Floating Walls and Bargain Hunters at NADA

On Tuesday night, when the New Art Dealers Association (NADA) Art Fair had its preview, Miami was experiencing an unusual cold snap. And maybe it was the nip of chilly air that inspired a collector to snap up the life-size, eerily realistic bronze sculpture of a snowman by artist Tony Tasset that is displayed on the lawn outside the fair. The work, priced at a relatively high (for this fair) $70,000, sold during the first hour of the fair, which “shocked” Chicago dealer Kavi Gupta, who brought the piece.

“My expectations were low,” Gupta said. “[Tasset] made it specifically for the fair, but we thought it would be a bad year to bring it.”

While his positive experience is exactly representative of all 88 dealers at the sixth edition of this fair, enough of them were selling art on Wednesday, the fair’s first public day, to inject a bit of optimism into the market’s new gloomy outlook, especially given recent speculation that the segment of the market taken up by young and emerging artists might be the first to drop out.

But there have been changes. The snowman was a rare case; for the most part, collectors are “spending time looking and making choices,” Gupta said.

In 2003 the NADA fair grew of out the recently founded New Art Dealers Alliance, and launched in a building under construction around the corner from Art Basel Miami Beach. Back then, NADA, along with the Scope art fair (then in the Townhouse hotel) were the only satellite acts in town. These days, NADA, which for the past few years has occupied a disused theater near the Wynwood area, has plenty of competition among the many fairs piggybacking on the main act, but it does retain the distinction of being the fair most likely to launch a dealer into ABMB, as many of its former exhibitors, most recently New York’s Zach Feuer, have graduated.

Things did not get off to a great start this year. The opening party was, as in past years, a benefit for New York’s New Museum for Contemporary Art. High-profile collectors like Beth Rudin de Woody and Jean Pigozzi made appearances, but several attendees say it was not as packed as in recent years, perhaps because collectors were not in the free-spending mood for a benefit (tickets cost $100 or $150, depending on entry time). NADA director Heather Hubbs says she made an effort to sell a lot of the tickets in September, but that going forward the fair may look at ways of making the benefit night more flexible, like giving dealers extra entry passes to hand out.

One thing the fair did this year to stay competitive was spiff up its venue by heightening the walls and making them “float” — that is, leaving a small space at the bottom edge, as is done in many museums. The change may seem small, but it’s given NADA a cleaner, more professional feel.

Stepping up to the plate, many exhibitors are presenting neatly curated booths. A few New York galleries’ efforts were notable, and paid off in sales. Sunday gallery had three large abstract paintings, priced at $12,500 apiece, by young Brooklyn-based artist Keltie Ferris; two had sold by the end of the fair’s opening day, and one was on reserve. Bellwether gallery had a solo show of paintings by Houston-born artist Dana Frankfort, priced from $2,000 to $20,000. The gallery moved a large piece and a couple of smaller ones, in addition to selling a work by the artist to the Jewish Museum in New York. And Guild & Greyshkul brought five large sculptures by Brooklyn-based Ryan Johnson, each made from synthetic clay overlaid with cheesecloth and painted with iconic images such as the eye-cutting scene from Luis Buñuels famous Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou. Priced at $20,000 apiece, three of the works sold, two to Americans one to a European.

“People have been very enthusiastic,” says Guild & Greyshkul’s Johannes van der Beek.

Yet there were signs that collectors were looking for deals, even if they weren’t getting them. Sunday proprietor C. Sean Horton says that some potential buyers, eager for a bargain, said of Ferris’s paintings, “It’s $12,500? I’ll give you $7,000.” But Horton wasn’t budging. “For a young artist a couple thousand dollars means a lot,” he said, adding that, in his opinion, “young galleries have more accountability to artists.”

Not surprisingly, lower-priced pieces were doing well. Chicago’s Western Exhibitions gallery, a first-time exhibitor, made an early sale of a book of self-portrait silhouettes by husband-and-husband duo Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger, priced at $5,000. As the sale took place, the artists were sitting nearby doing a performance in which they crochet a long pink scarf between them.

Despite these sales, many dealers seemed to be taking a slightly wary long view, and many of them stressed that they were doing curatorially motivated displays — putting on good shows to get their artists noticed, in other words, even if they weren’t going to sell much. New York gallery Zieher Smiths booth was dominated by a single piece, a kinetic sculpture by Mike Womack entitled Metronome. The work mimics, as Scott Zieher puts it, “an old mechanical TV,” using mirrors mounted on a metal helix that spins and reflects light. Zieher reported it has had interest from several collectors, at $65,000.

“Collectors are more cautious,” he said. “It seems like people may be giving themselves a budget. But we dealers are optimistic. We’re keeping a stiff upper lip.”

Sarah Douglas is Staff Writer at Art+Auction. She blogs at "The Appraisal."