Manhattan on the Rhine: New York Art Dealers Braved Cologne

  • When Frieze plunks down on Randall’s Island next week, it won’t be the only new art fair in town. The New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA), a group founded back in 2002 by a handful of intrepid young New York art dealers, is launching its own 67-exhibitor New York event, in the former Dia Art Foundation building on West 22nd Street.

    You might say NADA, an organization that now boasts some 300 members and has run an annual fair in Miami since 2003, is in expansion mode. Last summer it inaugurated a modest fair in Hudson, N.Y. And earlier this month Gallerist visited, for the purposes of leading a panel discussion, the first installment of Nada Cologne, a 33-exhibitor event that took place inside the vast, 186-exhibitor Art Cologne, which, now in its 46th edition, is the world’s oldest art fair.

    Inserting one fair inside another and cobranding them with posters around town that read “Art Cologne + Nada” is unprecedented. Generally, satellite fairs are considered distractions by the mothership, parasites that sap it of collectors. The experiment that is NADA Cologne came about because NADA director Heather Hubbs has known Art Cologne director Daniel Hug since the mid ’90s in Chicago, where he had an art gallery and she was working for one. Mr. Hug moved to Los Angeles and opened a new gallery, and Ms. Hubbs went to work for Chicago fair organizer Tom Blackman. Mr. Hug joined Art Cologne in 2008, when Ms. Hubbs was five years into her job with NADA, and, as he began thinking of ways to inject new life into a regional fair, they began talking about collaborating.

    NADA is an international fair, but in Cologne it came off as very New York. The entire Cologne fair features only 12 New Yorkers. But NADA alone had 11, a full third of its exhibitors. When Gallerist stopped by the booth of Lower East Side gallery Invisible-Exports, we were told that one German had asked, “NADA. Is that an Orchard Street thing?”

    Arguably, Art Cologne has as much to gain from NADA’s hip brand as NADA does from Art Cologne’s hefty one. New Yorker David Zwirner, who is regularly named among the world’s most powerful dealers, was a high-profile addition to the fair this year, with a sizable booth in the main part of the fair, and while it’s true this was a homecoming for him—his father, Rudolf Zwirner, founded Art Cologne—a Zwirner director, Kristine Bell, told us that they’d been excited about the addition of NADA. (The fair, incidentally, was a rousing success for Zwirner, who parted with a Georg Baselitz painting for $3 million and an Isa Genzken sculpture for €250,000 [about $329,000], among other artworks, selling mostly to German clients.)

    On the panel discussion Gallerist moderated, New York collector Michael Hort groused about certain NADA galleries that came to Cologne with only art that was easy to ship—what some in the art world refer to as “suitcase art.” It’s a cost-saving approach that avoids the risk of shipping heavy work and failing to sell it, but one that can make the booth look unambitious. But let’s be fair to these mostly undercapitalized galleries who struggle to keep their overheads low, and who can only afford Cologne—consider the air fare for employees, and Germany’s steep VAT taxes, especially for editioned artworks like prints and photographs—because of NADA’s low, low booth cost of around $4,500.

    There were, though, plenty of booths that passed the Hort test. Nicelle Beauchene, for instance, brought a solo show of abstract paintings by Jim Lee, priced from $3,500 to $10,000 (a lot of the work at NADA skewed toward this low price point). James Fuentes also had a solo booth, an appealing, minimalist display of monitors showing World Trade Center-related films by Jonas Mekas. “In a way, we are testing the market here,” said a Fuentes rep.

    By Thursday evening, when Gallerist departed, NADA’s New York dealers were looking a bit weary—especially those like Canada, Lisa Cooley and Untitled, who had come to NADA straight from the Dallas Art Fair and whose jetlag was likely heightened by culture shock. (Untitled’s Joel Mesler gamely sported a Mavericks cap.) Sitting on a couch in his booth beneath wilting houseplants—a project by his artist Elena Pankova—Canada’s Philip Grauer observed that in Cologne, NADA’s European exhibitors had the advantage over the New Yorkers commerce-wise, which was maybe just as well, as a bit of payback: the New Yorkers have long had the upper hand in Miami. He conceded Mr. Hort his point about suitcase-art. “There are real art forces at work here,” he said. “He’s giving us advice.” Some New Yorkers, like Lisa Cooley and Invisible-Exports, had already broken even, but none were raving about sales. “Waiting to see what happens over the weekend” was a common refrain.

    But it’s possible these NADA dealers have been spoiled by the abundance at their Miami fair where, even during the darkest days of the recession, the booths thrummed with collector activity. It was headier than ever this past December, when NADA amped up the me-first frenzy by introducing an additional, earlier, super-VIP preview hour for members of the recently formed “Friends of NADA” group, something they plan to also do in New York. By comparison, Cologne may have looked sleepier. People tended to trickle in, and then be rendered inconspicuous by the sheer vastness of the convention center. But looks, let’s remember, can be deceiving. Ludwig Museum director Kasper König may not have rolled with an entourage, as museum directors tend to do in Miami, but he did come by.

    A final judgment of the NADA Cologne experiment will have to wait until all the participating dealers’ postmortems roll in. In the meantime, for Art Cologne, it may already have paid off: on Thursday, the fair’s overall attendance was up 12 percent over the corresponding day last year, even despite competition from the opening of the Art Brussels fair, a two-hour train ride away. Next year, Mr. Hug said, he plans to shorten the fair by a day, bringing it in line with the Wednesday through Sunday model familiar from fairs like Art Basel and, probably, concentrating attendance for that packed-aisle effect.

    As for NADA, next week its expansion continues with New York where, as opposed to the Cologne edition’s open-plan format, which is also favored by the Independent fair, the booths will have solid walls designed by the architects Common Room. Which may be for the best. Good fences, it’s said, make good neighbors, especially at art fairs.

    sdouglas@observer.com

     

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