What to See at the Affordable Art Fair

An hour into its second full day, the Affordable Art Fair, which opened Wednesday evening, was abuzz with the anticipation of more crowds to come. "It's pretty slow during the day," one dealer remarked of the slowly gathering momentum, "but it picks up at night." At least, that's the hope. Most agreed that it was too early in its run to say how this year's edition would turn out. The weekend will tell.

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Founded twelve years ago in London by Will Ramsay, the AAF has since expanded to Amsterdam, Bristol, Brussels, Melbourne, Milan, Paris, Singapore, Sydney, as well as New York. This year in New York some 78 galleries are participating from as far away as Hanoi. Nineteen, nearly a quarter of the total, hail from the United Kingdom.

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What makes the fair affordable? Nothing is priced higher than $10,000, and work can be found for less than $100. "It's really perfect for the buyer who is learning the market or learning about art," says Benjamin Krause of New York's Krause Gallery. "And the AAF does an amazing job of marketing. It's a different sort of fair." He contrasts it to Scope, where he also participates and where, he says, "people tend to be knowledgeable about the art scene. Many of them already have collections."

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Of course, "every year is different," Natasha Barnes, an exhibiting artist and co-owner of Turner Barnes Gallery in Essex, England, who was sitting in front of a large work that mixed collaged words cut from periodicals with abstract passages of colorful acrylics. It could be had for $8,600. "Last year we sold a ton the first night but little afterward. Yesterday was quiet here: people were just looking and licking ice creams. Today we've already had several serious inquiries. The difference is that the decorators are here."

Barnes isn't the only artist-gallerist exhibiting. The booth of Nilo Vegas Galería, of Buenos Aires, was overseen by Graciela Chippari, whose modestly sized abstract photographic triptychs were available for $1,300 and hung alongside framed photographs by Gabriel Daujotas for $900.

Given the uncertain state of the economy, one would imagine the AAF's business strategy of inexpensive art would be ideal. However, "this year is not noticeably better than last," said Shannon K. Rather, assistant director of Chicago's Gallery KH, which has participated for the last four years. "But this year people are happier." Indeed, a woman manning the Cynthia Corbett Gallery, of Wimbledon in the U.K., summarized the mood as "responsible buying. People have been asking for jpegs — we hope they'll come back."

Still, Barnes's optimism seems warranted. A number of galleries were already doing brisk business. Krause had sold several pieces. New York-based Peruvian artist Emil Alzamora's "Spaceman," a wall sculpture of a white astronaut with a shiny visor, cast from resin in an edition of 8, went for $8,500, while Alzamora's "A Nice Reflection," a small wall sculpture of a man looking at himself in a mirror, which appeared to be made from iron but was in fact ceramic, brought $2,000.

Yet among the most successful of the galleries there was one — actually two — that existed only virtually. Chrissy Crawford Malone, founder of the online galleries Artstar.com and LittleCollector.com, characterized the fair so far as "really good," and the red sold dots studding the walls of her booth proved it. At Artstar, one can purchase a watercolor by Sophie Crumb (daughter of the legendary R. Crumb) for as little as $75 framed or a print of a "Star Wars" storm trooper helmet with Playboy Bunny ears by Jason Alper — who collaborates with actor Sacha Baron Cohen to create such characters of Ali G, Borat, and Bruno. A large photographic print, "Everest Base Camp at Night," had gone for $450, framed.

Artstar's sister site, littlecollector.com bills itself as an online contemporary art gallery just for children. Their pieces, by such well-known contemporary artists as Inka Essenhigh, David Levinthal, and Shepard Fairey, come both framed or unframed. And those in frames, which range from $85 to $375, all have unbreakable Plexiglass fronts, so they can be hung at tyke's-eye level. One suspects they'll do particularly strong business on Sunday, Mother's Day, when mothers will be admitted to the AAF free, with an accompanying child. By then it will be clear just how affordable this edition of the AAF was.