show’s executive director.
Berry’s original remit at the fair was to handle VIP and visitor relations, and to expand the curated sections known as Focus (devoted to solo- and dual-artist presentations) and Platform. In advance of the 2018 Armory Show in March, she was eager to share the news that the Focus section is changing location within the fair’s sprawling layout, and to emphasize what she sees as the crucial importance of curators to the fair.
When visitors arrive at the Armory Show next spring, they will find the Focus section in a far more prominent place: it will be the first section that one encounters at Pier 92, as opposed to the 16 contemporary art booths that were there in the 2017 edition. For years, the Armory Show has taken over two piers on Manhattan’s far west side, with Pier 92 focused for the most part on historical art and Pier 94 devoted to contemporary work. Last year, contemporary art was more integrated into Pier 92, but the special Focus section was a ways back from the entrance. Berry said she is excited to see it up front, to create a smoother segue. “I’d been attending the Armory Show for many years, and it always felt like two separate fairs,” Berry said. “I want to make it feel more like one fair. Pier 92 will feel very different than it did last year, with Focus front and center.”
Past the Focus booths on Pier 92 will be a brand new “town square” area—similar to the space on Pier 94 that for the 2017 edition had a sprawling installation by Yayoi Kusama—to help separate Focus from the booths of historical art. The VIP lounge will remain at the end of Pier 92.
Berry said that Focus, curated for 2018 by Gabriel Ritter, the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s curator and head of contemporary art, will take up the theme of “how technology has been mediated representationally into the physical body.” The theme expands on work that Ritter did while he was at the Dallas Museum of Art, and at the Armory Show it will apply to artworks from 1970 to the present, from Bruce Nauman (in the booth of Sims Reed) and Tony Oursler (Redling Fine Art) to Lee Kit (Jane Lombard Gallery), Constant Dullaart (Upstream), Claire Tabouret & Anne Libby (Night Gallery), Gabriele Beveridge (Parisian Laundry), and Karin Schneider (Lévy Gorvy).
Expanding Focus by 30 percent over last year’s size, to 28 galleries, is one of the ways in which the Armory Show is responding to recent struggles among mid-level galleries, Berry said. Participation in Focus is more expensive than it is for the “Presents” section, which is devoted to emerging galleries, but it accommodates galleries that may not be able to mount a full booth. “It’s an issue we should be thinking about,” Berry said of the mid-level gallery squeeze.
Along with its emphasis on curated booths—next year’s Platform section is being curated by Jen Mergel, formerly the senior curator of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston—the Armory Show is adding another new initiative that Berry introduced: a day-long Curatorial Summit, chaired by Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago curator Naomi Beckwith. The Curatorial Summit will bring together some 100 curators who have been invited for a closed-door talk and special viewing hours of the fair. The idea for it came from the Curatorial Forum at Expo Chicago, which Berry worked on. “I began developing relationships with curators, and they told me how valuable that time was,” she said. “They were able to talk about collaborations and ideas. I wanted to bring that to New York.”
The closed-door conference will be on a hot topic for 2018: the kinds of cultural sensitivities that have recently come to the fore around controversies involving artwork by Dana Schutz at the Whitney Biennial and Sam Durant at the Walker Center in Minneapolis, as well as at the Guggenheim, with its exhibition of Chinese contemporary art, and other institutions.
With the introduction of the Summit, Berry hopes to make the fair “a place for serious exchange.” “I talked to a lot of artists and collectors and dealers who told me that fairs are so much about the commercial object that you start to see the same things over and over,” she said. “While we understand that this is a commercial venture, art also has both emotional and intellectual value.”
Berry shrugged off the suggestion of competition between the Armory Show and Frieze New York, the six-year-old fair that takes place on Randall’s Island in May. “I don’t view Frieze New York as competition,” she said. “There are galleries who do our fair and not theirs, there are galleries who do theirs and not ours. There are galleries that do both. The Armory is a different experience. Being from New York and in New York is what we are proud of. It’s a New York fair.”