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10 Parting Thoughts on Papier14

What really works at Papier? And what could really use some work? Two Canadian Art editors—David Balzer and Leah Sandals—reflect on the final day of Montreal’s paper-focused art fair.

A works-on-paper fair that claims to think outside the box should try harder to actually do that.
The work at Papier was strong and intriguing in its emphasis on contemporary art that addresses ideas and aesthetics, rather than on stuff that matches your sofa. But most of the booth hangs were multi-artist and salon-style—a traditional, sales-oriented approach that, frankly, surprised me coming from a fair this declaredly funky. Katharine Mulherin, with Balint Zsako, p|m, with Wil Murray, and Clint Roenisch, with Niall McClelland, took greater risks and made grander statements, but they were in the minority. Roenisch himself rehung his booth with more works on Saturday, commenting on Instagram that “this fair seems to be, unfortunately, about packing your booth right to the tits so… when in #Montreal.”—DB

Public projects can enhance a commercial fair experience, even if they face their own challenges.
You don’t have to be Frieze New York, much vaunted for its public sculpture program, to appreciate that public projects help generate excitement around an art fair. While walking to the fair one day, I passed a public square that hosted small billboards showing selected works from Papier14. Séripop’s installation just outside the fair tent—though cryptic—was also intriguing. It would be great to see more of these initiatives from other art fairs in Canada, especially given that the number of fairs is growing. At the same time, it was interesting to see how guerilla art projects—like a sex-trade-referencing set of posters wheatpasted nearby—rivalled those more official commissions, making them look tame (and yes, officially commissioned) by comparison.—LS

Papier’s accessibility is mostly charming, occasionally off-putting.
The last time I visited Papier was in 2012, and it retains its rough and ready qualities—perhaps more so this year due a somewhat sketchier location that’s across from a sex shop rather than the Musée d’art contemporain. AGAC staff are very present in the tent; you can see them circulating in their lanyards, always smiling. This is in notable contrast to the chilly, black-clad staff at most higher-end international art fairs. And of course admission to the fair is free, so you can just waltz in. The tent itself this year was pretty much right up against the Ste-Catherine sidewalks, rather than recessed in Place des Arts as it had been in 2012, and as such appeared startlingly accessible. I saw a few security scuffles, actually, unsurprising given its location and late hours. Other elements were cuter if unsophisticated: at the VIP opening, sliced baguettes and cheese cubes with toothpicks were served first; throughout the weekend, clusters of electrical cords were visible atop the corners of many booths. Less cute was a leaking tent roof during weekend rainshowers, and the strange logistics decision not have port-a-potties on fair grounds. Attendees had to go to various off-site cafés to use facilities, which were not always open during the fair’s evening hours.—DB

The challenge in growing an art fair like Papier is that so many art-world insiders love exclusivity, but need wider reach.
It’s clear that part of the reason many dealers love doing Papier is they feel the quality of the work is better than at larger, more omnibus fairs. They like the tightly curated aspect, and it does make for an easy-to-navigate, fairly consistent visitor experience. But at what point does exclusivity run its course or stop paying dividends? Papier has tried to strike a balance by keeping the fair small—making it exclusive in terms of exhibitors—but offering free admission to visitors, maximizing access in terms of developing collectors. As a big fan of free access to art, I certainly appreciate the latter gesture. Yet on Sunday afternoon at the fair, a few dealers wondered if the tent had gone past capacity; it was hot, crowded and even difficult to move around. Will Papier15 have to move to a larger venue to handle the crowds? Will it have to consider including more dealers, upping booth prices, or ditching a charming tent for a more corporate convention centre in order to meet the needs of a growing audience? Or will it go the way of so many fairs and implement an admission fee—in this case, to keep the crowds more manageable for a small, “exclusive” venue? Only time will tell.—LS

For dealers, art fairs aren’t always about relationships with collectors and curators.
One Toronto dealer told me he does Papier because it allows him to build better relationships with Montreal dealers, not Montreal collectors. The benefit? He can then work at bringing their artists to Toronto, and he can try and get more shows or representation for his artists in Montreal. Some other dealers just seem happy to do a fair, for now, that is tightly curated, affordable, and in which all booth sizes are the same. There are many reasons to do a fair, and sales are not always the end product (though they are appreciated and hoped for, and frankly needed in the long run).—LS

Indeed, a fair run by an association of dealers can be a trade conference as much as a fair.
Papier seems as much an industry conference as a trade show. I spoke to several dealers who said sales weren’t terrific at Thursday’s VIP opening, a fundraising gala for AGAC more than an opportunity to buy works. But the dealers didn’t seem to care. The majority of non-Quebec dealers were staying at Zéro 1, a boutique hotel around the corner from the tent; affable industry dining and breakfasting was abundant. The whole thing had a kind of weekend-retreat or summer-camp vibe. Artists were also interacting with dealers in interesting ways; I wouldn’t be surprised if some new contracts emerged as a result of this fair.—DB

In a (still) somewhat austere economic environment, art gallery associations may have an edge over corporations in organizing effective fairs.
Since art gallery associations don’t have to turn a profit, just break even, they are much better positioned to run fairs—particularly smaller, boutique ones like Papier—than larger corporations which must by nature make a profit and continually expand in order to do so. Associations also may qualify for grants that corporations cannot.—LS

Nonetheless, the successes of Papier aren’t just about its organizing entity—they may also reflect the unique cultural supports available in Montreal and Quebec.
One dealer at the fair that I chatted with wondered if it might be possible to bring the Papier fair model to Vancouver. Indeed, given the lack of any art fair at all in Vancouver, it seems like such an event could be very helpful for local galleries looking to expand their developing collector base in BC. However, it is worth remembering that the context of Montreal and Quebec is very specific. Quebec is a province where the very notion of culture is intertwined with patriotism, and Montreal is a city that prides itself on being an arts centre, so much so that it has renovated much of its downtown as a festival venue named the Quartier des Spectacles. Many sources indicate Montreal leads the country in $55 per capita arts spending, compared to a reported $49 per in Vancouver and—yep!—$25 per in Toronto. Add to this that Montreal real estate is much more affordable than that in Vancouver and Toronto (let alone Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary) and it becomes clear why Papier’s cheap and cheerful approach—more than one dealer commented on how affordable the fair booth rates were—is contingent not only on smarts, but on geography.—LS

Location is vital to the branding of an art fair like Papier.
As the weekend drew to a close, it seemed clear to me that Papier would do well to underline its “Montreal” qualities more. Tourists come to Montreal because it is unlike any other North American city. In this sense I mostly enjoyed Papier’s closer proximity to the red-light district, which, like Amsterdam’s, retains significant “exotic” appeal for tourists. Entertaining and lovely was the presence at Thursday’s VIP party of Karine Vanasse, perhaps best known to Anglophones for her work in Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique. The Quebecois were going nuts for her (“Have you seen her?” someone asked me. “I hear she’s wearing all white!”) and there were lots of photo ops. I vaguely know who she is but loved the fuss—a reminder I was most definitely in Montreal, with its distinct star system and own notions of glamour.—DB

But more work is needed to bridge this art fair and its city.
Papier has a fantastic location in the heart of Montreal, and in this sense it could, for instance, offer maps, even discounts, to nearby bars and restaurants. (Ste-Catherine is known for its poutine, not its haute cuisine, so recommendations to lesser-known establishments would have been greatly appreciated.) Papier might also work harder to partner with Montreal’s art institutions, again offering discounts, even shuttles, to the Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (currently hosting a world-class Peter Doig survey) and DHC/Art (currently hosting a world-class Chapman brothers survey). Papier’s existence is in no small part due to it being situated in a province committed to arts funding. The fair would do well to show their increasing numbers of out-of-province visitors just how successfully this plays out beyond the tent.—DB

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Deborah Carver says:

Its great to read about the success of Papier 14, as well as the writers’ suggestions for possible refinements. One effect of keeping the fair small is that there were galleries who would have liked to attend that certainly met the professional, contemporary art qualifications, but couldn’t get a booth because of the competition for space. Such was the case of Studio 21 Fine Art in Halifax. We wish we could have joined you! I hope we’ll be there to represent Atlantic Canada next year.

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