If you know anything about art fairs, you know that most of them feature long aisles along which galleries have walled-in booths of varying sizes. Art dealer Elizabeth Dee does not like aisles. “Aisles are a killer!” she told me in ARTnews’s Midtown offices last week. She’d come there to talk with me about Independent, the aisle-less annual art fair that she started in collaboration with London dealer Darren Flook back in 2010 in the former Dia Foundation building in Chelsea. Now located in Tribeca’s Spring Studios, Independent is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and Dee is as passionate as ever about its nearly open-plan format.
“We eliminated aisles,” she said. “You can’t discover anything from an aisle. You end up scanning. Aisles are places to reconfirm what you already know. They are not places that pull you in to discover things that are unfamiliar to you.”
And there will be plenty of things that are unfamiliar to you when Independent opens this week. Alongside work by artists who are relatively early in their careers but are very much in the contemporary art mix, like Julie Curtiss (showing at Anton Kern) and Anna Glantz (showing at the Approach) there will be work by not-so-well-known historical artists like Bay Area painter Fred Reichman (at the Landing) and Renate Bertlemann, who is representing Austria at the upcoming Venice Biennale (at Richard Saltoun) and Austrian-Romani painter and Holocaust surviver Ceija Stojka (at Christophe Gaillard), as well as artists who might be deemed “Outsiders.”
On the fair’s 10th anniversary, Dee told me, she has been looking back, and forward. Times have changed in the art world, and gallerists once again find themselves at a moment of reevaluation.
Dee and Flook conceived of Independent in 2009, at the nadir of the financial downturn. Dee had been doing exhibition and event programming over four floors of the former Dia building as part of her X Initiative, a yearlong nonprofit art consortium; its artistic director was curator Cecilia Alemani. X wrapped up in early February 2010, with a 24-hour event called “Bring Your Own Art (BYOA),” which was exactly that, plus some live music. But Dee and her cohort had an opportunity to do a one-off event in March, to coincide with the Armory Show, New York’s major contemporary art fair. They thought, Why not?
Dee teamed up with Flook, and the two teamed up with Matthew Higgs, director of New York alternative space White Columns, and Laura Mitterand, who worked at the New York gallery Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, and they invited 40 exhibitors—commercial galleries, as well as nonprofits and publications—to participate in a new kind of event. Higgs served as curatorial adviser; the galleries—European ones whose artists weren’t getting much play in the U.S., and American ones who were flying under the radar—would bring art to sell. The organizers had one little request: don’t call it a fair.
“We were in a position to pay a below-market rent in the middle of the global financial crisis to occupy the building,” Dee said. “We called it ‘Independent’ not in opposition to other fairs. The word ‘fair’ just wasn’t fitting that first edition. Our initial statement was more philosophical, more curatorial.”
Reviewing Independent for the New York Times, critic Holland Cotter, like the rest of us journalists, went ahead and called it a fair, conceding that Independent “preferr[ed] to call itself a collective, a consortium and a hybrid model and temporary exhibition forum.” Cotter also pointed out the ways in which Independent was not an ordinary fair, not least with his headline: “An Abundance of Room, An Absence of V.I.P. Gloss.” There was no V.I.P. lounge. There was no admission fee. And “sparing use is made of the kind of divider walls that make the Armory Show look like a million walk-in closets.” Ouch!
People were getting a little tired of walk-in closets. Though today we tend to treat “art fair fatigue” as something that has sprung up in the past few years, it was very much a factor in 2010. Dee said, “We were thinking about, ‘If the world keeps evolving and these fairs keep growing at scale, is that really the best and highest use of our time and our collaboration with artists?’ We wanted to put the art experience first and the shopping experience second. We wanted to have a meaningful conversation and represent a wider range of artworks and dealers than we felt were a part of the community and conversation. Not all of them have the market at the forefront of their agenda.”
Dee was quick to add that “that isn’t to say we didn’t have market-making events and galleries over these 10 years, but it was more of an equilibrium, and about the design of the experience for visitors.” She was also quick to add that Independent has a good relationship with the Armory Show. In 2010, Dee exhibited at that fair and Independent, shuttling back and forth between the two. “It was complicated,” she said. And while some people still like to debate whether New York, with its wealth of art venues, even needs a fair, never mind numerous fairs, Dee insisted that “New York is a fair town. It’s a museum town, a gallery town, but it’s also a fair town. What I love is that if you do something people want to see, there is room for you. If there is merit, they will embrace it, even your competitors. A lot of places are not like that.”
In 2010, Dee said, “we weren’t anticipating doing this more than once.” What they wanted to do was come together and use something that superficially looked like an art-fair format to raise some timely questions. “The machine of the economy had stalled, and people were really thinking through the climate and saying, ‘Is this the road we want to be on? Is this the mission we want to take on for the future? Does there really need to be a church-and-state conversation between institutions and galleries and artists, or do we need to dissolve some of those boundaries and look at things more openly?” When their one-off event turned out to be a hit, they decided to make it annual, and for many people they provided some of the first looks at artists that went on to great and widespread success, including Jordan Wolfson, Oscar Murillo, and Ryan Trecartin.
Independent’s Dia building years were not without their challenges. The fair had its social space, complete with a small cafe, in a tent on the roof and, Dee said, “The roof was always an iffy point, because it could either be strangely tropical or polar vortex-y. We had one year when we thought we were going to lose the tent because of winds. A small drama.”
Then there was the year a snowstorm hit the night before the VIP preview. “I thought, ‘This is going to be a disaster.’ But it ended up being our biggest gift. It didn’t affect anyone’s flights—people had already gotten to town. Everyone went to the building and then nobody wanted to leave and go back out into the weather. It was one of the warmest private viewings we ever had.”
When Independent moved to Spring Studios in 2016, Dee was thrilled to be able to keep the format the same, with the fair spread over several floors, just as it had been on West 22nd Street, and an aisle-less environment that forces you to walk through all of the exhibitors’ presentations before leaving each floor. “You can’t overestimate the power of that, psychologically, to the visitor. You are able to see this in four distinct chapters.” And she has kept the fair small, with 64 exhibitors this year. “Our size is our strength and we don’t plan to change that,” Dee said. “You remember everything you see. You don’t tend to have that in other fair experiences.” Fewer galleries, the thinking goes, more conversations. “there is a lot of opportunity for the galleries to bring the pace down and have a real conversation that is about the work,” she said.
Dee long ago accepted that Independent would be called a fair—for lack of anything else to call it. But she tends to refer to other, larger fairs as “the market fairs.” “What sets Independent apart is that we try to be future facing,” she said. “The market fairs already do an excellent job at where the market is now, or yesterday’s auction results.”
In New York, recent years have seen dealers pushed out of Chelsea, the city’s de facto contemporary art district, by high rents, and the further rise of the mega-galleries, like Zwirner, Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, and Pace. In 2016, the same year Independent moved its New York event to Spring Studios and launched a Brussels edition, Dee moved her gallery from Chelsea to Harlem, and mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth moved into Independent’s former Dia building digs after a spruce-up by starchitect Annabelle Seldorf; the gallery is using it as a temporary home until their huge Selldorf-designed building is completed next door. Pace and Zwirner also have big Chelsea buildings on the horizon, and the neighborhood has sprouted numerous glitzy towers, including one by Zaha Hadid and the Peter Marino–designed one on 24th Street and 10th Avenue that houses the just-opened Hill Art Foundation. As for former X director Cecilia Alemani, she heads up the art program on the wildly popular High Line Park, a disused railroad track that runs through all the new developments.
Last year, Dee was forced out of her Harlem space because a developer was turning it into apartments. “It happened rather quickly,” she said. “The idea was that we would be moving, but I think with Independent having completed its first decade and all the activities we have I’ve been more busy than I have ever been.” She has been vocal on social media bout her support for and assistance in her artists finding new homes, like John Giorno, who recently signed on with Sperone Westwater, and Annette Lemieux, who went to Mitchell-Innes & Nash. “Artists need to be showing every year, so if that is not happening for me immediately, I want to be doing that for them as best I can,” she said.
Dee sees galleries facing some of the same challenges today as they did 2010, just under different circumstances. There is no global financial meltdown, but most gallerists, in the face of the mega-galleries, are having to think hard about the decisions they are making, and there is much reassessing of the art industry. In the age of the mega-gallery, she said, we need to see gallerists as more than gallerists.
“Beyond calling a gallerist a gallerist, I would call them communicators, innovators, activists, and thinkers, as well as optimists and visionaries,” Dee said. “The exponential growth of arguably five galleries has skewed our perception of the other 500-plus galleries who compete with them in this league with an equally valid yet different model of success.”
Not that size doesn’t matter, but Dee insisted that it doesn’t count for as much as it seems to. “I would say that scale doesn’t determine success for all galleries,” she said. “I want the gallery program to be assessed for its own merits and what artists it has changed the game for. Reasonable and proportionate scale can be ambitious and innovative and profitable. I think we are getting back to those conversations.”