Tuesday, March 23, 2010

2010 AIPAD Review, Part 4 of 4

Parts 1, 2, and 3, of this multi-part AIPAD post can be found here, here, and here.

While the first three parts of this review chronicle the details of the booths and the images contained there, I had a few other higher level observations and conclusions that I wanted to add in the hopes of creating a more complicated picture of this show. We've given you the laundry list of photo information; now here are a few ideas to chew on. In no particular order, they are as follows:

1.) In talking with lots of different gallery owners over the course of the show, I'm more convinced than ever that the photo market slowdown we've seen in the past few years was a result of reductions of both supply and demand. Not only did many collectors/museums pull back on their purchases from a demand perspective, the supply of top tier pictures also dried up, as owners were far less willing to sell into the teeth of a headwind. The consensus opinion of the gallery owners I talked to was that both supply and demand are starting to loosen up a bit again, with mid tier and lower end collectors regaining some financial confidence, and top tier collectors (who never really went away) beginning to see pieces of the finest quality and rarity start to reappear.

2.) After coming to AIPAD for quite a few years now, I've come to the conclusion that the best thing about this show is what I would call "the discovery of the old". I think there is really no better place to find the amazing, the forgotten, the unseen, the variant, or the unusual in vintage photography. Every year I am introduced to several vintage photographers who I have never heard of and who have made superlative work, but are outside the mainstream a bit. And there are also always prints by photographers I think I know well that surprise and delight me.

While there was more contemporary photography at this year's fair than ever before (at least that I can remember), and with sincere apologies to those galleries who showed predominantly contemporary work this year, I don't think AIPAD is a particularly good place for "the discovery of the new". Since it is now the time of the NCAA college basketball tournaments (men's and women's) in the United States, allow me to use a basketball analogy for a moment. Imagine we were to set up a contemporary photography "tournament" (I know, I know, art isn't exactly a winners and losers exercise but bear with me), but instead of having the normal 64 team field, we did the following. First, let's strip out the top 15-20 powerhouse teams (galleries or artists in this case) from the tournament field. Second, let's strip out the bottom 15-20 newcomers, underdogs, and fresh faces as well. This leaves the solid middle of the field to play in the tournament; once all the games were finished, what would we have learned or what conclusions could we draw from this pared down event? Not much I fear.

Unfortunately, to my eye, this is exactly what is happening with contemporary photography at AIPAD. While there are plenty of strong specialist galleries that show contemporary photography from all over the planet, the fact remains that virtually all of the top photographer/artists in the world are represented not by photography specialists, but by contemporary art galleries. Really, how can we have a show of the best of contemporary photography without Gursky, Sherman, Sugimoto, Close, Prince, Eliasson, Ruff, Muniz, Struth, Graham, Avedon, Hofer, Neshat, Kruger, Soth, Wall, Opie, Tillmans, or Sternfeld (or pick any other of your favorites that I may have missed); none of these were represented at this year's AIPAD as far as I could tell.

I think AIPAD is the right "brand" to deliver on "the discovery of the new", but it will require some out of the box thinking. My suggestion is to split the current fair into two fairs. AIPAD Vintage would gather work from the beginning of the medium to approximately 1980. All the booths would show only this kind of work. No exceptions. Schedule it in October, in line with the Fall auction season. It will draw the vintage collectors just like it always has, only there will be a more focused atmosphere. AIPAD Contemporary would gather work from 1980 onward. Schedule it in late March as usual, but not opposite the Armory, ADAA or Maastrict. AIPAD will need to create an ancillary membership category for those contemporary galleries that represent photography as part of their stable, but not as a primary focus. Perhaps a combination of lower dues or booth discounts will be needed, but the goal must be to attract the best galleries to participate and bring only their photography (I would suggest the following from New York as a short list: Gagosian, Sonnabend, David Zwirner, Matthew Marks, Metro Pictures, Sikkema Jenkins, Luhring Augustine, Gladstone, Marian Goodman, Jack Shainman, Sean Kelly, Von Lintel; add your favorites from around the world as well). There also needs to be a way to bring in a group of younger, international galleries with less established work; set up the vetting however you like, but bring in some emerging work to add to the mix. If these things were done, and added to the existing core of great contemporary galleries/dealers who are already AIPAD members, and now we'd actually have a show that would cover the complex world of contemporary photography with some distinction (and attract a broad audience). No one has done this yet, at least in America, and AIPAD has the best chance to do it well, given its historical relationships with collectors.

While I'm sure there are some collectors who collect both Gustave Le Gray and Thomas Ruff, I think this is a relatively small (but likely elite) group. Many collectors focus on one or the other (vintage or contemporary), and breeze by the other booths as though they were invisible. I have often said that I enjoy the juxtaposition of old and new, but I don't think AIPAD can scale to be everything to everybody without doubling or tripling in size, and more photo specialists doesn't fix the problem; contemporary photography is just moving too fast. A more focused approach would create more interesting connections and interplays and less dissonance. If we have to go to two fairs, so be it. And an added benefit of this approach (at least from my perspective) is that the focused fairs will eliminate those booths that try to cover the history of photography on three walls with 20 pictures, and encourage both tighter editing and more single artist displays.

Feel free to dismantle this strawman idea in the comments, as I'm certainly open to other good ideas, but I think this is the most straightforward way to leverage the strengths of AIPAD to deliver on an important unmet need in the world of contemporary photography. AIPAD is about excellence in all facets of photography and the membership should take a leadership position in defining the best of contemporary photography, rather than ceding that task to others.

3.) I had the wonderful opportunity to meet individually with a handful of the top photography collectors in the United States during AIPAD this year. While collector bashing has become a common activity on the Internet (particularly as related to the current New Museum show), I was entirely blown away by the level of intellectual rigor and seriousness with which these collectors are applying themselves. These people are experts; there is no other appropriate word for their scholarly approach to the medium. In many cases, given their deep knowledge, these collectors are out ahead of the museum curators and gallery owners, digging into areas they find of interest, unearthing forgotten photographers or unexpected rare prints, filling in the gaps in the historical record. Universally, they seem to be passionate, driven, and quietly competitive people, searching for the absolute best and accepting nothing less. I suppose it is like most things, in that as one rises to the top echelon in any activity, the level of talent, effort and resources applied to the task gets higher and higher, and the competition gets far stiffer. As a very small fish in the collecting pond, it was clear that these folks are playing an entirely different game than we are, but I could also see a future where we slowly evolve toward this group, learning from them as we go, gathering more and more education and refining our eye as the years pass.
As a less than important aside, the VIP card system at the show is in need of some significant tuning. Virtually none of the major collectors I talked with had the cards, which made the fact that I had one both embarrassing and somewhat ridiculous. Regardless of whether a specific gallery put a name on a list, AIPAD should generate a list of the top photography collectors/curators worldwide and give these people cards irrespective of who is the named sponsor. These people should feel entirely welcomed; in actual fact, many were muttering and scratching their heads. In the end, I gave my card to someone far more deserving than I, which was probably against the rules, but seemed to be altogether appropriate given the circumstances.

All in, as always and regardless of my nitpicks and suggestions above, I had a tremendous time at this year's AIPAD. The look of the show itself was better than ever (I liked the use of more colored walls), and there was plenty of exciting work and a high density of fascinating people; overall, it was more to take in than is humanly possible. I was happy to meet all of you who reached out to say hello, and for those I missed in my whirlwind tour, we'll see you next year.


Anonymous said...


As the happy recipient of your VIP card, I reject the notion that there were more deserving individuals than you. Your blog is meeting a need that has been unmet for too long. We are the ones who are blown away.

RedSardine said...

In some ways the distinction you are looking for is mostly in place in that fine art galleries display the work of artists who happen to express themselves with a camera at art fairs such as Basel and the Armory, whilst AIPAD is predominantly a place to find vintage work from photography's greatest exponents. Of course there is cross-over in that some of the photography specialist galleries can be found at the likes of Basel (they allow a few in), whilst most photography specialists of course show the work of contemporary photographers who invariably see themselves as artists rather than photographers.

Will this market distinction continue to evolve? I think it will and potentially very materially. There is a finite source of quality vintage work from the world's greatest photographers and I think that these works have the potential to rise to very high prices over coming decades. I believe that +$1m will become quite common as large collectors and museums compete for top end work (if you have a Brancusi in your sitting room, why not have Steichen or Laszlo Monoly-Nagy on the wall?) . If this scenario makes sense, this may well get the capital rich fine art galleries (not just contemporary) to move into the space, which in turn will blur the distinction in the market place still further and quite possibly lead to a world where you only have fine art galleries selling "art".


I got a couple of interesting emails in the overnight that reminded me that these are not new ideas and that they have been tried many times before and have generally failed.

There seem to be two challenges that prevent a robust contemporary art fair focused solely on photography. The primary one at the moment is price disparity (as mentioned in a different way by RedSardine above): the top work is priced far higher than the established and emerging work, and when hung together, creates too much of a dissonant gap ($500K vs $5K). Why was some top end photography shown at the ADAA fair? Because it was hung near other equally expensive contemporary and modern art.

The second is a bit more subtle, and has to do with gallery status and relative power; the top contemporary art galleries who show photography just won't participate (many don't even do the Armory anymore). They are trying to get away from perceived low end photography only branding and toward scarcity and a premium fine art positioning.

I'd like to think these two obstacles are overcomeable, but perhaps that is just naive. I do think collectors hold the power, and that galleries will eventually do what their customers want and go where their customers are most likely to be found.

BC said...

Thanks for this nice review. I've been to the AIPAD show the past couple years but had to skip it this year. I live in Rochester, so the only photography shows I current have easy access to are GEH, and a few student shows. For me AIPAD was a good opportunity to try to catch up on the gallery scene in weekend.

Anonymous said...

A third challenge is that AIPAD, in the eyes of the Armory and fair scheduling, is low man on the totem pole. AIPAD had outgrown the Roosevelt and Hilton hotels, but would be dwarfed in the Javits. Even after getting in the good graces of the Armory, AIPAD, for years, was lucky if they were offered a single choice of 2nd or 3rd pick of the good to worst show months per year. AIPAD could have been in Feb. of this year. Imagine that turn out! There was more wiggle room this year without Works on Paper. The Armory probably would agree to back to back shows-week 1 vintage , week 2 contempory, but few dealers would care to invest the inventory, staff,finances,and strength over the course of two weeks to make it worth their while.And if the shows were split between venues you can expect major strife within the membership. Oct. in NYC would be nice, but vis a vis the major auctions, half the membership would welcome it, the other half wouldn't want the competition. Just my 2 cents on overcoming AIPAD growing pains. I guess that would be a fourth challenge.