By Helen A. Harrison
Summer is the slow season for New York City art galleries. They generally hang a selection from the inventory and go on autopilot. Next month, many of them will be heading to the Hamptons, but not on vacation. Together with colleagues from Europe, Asia and several other cities in the U.S., they’ll be manning booths at no fewer than three art fairs.
The first (also the oldest and, with 75 international dealers in modern and contemporary art, the largest) is ArtHamptons, opening its fifth season on July 13, at Nova’s Ark in Bridgehampton. The following week, on July 20, a spinoff venture known as artMRKT Hamptons is back for a second season at the Bridge Hampton Historical Society, with 40 galleries specializing in contemporary American art. A week later, on July 27, Art Southampton premiers on the grounds of the Elks Lodge, where 50 modern and contemporary art galleries from several countries will hang out their shingles.
In addition to their mercantile function, these extravaganzas also have a charitable side. Each one will hold a Thursday evening preview party to benefit a local non-profit. ArtHamptons will raise funds for LongHouse Reserve, artMRKT Hamptons for the Parrish Art Museum, and Art Southampton for Southampton Hospital. Other non-profits — including my own organization — will also reap rewards from the various VIP receptions, celebrity photo ops, award ceremonies, and other special events. Each fair’s calendar is brimming over with enough activities to keep your dance card filled for the duration.
Participants from London, Paris, Munich, Helsinki, Beijing, Seoul and Tel Aviv will camp out with colleagues hailing from Massachusetts to California, as well as scores of New Yorkers. Among the dealers with local addresses are Karen Boltax on Shelter Island, Kathryn Markel in Bridgehampton and Eric Firestone from East Hampton. There are even a few overlaps, as if one fair in the Hamptons weren’t enough for some dealers. For example, two Florida galleries, Mindy Solomon from St. Petersburg and 101/Miami, are at artMRKT Hamptons and Art Southampton; New York’s Anita Shapolsky Gallery is at ArtHamptons and Art Southampton; and Richard J. Demato Fine Art, a Sag Harbor gallery, will show at ArtHamptons and artMRKT Hamptons.
It’s obvious why galleries from Manhattan and farther afield might want exposure to the well-heeled Hamptons clientele, but why would locals participate? The art business out here is notoriously spotty, with far more browsers than buyers. By taking the goods to an art supermarket, you’d hope to attract purposeful shoppers. Like the gallery district in Chelsea, there’s an advantage to clustering with the competition. And since the setup is temporary, the competitive element is enhanced — not to the spine-tingling pitch of an auction, but well above the leisurely pace of most gallery-goers in the Hamptons. If you spot a bargain, you should grab it before someone else does. If you want to snap up a cutting-edge trophy, you’d better hurry because the tent folds in three days.
Come July, however, you’ll have a few chances to find that bargain or snag that trophy. No sooner does one fair end than another begins, and not only in this neighborhood. The new normal has some dealers on the road virtually year-round, taking their wares to the customers in a less formal (that is, intimidating) atmosphere. The fairs are also see-and-be-seen social occasions, complete with live entertainment and the frisson of excitement generated by a crowd. According to The Art Newspaper, there are now more than 190 art expos worldwide, nearly triple the number only seven years ago. This proliferation, as the article puts it, is “the most significant change in the market since the turn of the century,” partly in answer to the explosive growth of auction sales, and also as “a way of extending a gallery’s global reach” in an increasingly international market. Such outreach can account for as much as 50% of a gallery’s annual sales.
So what’s happening here next month is a microcosm of a trend that’s changing the way art is marketed. The gallery has become a road show, and acquisition is now a spectator sport.