The Curators' Fair: The Directors of the New Spring/Break Show on What They're Adding to Armory Week

William Rahilly's "Still from Viand," 2012, video
(Courtesy the Artist and Spring Break Art Fair)

The SPRING/BREAK Art Show, set to debut during Armory Week at an old school house in Manhattan's Nolita neighborhood, is a fresh proposition in more than one sense: It's both the first time out for the fledgling fair, and it is trying out an entirely new art-fair concept. To wit, while most fairs center on galleries, Spring/Break promises to be "curator-focused." While an overarching theme has been set by the organizers — the cryptic title “Apocalist: A Brief History of the End” — each one of the building's various classrooms will be overseen by one of 23 invited curators, ranging from former Flux Factory director Chen Tamir to Lower East Side gallerist Helen Toomer-Labzda. Recently, ARTINFO put some questions to fair directors Andrew Gori and Ambre Kelly (both of art event company The They Co.) via email, to get a sense of the inspiration behind the new event and what to expect.

How did you come to decide to add a new fair to the Armory Week madness? It seems like a big risk!

SPRING/BREAK Art Show came out of an impulse that began with the recession: to find alternative ways of showcasing artworks, supporting curatorial projects, and repurposing non-traditional spaces for an update into the art dialogue. Ambre consulted for Design Miami/ for several years, and learned the art fair world when it was at its peak. Because of the recession, now it seems like people are trying to rediscover something meaningful in the art milieu — something that reaches beyond the commercial component.

From this impulse we began doing one-night art shows in this old gymnasium. They were crazed events that would consist of assembling gallery walls in totally non-traditional, historic corners of New York real estate, building a crowd of hundreds, and then breaking it all down by midnight. Logistically, these events were grueling and the payback was uncertain, but we kept hearing "this feels like old New York," "this feels like Berlin," and "this never happens in Manhattan anymore." We knew we were on the right track.

This fair comes out of those early exhibitions, and offers a continuation of the "test run" we helmed during the New Museum's “Festival of Ideas for the New City,” last May. Our interest is in using the art fair model as a springboard for a statement. We're not a typical fair experience — the “Playtime-esque” grey cubicles are nowhere to be found, and even exhibition walls are used only on a single floor. We are redistributing the focus away from galleries and onto curators (though many curators are gallery owners/directors themselves). Additionally, the entire fair will exist under the umbrella of a unifying exhibition theme. On a week that hosts tens of thousands of spectators, there’s a great audience to appeal to, no matter the risk.

What does it mean to be a "curator-focused" fair? Why go in that direction?

The decision to coincide with Armory Week is a gesture to take this established arts week — great for many things — and make the argument that there is no reason why an art fair can't also incorporate a unified context for the artwork. A typical trade show is this incredibly exciting and overwhelming parade of contemporary art, but sometimes the parade can feel like it has no bandleader; the work is all marching to different rhythms, and is corralled by no curatorial experience. A curatorial context gives the phenomenon of an art fair a sense of purpose, exterior to mere commerce. Though we are no enemies of the fiscal transaction that powers the week, it could be nice to reevaluate why the work is valuable to begin with, why New York is a valuable home for the display of this work and the historical and intellectual context that weigh in to the equation. Specifically, it means that curators compose spaces with work for the fair rather than galleries. A gallery is an essential platform for a statement, but the person who decides what to hang and where it’s placed lends relevance. 

How did you go about selecting the curators involved with this show? What's the process of working with them been like?

The curators were selected pretty universally by parceling the relevant art movements within New York by borough, and inviting very specific contributors to those movements to show themselves to the larger international art audience. Relevancy should no longer begin and end in Chelsea — especially to the international collector and art-interested out-of-towner. Jamie Sterns and Helen Toomer-Labzda represent this growing gallery scene on the Lower East Side, with Envoy Enterprises and Toomer Labzda gallery, respectively. Then you have Tom Weinrich of Inter State gallery who is assembling these highly immersive, wildly fresh exhibitions in Bushwick, or Angela Conant who amasses these educational platforms for art in Gowanus with partner Ben Cohen. These other boroughs are growing out of "art party" infancy and achieving a real maturity in what they can say and do in the culture. Chelsea understands this, otherwise they wouldn't have migrated Luhring Augustine to Bushwick just weeks ago.

In contrast, you have the seasoned independent curator in Maureen Sullivan who brings Eve Sussman to the repurposed school we're inhabiting. She says, "this reminds me of loft shows I used to do in the '80s. I'm in," and she's doing a site specific film installation. Or, Natalie Kovaks who has arranged the New York premiere of Troika's "Farenheit 451" lightning drawings. All of them are taking on this project because they are passionate about context, and they see the historical context the building lends to the work and to the art world in general. I think we all see something enlivening in it. In terms of working with them, they are seldom difficult co-workers. They inspire us endlessly.

Can you describe a few of the projects you’re most excited about?

Independent curator Cecelia Stucker has assembled a room of emerging female artists including Sage Grazer, Violet Dennison, and Jane Moseley, among others. Amanda Schmitt will curate a room of what she calls “neo-romantic” artists, who deal with the need to revere the natural world and seek some kind of Thoreau-style relationship to it, despite cynicism. Artist Miky Fabrega will be on site the entire run, drawing attendees of the show.

Then, Eve Sussman's work and the Ted Hughes-inspired film installation of Simon Lee and Algis Kizys are thrilling contributions, curated by Maureen Sullivan. Musician group/video collaborative “Fall On Your Sword” will also be making this interactive collage of Hollywood apocalypses wired to a gutted piano. Desi Santiago's haunting inflatable sculptures curated by Jamie Sterns and Jamie O'Shea, recreating the Internet out of only natural materials in a forest — is that too many things to mention? Everything's good! 

You describe the fair as a "break" from the other fairs. How much does the audience overlap? To what degree is it a commercial proposition, or are you going for a different audience altogether?

The "break" is really in the addition of new elements. We're not saying there's anything wrong with the art fair as an entity, and shows like the Armory and Volta are doing actually quite well, and have been supportive of us since September. Where we differ is in taking the model they've perfected and offering another flavor. 

It is a commercial proposition, but one that assumes that more people always attend than buy art — so why not create an experience for everyone? We are asserting a reason to offer a commercial transaction to collectors and the international art audience. We are not subtracting the commercial element, as works will be for sale. Commerce can rise to the level of substance, and in an "art" week, it is probably about time that it does.

Any plans to do "SPRING/BREAK" elsewhere?

We're certainly interested in re-purposing unused historical buildings as a home for a new kind of annual exhibition experience. It is just as much a statement on fairs as it is a statement on contemporary art. Wherever major fairs migrate we would also love to be, to provide this complimentary amendment to the fair phenomenon by adding curatorial context to the traditional fair model in order to explore new contributions in contemporary art. 

Right now, we love the context that Old School brings to the event. Nostalgia can be its own kind of delusion, but the space does connect people instantly to a sense of "old New York,” a time before the sterilization and infinite Duane Reades. We would never claim that this is "better," but since no other art fair or an art fair location like this exists, it feels like it is an essential component. We think New York has been waiting for something like this. If you're asking whether we'd ever move to the Javits Center, the answer is no.

To see a selection of work that will be featured in the SPRING/BREAK Art Show, click on the slide show