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The Curator and the Art Fair, in Toronto and Beyond

Within the last decade, Art Toronto, Canada’s only major modern and contemporary fine art fair, has become an increasingly important stop for Canadian curators—especially those from the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario, who routinely acquire works at the fair.

Josée Drouin-Brisebois, senior curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada, tells Canadian Art that the NGC counts Art Toronto as the most important fair of those it regularly attends for acquiring new works for its permanent collection. Last year’s Art Toronto acquisitions for the NGC included works by Aganetha Dyck and Tristram Lansdowne, while this year’s acquisitions are in progress.

Likewise, over the past few years, the AGO has used the fair as a platform to acquire important works by leading Canadian artists. Such acquisitions usually take place at Art Toronto’s opening-night preview, which also serves as a benefit for the gallery. At last night’s preview, AGO curator of modern and contemporary art Kitty Scott confirmed that the gallery had acquired works by Karel Funk, Anthony Burnham, Shuvinai Ashoona and Celia Perrin Sidarous. In the past, the AGO has used the opportunity to collect pieces by Julia Dault, Stephen Andrews, Adad Hannah, Ron Terada, Scott McFarland and An Te Liu, among others.

But acquisitions are just one part of a growing number of fair activities for curators.

The Art Fair as Meeting Ground

Aside from being spaces to acquire new works for a permanent collection, art fairs function primarily as economical meeting places for curators.

According to Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College—who’s speaking in the Power Plant’s Art Toronto Power Talks series today (October 25) at 6 p.m.—“the fact is that today, art fairs have become a place that is as much about meeting people and being able to congregate in one place at one time as say the Venice Biennale or Documenta. There’s a sort of annual rhythm.”

Indeed, the curators we spoke with consistently listed Frieze London, Frieze New York, Art Basel, Art Basel Miami and FIAC in Paris as fairs they regularly attend when possible. The advantage, then, is the ability to connect and exchange with dealers, collectors, artists and fellow curators in an exciting, social and slightly less formal context.

Drouin-Brisebois—who is also giving an Art Toronto talk at 1 p.m. on October 26 about her experiences curating the Venice Biennale Canada Pavilion—also notes that fairs are crucial for making visible new galleries and artists, generally by way of specially curated sections for emerging dealers that might not otherwise be within the sightline of a major institution. These types of sections include Art Toronto’s NEXT section and Frieze’s Frame section.

Fairs have become such an integrated fixture within curatorial practice that Tom Eccles regularly encourages his students to attend them, saying, “I think art fairs are part of our reality today and as a curator you should be looking at art in every context.”

More Fairs “Thinking Curatorially”

In recent years, the competition for visitors among both established and up-and-coming fairs has driven many to incorporate a variety of programming in an attempt to differentiate themselves—a phenomenon referred to by Tom Eccles as a need for fairs to “think curatorially.”

Such curated initiatives, generally overseen by invited collaborators, include the Frieze New York’s Sculpture Park, a supplementary exhibit which is free to the public and has been curated for the past two seasons by Eccles. It also, for some, includes Positions at Art Basel Miami, which provides single-platform exhibitions of emerging artists, and Unlimited at Art Basel, conceived for large-scale works that exceed the space of individual stands.

Chantal Pontbriand, founder of Parachute magazine, associate professor at the Sorbonne-Paris IV and an Art Toronto Power Talks speaker on October 26 at 3 p.m., says, “I think great advancement has been made in Basel with things like Unlimited, where they produce works on another scale than you might find in the booths. And also, since they’re solo shows, it’s more compelling in a way.”

Art Toronto has routinely presented special exhibitions at the fair including last year’s Focus Asia show curated by Zheng Shengtian and Katherine Don; Kent Monkman’s Art Game of 2011 curated by Steve Loft; Jeremy Laing’s curated mini-department store project, Everything Must Go, of 2010; and Jeffrey Spalding’s “Heartland” of 2009. This year’s special project, All The Artists Are Here by artist Thom Sokoloski, comprises a large-scale installation of photographic portraits of roughly 1,000 of the artists exhibiting at the fair.

Curating Balances Fair “Frenzy” as it Affects Wider Sphere

Specially curated exhibitions are in part a response to the viewing conditions cultivated within a frenetic fair environment. In some sense, curated projects can be an attempt to grab and sustain viewers’ attention. According to Eccles, “you only have a certain amount of space, it’s only up for [a few] days, people only spend a limited amount of time there, and it’s in a shopping environment. And most of the sales are made … during the big openings.”

Curated initiatives may also offset the prevalence of “art-fair-art.” According to Eccles, “there’s a danger that art is being created for art fairs. So there’s a sort of art-fair-like art, which one has to be kind of careful about; usually it’s shiny or involves mirrors. It looks nice on the wall, easily transportable. Art fairs necessitate a certain kind of work, which is essentially autonomous.”

The shift towards fairs dominating the art market also affects what curators are seeing in galleries these days. “A lot of collectors, actually, are more likely to buy works in art fairs these days than in galleries,” Eccles notes. “The whole mechanism of the gallery system is breaking down somewhat. So, one, the galleries are constantly travelling from one fair to the next. And second, the galleries seem pretty empty.”

Successful Fairs Reflective of Civic Character

As galleries and others are increasingly travelling the fair circuit, the need for fair organizers to provide a unique experience for both dealers and collectors is paramount, some curators say.

For Pontbriand, the specificity and success of individual fairs is closely tied to an awareness of place that reflects the character of the city where they occur. “It has a lot to do with the city where it’s happening,” she says. “If you go to Miami or Paris or London or Istanbul, part of the identity of the fair has a lot to do with being in the particular city. That’s why more and more fairs are doing projects that are related, if not to the city, [then] at least to their immediate environment.”

Pontbriand notes that Frieze London’s iconic location in Russell Park makes the connection that parks are emblematic of the London landscape. The waterfront location of ArtInternational Istanbul also underlines a defining civic feature, she says, while the return of FIAC to the Grand Palais in Paris makes “you really feel that you’re in Paris.”

At the same time, Pontbriand believes the most successful fairs tend to represent a broad and nuanced international perspective by inviting a dynamic interplay between local and international galleries.

On Art Toronto’s Growth and Future Needs

Now in its 14th year, there is a mix of international and Canadian dealers at Art Toronto, representing a broad diversity of practice—something Drouin-Brisebois welcomes and believes has contributed to the fair’s growing appeal.

“I think people consider it [Art Toronto] more seriously now, which is great, and definitely there are a lot of people who travel for it,” Drouin-Brisebois says. “I’ve met collectors from around the world there as well, so it’s interesting to see that development.”

There is, however, perhaps still a ways to go before Art Toronto becomes an annual stop for those who regularly attend the major fairs and biennales.

Chantal Pontbriand believes that the way to promote and engage a Canadian scene—both at the fair and beyond—is to develop stronger links between Canadian and international markets.

“From an artistic point of view, the work being produced in Canada is very strong and has been very strong for many decades,” Pontbriand says. “It’s not that we lack good artists; it’s that we have a problematic system, especially in the insufficiency of the art market in our country.”

Pontbriand, however, cautions against simply pursuing buyers, suggesting that “maybe people have to invent new types of bridging art and the market, art and money, and art and economy. I really think there needs to be more thinking out that needs to be done, not only in Canada but all over.”

“Art is changing very much,” Pontbriand concludes. “And maybe the way the art market is structured doesn’t do as complete a job as it could if it questioned itself and its mechanism and if it sought to invent new ways of doing things.”

This article is part of Canadian Art‘s daily Art Toronto 2013 coverage. To get all our updates, visit canadianart.ca/arttoronto, and join us daily at the fair at 2 p.m. at Booth 940 for editors’ talks.

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