NEW YORK — A dealer-who-shall-not-be-named shot me an exasperated look when I tried to get her to open up about how the Metro Show was going. "This is a really boring show, I know."
This sort of frankness is a journalistic gold nugget, particularly during the first day of a small fair. Nevertheless, I think this dealer may have just been sitting on the wrong side of the room. The Metro Show, which emerged last year from the ashes of the American Folk Art Museum-run American Antiques Fair and runs at the Metropolitan Pavilion through the weekend, is an interesting mélange of Americana, antiques, folk art, outsider art, and contemporary work. It's a refreshing fair full of dealers who toil away in good years and bad, quite separate from the glitz and glamour of the Armory/Frieze/Art Basel parade of society events. This show, in other words, seems to be an art fair that is actually about art (and some crafts).
When the struggling Folk Art Museum turned over the AAS to the Chicago-based Art Fair Company in 2011 (which also runs SOFA in Chicago and New York, as well as the AADLA Spring Show), many of the dealers who had previously attended asked the new management to reinvent the show, according to fair director Caroline Kerrigan Lerch. The antiques show, the dealers said, was getting stale. The audience was dwindling, and those that still came were getting progressively older.
With a new name, fresh branding, and an influx of contemporary-leaning dealers like heavyweight Pace Prints, Chelsea's Luise Ross Gallery, and the Santa Fe-based Zane Bennett Contemporary Art, the fair has roped in a significant number of younger collectors, and has much more energy than any antiques show this writer has ever been to.
Pace Prints's collection of Shepard Fairey prints ($3,500 each) sat just across from Santa Fe's William Siegal Gallery's booth full of exquisite pre-Columbian textiles, including a checker textile from the Huari culture (modern-day Peru) dating from 500-850 A.D. for $350,000.
The dealers generally seemed happy with the new set-up. Brooklyn-based Americana and Native American art dealer Steven S. Powers had a good opening night, making two five-figure sales — James W. Washington's tiny "Bird Family" sculpture (1973) and Clark Fitz-Gerald's giant wood sculpture (a cutout of a large tree trunk), "Eye of the Needle" (1977). Even more interesting, perhaps, was the large bowl of die sitting in the corner of his booth. The dealer told ARTINFO he acquired more than 3,000 historic dice from a single (obsessive) collector, all of different sizes and made of different materials. He is selling the lot as a work called "Let the Dice Fall Where They May," for $14,500.
At M. Finkle and Daughter, a Philadelphia gallery specializing in historical embroidery, red dots were everywhere, seemingly signifying a great opening night (ARTINFO never got a word in with the dealer, as she was busy with collectors every time we passed). How much does embroidery go for these days? Most small samplers were $2,000-10,000, but there were a couple priced much higher.
On the art side, there was hardly a booth that didn't have a work or three by Bill Traylor, the self-taught Alabama artist, who was born into slavery and lived most of his Reconstruction-era life on a plantation. Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago, Hill Gallery in Birmingham Michigan, and Chelsea-based Ricco/Maresca were all showing the artist's characteristically pared-down figures drawn on cardboard.
However, a lively crowd doesn't always translate into a successful fair — the point is still to make money. It seemed on Thursday morning that sales were mixed. Most galleries reported at least one sale from the opening night, but none were close to selling out. Many had sold two or three works. Many of the contemporary dealers, who ostensibly were recruited to spice up the fair, reported that much of the foot traffic came looking specifically for Americana or antiques.
But things might be looking up for the weekend. More than one dealer said 2013 was already more positive than the relatively dead 2012 for those on the lower end of the art world. "With people feeling a bit more positive, they are starting to collect again," noted Lerch.