This article was originally published in the Jamaica Monitor in two parts, on June 13 and 20, 2021. It is posted here as it was published.
Art fairs have become a major part of the global art market. Some are signal events on the international art calendar, such as the Art Basel fairs in Basel, Miami Beach, and Hong Kong, while others are more specialized, such as the Outsider Art Fair in NYC, or more localized in focus. An art fair is, in essence, a trade fair for art dealers and collectors, with rented booths in which exhibitors display a curated selection of the art they represent and wish to sell at the fair. Most fairs also have educational elements, such as panel discussions, as well as curated exhibitions and commissioned projects. Successful fairs can have a powerful transformative impact on local art scenes—the Miami fairs have certainly helped to reposition Miami as a trend-setting international art centre.
Art museums have been under intense critical scrutiny recently, because of their association with wealth, power, and colonial legacies, but far less critical attention has been paid to socio-economic dynamics of the art fair. The classic art fair is a socio-cultural spectacle that attracts large audiences who are in no position to buy but come for the “window shopping” and the experience, which helps to generate greater public awareness of contemporary art. The real focus of fairs is on collectors and critical endorsements, however, and many maintain a strict social segregation that privileges wealth and celebrity, with coveted VIP admission, lounges and transport sponsored by luxury brands, and private viewings and parties—they are the sort of aspirational events in which contemporary socio-economic hierarchies are negotiated and asserted, alongside the hierarchies of the international art world itself.
Participation in the top fairs is highly competitive and expensive, and for art dealers it is often an investment in public visibility rather than a profit-making venture, but the field has been democratized with alternatives, such as the smaller, more inclusive fairs that have emerged around Art Basel in Miami. In recent years, contemporary artists from the Caribbean, and a few galleries, have made inroads into the international art fair circuit, as contemporary Caribbean art has acquired greater international recognition. To put it plainly: the international art fair scene has become less “white” than it used to be, and it is interesting to consider how its socio-economic dynamics may be shifting in the process.
As mass events that depend heavily on international travel, art fairs have been dealt a heavy blow by the pandemic, with many cancelled or moved fully or partially to virtual platforms. The situation has however also created opportunities to challenge and rethink the art fair model. The inaugural Atlantic World Art Fair, which opened on May 31, is a product of this moment. It is a virtual art fair which features galleries and artists from the Caribbean and the Atlantic islands, and it is hosted on Artsy, a popular online art and art information brokerage with global reach. The fair was initiated by Lisa Howie, the former director of the Bermuda National Gallery, who now operates the Black Pony Gallery. Participating galleries are based in Surinam, Curacao, Barbados, Haiti, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, and Jamaica is represented by two well-established galleries, Olympia and Frame Centre, and the more recently established online art dealership Susie Wong Presents. Interestingly, all participating entities in the fair are run by women, which speaks to the prominent role of women in the Caribbean art world.
Art fairs are of course not new to the Caribbean: the CAFA fair in Barbados, the Mandeville Art Fair, and the Liguanea Art Festival here in Kingston are well-known, although they target mainly local audiences. It is however nearly impossible to organize an international art fair in the Caribbean, as this involves dealing with hefty shipping fees and prohibitive customs regulations, and convincing international art collectors and media to come to the Caribbean for the purpose. The Atlantic World Art Fair has sought to circumvent these issues by going virtual—it would have been unimaginable to organize the same fair in real life—and it is, as such, a bold and potentially game-changing venture.
Last week, I sketched the context for the inaugural Atlantic World Art Fair, an international art fair virtually hosted on the Artsy platform, which features nine galleries from the Caribbean and Bermuda and fifty artists. The fair’s objectives are ambitious: “We aim to elevate the conversation on the contemporary art makers in the Caribbean, the Atlantic Islands and the region’s wider diasporas,” while challenging the under-representation of the art from the region in the international art market.
The exhibitors include locally well-established galleries, such as Gallery Alma Blou from Curaçao and Galerie Monnin from Port-au-Prince, and new, internationally focused ventures such as the TERN Gallery from Nassau and the Sour Grass curatorial agency from Barbados. The participants represent different positions and interests in the Caribbean art world and the exhibits are consequently quite diverse. The fair features work by well-known artists and new and emerging ones, and a healthy range of media and approaches, from more conventional painting and sculpture to experimental video. Contemporary photography is particularly well represented.
My own “pick” in the fair is a series of photographs of an inactive cruise ship, the Enchantment of the Seas, by the Trinidadian artist Abigail Hadeed, presented by Sour Grass. The ghostly, forlorn cruise ship in one of the images, which was photographed during misty, turbulent weather, contrast dramatically with the upbeat “blue sky, blue sea” vision of the Caribbean that is normally promoted in the tourism industry—an inspired, subtly provocative contemporary counterpart to J.MW. Turner’s famous Slave Ship (1840) that speaks to our times. Hadeed’s photos powerfully evoke the crisis caused by the pandemic, which caused ships and crews to be stranded for months, and also allude to the general socio-cultural tensions associated with cruise shipping and tourism.
As a new, virtual initiative, the Atlantic World Art Fair wades into uncharted territory, of which the potential and limitations are not yet fully known. The Artsy platform, we are told, comes with a potential audience of two million, which of course holds tremendous potential, but it appears that sales are slow. While the work presented is generally of a high quality, it looks like exhibitors opted for relatively “safe” selections, that would presumably sell more easily, but the resulting predictability and lack of truly provocative choices may work against attracting new audiences and collectors. Virtual engagement furthermore removes the social spectacle from the art fair, which circumvents the social hierarchies that are normally asserted at such events but also narrows its audiences, as one of the key attractions of visiting fairs is absent.
Online viewing, of the sort offered by the fair, is also still a second-rate substitute to engaging with the actual art, which is a particular challenge for art that is being promoted to new audiences, especially since little information on the featured artists or art works is offered on the site. This is partially compensated for by the robust accompanying programme of artists’ talks and panel discussions on YouTube, and the heavy promotion by the fair organizers, galleries and artists on Facebook and Instagram, although from what I have observed, the traffic on these platforms is too low to suggest that new audiences are being reached and furthermore reflects a demographic with which the exhibitors and artists had already engaged.
With another week to go at the time of writing, it is not yet clear whether the fair will achieve its ambitious objectives or has been preaching to the choir. Even if the fair falls short of expectations, it is still a valuable exercise in regional network- and capacity-building that will provide a good foundation for future editions.
As I alluded at the start of this review, last week, it also raises important questions about the interventions made by such initiatives, namely where the Atlantic World Art Fair really stands with regards to the troubling social dynamics that surround art fairs and the international art market. During the Q&A session of one of the artists’ talks, a member of the audience asked: “how much responsibility artists/cultural producers have in how they engage with the art markets and art world systems that are built on, and continue to function as colonial frameworks?” The response from the panel was strongly dismissive, even indignant. Colonial legacies do, however, have significant implications for how the Caribbean art world, its institutions, and its markets function, in terms of how they are tied to social, political and economic status and power within and beyond the Caribbean. These issues are perpetuated if members of the Caribbean art world are not prepared to consider their relationship to that dynamic. It is a question the Atlantic World Art Fair should actively entertain, if its organizers are indeed serious about presenting a new strategy for international visibility that challenges the old hierarchies and does not just seek admission to them.