The Fair Game

With more at stake than ever, the Armory Show attempts to lure back gallery owners who’ve been sitting it out for years

Armory Art Fair 2014.

Eight years ago, London gallery owner Carl Freedman stopped taking part in New York’s largest art fair, the annual Armory Show. “We gave it a break and just didn’t think much about going back,” he said. “The energy at the Armory Show was extremely flat.”

But now Mr. Freedman is returning, as are quite a few other private dealers and gallery owners. Beyond what’s perceived as a recovering economy in general, “there is more momentum,” Mr. Freedman said. “You can feel a new energy there,” chimed in Andrew Kreps, a New York gallery owner who participated regularly until five years ago, when he decided “to take a break.”

Mr. Kreps and his art world peers have reason to be picky. There are scores of international, national and regional art fairs taking place throughout the world annually, offering gallery owners and private dealers the opportunity to sell artwork to people who might never walk through their doors. The Armory Show had its pick of many of the most avant-garde dealers when it was founded in 1994, then as the much-smaller, hipper Gramercy International Art Fair. But since then it has grown to be something of New York City’s art fair behemoth, and since 2007, it has been owned by the Chicago-based Merchandise Mart Properties.

Over the years, the culture of the company has alienated a number of fairgoers, according to Armory executive director Noah Horowitz, now heading the event for the third year. The relationship between show management and gallery owners seemed “too corporate, too hands off,” he said.

Mr. Horowitz’s goal has been to fix that. “Part of the job I took on as executive director is to rebuild a lot of relationships,” said Mr. Horowitz. “I wanted to put a personal face on the Armory Show, to let people know there is someone they can talk to about issues before, during and after.” Exhibiting is pricey: Booth costs at the Armory Show can go as high as $80,000, and Mr. Horowitz said total costs tend to be twice that.

To lure galleries back to the event, which this year runs March 5-8 at Piers 92 and 94 in Manhattan (with a VIP opening on March 4), Mr. Horowitz and his predecessor, the event’s founder Paul Morris, had made a number of favorable changes, such as highlighting artists and dealers from the developing world (last year’s focus was China, while the spotlight this year is on the Middle East and North Africa) and hiring an architectural team to redesign the exhibition space, adding a lounge, more seating and widening the aisles.

But perhaps the most important part of Mr. Horowitz’s initiatives has been to meet with dealers and gallery owners who used to participate in the show—both in Europe and here in the United States—to convince them to come back. One German dealer, he said, told him no one had ever bothered to come by the gallery before.

“I met Noah and was impressed by him,” said Mary Sabbatino, vice president of Galerie Lelong, with locations in New York and Paris. The gallery took part in the Armory Show up until 2006 and is returning this year. “The design of the Piers is better than it had been,” she said. “The amenities, the seating, had been awful but now are much improved. The selection of galleries now is tougher, and the quality of works that galleries are showing is higher.”

The stakes are high. Ben Brown, a London gallery owner who participated in the Armory Show in the relatively flat recessionary year 2009 but is back this year, estimated that 30 to 40 percent of his gallery’s annual sales are now made at art fairs. Each of the six art fairs that the gallery takes part in costs approximately £100,000, he said, and “we damn well hope” to at least break even. “Usually,” he added, “if we do not make a profit by the second year, we do not return.” The proliferation of art fairs has altered the way dealers do business. “Some gallery owners just do shows,” said James Reinish, a Manhattan gallery owner who is showing at the Armory this year for the first time. “They unpack from one show, then repack to go to the next one, where most of their business actually is done. There’s not much going on back home.” He has limited art fairs to two per year and noted that between 10 and 15 percent of the gallery’s sales take place at them. “They are profitable for us,” he said.

Armory Show first-timers—or fair virgins, if you will—have in particular been on Mr. Horowitz’s radar as he has worked to lure gallery owners.

“Art fairs have become the center of our existence,” said Peter Osborne, owner of London’s Osborne Samuel Gallery, which is participating in the Armory Show for the first time. His gallery averages nine shows per year, earning “half of our annual sales at art fairs.”

The high-profile, trend-leading, Belgium-based Axel Vervoordt Gallery was courted by Mr. Horowitz to take part in the Armory Show, and it finally decided to take the plunge. “This will be our first time ever,” said gallery coordinator Jenke Van den Akkerveken. “It is very exciting to us that … we can show our artists who are Modern and Contemporary,” since the Armory Show, unlike many leading art fairs, displays the entire last century of art.

Given the newbies and returnees to the Armory Show this year, Mr. Horowitz’s initiative, it seems, has been paying off. The last couple of years, he said, have brought approximately 65,000 visitors during the five-day show, up from 56,000 in 2009 and 40,000 in 2005. And his best estimate of total sales in recent years swings between $100 million and $150 million annually.

Still, Mr. Horowitz explained, sales don’t mean as much if people aren’t returning year after year. “The only basis for declaring a fair a success is the retention rate of fair exhibitors,” he said. “We’re doing well if dealers want to come back.”

The Fair Game