Basel in the Boonies: Artist Jules de Balincourt Turns His Studio into an Art Fair

Just don’t expect P. Diddy to show up

jules fb image Basel in the Boonies: Artist Jules de Balincourt Turns His Studio into an Art Fair

Jules de Balincourt in his studio. (Courtesy the artist)

“I hate art fairs,” said artist Jules de Balincourt. On an overcast afternoon last week, while the bold-faced names of the international art world roamed the booths at the Frieze Art Fair, including the one occupied by Mr. de Balincourt’s gallery, Salon 94, the lanky, silver-haired, 39-year-old artist sat in his spacious, sun-filled Bushwick studio, lighting up a joint. “When I think ‘art fair,’ I think ‘convention-center yard sale of art.’”

Since the worldwide explosion of fairs began about 10 years ago, some artists have made their peace with them, and even deign to show up at their galleries’ booths to chat up collectors, while others have remained ambivalent, or aloof. Mr. de Balincourt is taking a different approach: for two days, June 2 and 3, he’s having his own fair, in his studio, known as Starr Space. And he’s calling it Bushwick Basel, thumbing his nose at the world’s most important modern and contemporary art fair, Art Basel, which takes place annually in Basel, Switzerland, in June. “It’s kind of a parody,” he said. “But kind of not.”

Instead of the 300 brand-name galleries hosted by its namesake, Bushwick Basel will have just 11, all of them little known outside of Brooklyn, including some Bushwick stalwarts like Regina Rex, Norte Maar, Storefront Bushwick, English Kills, Parallel Art Space (formerly Camel Art Space) and Valentine, as well as newbies like Airplane. “This is the salad bar of galleries,” Mr. de Balincourt said. “You can sample and see.”

He is rolling out his salad bar on the weekend of Bushwick Open Studios, put on annually by the nonprofit organization Arts in Bushwick. This year 450 spaces representing thousands of artists will open their studios to the public, presenting everything from straight-up art exhibitions to musical performances—or just about anything the artist wants to do. Because the event, which began in 2007 with 150 spaces, is open to anyone willing to pay the $35 entrance fee (or volunteer for five hours), it is sprawling and hit-or-miss.

Though Starr Space has been involved in Open Studios—the hip-hop duo Buenda Productions used it for a performance in 2008—Mr. de Balincourt himself has never participated in it as an artist. He’s on something of a different level: After debuting his colorful paintings at Zach Feuer Gallery nine years ago, he showed at the now-defunct Deitch Projects, then moved on to tony Salon 94, and to shows in Paris and Tokyo, and is now preparing work for a travelling museum exhibition to premier at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Montréal. At Bushwick Basel, you’re unlikely to come across anything that costs more than $10,000. Mr. de Balincourt’s work is at a, well, higher price point; the current auction record for one of his paintings, achieved at Christie’s London two years ago, is $418,000. Nonetheless, he is a staunch supporter of the local arts scene. Up until about two years ago, he regularly loaned out his studio for art and community events like musical performances, such as that of Fischerspooner and an opera by Terence Koh—both in 2009—and less spectacular yoga classes. “I’ve had 40 church parties,” he said.

Unlike big fairs like Art Basel and Frieze, Bushwick Basel had no selection committee; Mr. de Balincourt simply made a list of local galleries that interested him, or that he had been referred to, and emailed them. There is just one booth size (10 by 12 feet), which costs the galleries $100 to occupy. Instead of the sheetrock walls familiar from most fairs, Starr Space will be divided up by curtains. And whereas the major fairs have signage indicating what city each gallery is located in, Bushwick Basel will feature street names. “Instead of saying ‘Gagosian, Rome,’” Mr. de Balincourt said, “it will say ‘Regina Rex, Troutman Street.’” He has instructed the galleries to present either one- or two-artist shows, or a curated exhibition. “I don’t want it to be a hodgepodge.”

His exhibitors are playing ball. “I’m calling the exhibition ‘From the Neck Up,’” said Fred Valentine, owner of Valentine gallery. His booth will be packed with paintings of necks and heads by a variety of artists. “I don’t want to call them portraits because they’re really just necks and heads.” Norte Maar will put on display the complete collage work of Oliver Ralli, lead singer and guitarist of the band Pass Kontrol. And Parallel Art Space is showing paintings and works on paper by Clinton King.

Some of Bushwick Basel’s participants have taken part in traditional fairs. NurtureArt, a nonprofit exhibition space (Mr. de Balincourt serves on its board) has been to Volta New York, Parallel Art Space has done the Fountain Art Fair and Regina Rex, an art collective of 13 artists, has done the NADA fairs in Miami, Hudson, N.Y., and—last week—the first NADA in Manhattan. So, what sets the Bushwick fair apart? “It’s a place for the stakeholders of the Bushwick art scene to come together,” said Eli Ting of Regina Rex. “People who have taken the initiative to have a more formal exhibition space.” He said it might “lend some coherence” to the Open Studios, an event that, he said, lacks “curatorial thrust.”

He’s not the only one bemoaning the Open Studios. “I’ve been here for 15 years, and I’ve avoided it,” said Mr. Valentine. “It’s a steamroller.” Others, like Jason Andrew of Norte Maar, who has been doing the Open Studios since the beginning, see Mr. de Balincourt’s fair as complementary rather than competitive. Mr. Andrew will, as in past years, host his “Maps-N-Mimosas” event, where he hands attendees a cocktail, and then a map, and sends them off on their neighborhood tour.

It seems safe to say that Bushwick Basel will bring in a different crowd. “It takes on an aspect that Arts in Bushwick hasn’t really been concerned with: big money and collectors,” Chloe Bass told The Observer over email. Ms. Bass stepped down this year from her position as one of the lead organizers of the Open Studios, which she’s held for the past five years. “It’s kind of like the art gentrification cycle on hyper speed.”

But Mr. de Balincourt claims that despite its title, his fair is not commercial in nature. “I’m not inviting the big collectors,” he said. “I don’t even have my big collector list. My gallery does.” His only means of marketing will be via his 3,151 Facebook friends, and therefore he doesn’t expect to get the art world machers you find at Art Basel, or the stars—paging P. Diddy—that are spotted at Art Basel Miami Beach. “I’m using the term fair, but it’s not like there’s going to be a bunch of collectors strutting through, and speculators, and celebrities.”

Not everyone in the neighborhood is thrilled about Bushwick Basel. “It’s a bankrupt model,” said art dealer Peter Hopkins, sitting in his salon/gallery at 56 Bogart, a converted industrial building that serves as a hub for many Bushwick galleries. “I think it’s a parody to the degree where it’s deflating the expectations, but my sense is that he still hopes it will perform like an art fair. If I believed it was a complete parody I’d be all for it. But I don’t think it is. It’s a faux parody. David Hammons set up a booth outside the Whitney and sold snow balls when he couldn’t be included [in the Biennial],” he said, referring to the artist’s 1983 performance piece Bliz-aard Ball Sale. “That’s parody.”

Asked if he’d been invited to participate in Bushwick Basel, Mr. Hopkins said, “Not specifically,” but added that it was widely known that he wasn’t interested. For Open Studios, Mr. Hopkins will host the staging of a Bollywood soap opera.

One gallery that was specifically invited was Luhring Augustine, a blue-chip Chelsea space that opened a Bushwick outpost in February with a show by Charles Atlas; they said no.

Mr. de Balincourt says his fair will speak to the current zeitgeist of Bushwick’s art scene. But what, precisely, is that zeitgeist? “Before the crash it was all about the big spaces and big art,” he said. “Now it’s like the Whitney Biennial. It’s small, it’s quaint, it’s quiet. The general vibe is that it’s not that cool to be the 1%.”