Helen Toomer On Photography, New York Art Fairs and the Challenges of the Job

The PHOTOFAIRS director came to the fair after heading up IFPDA Fine Art Print Fair, PULSE Contemporary Art Fairs and Collective Design Fair.

It’s an art fair week in New York City, which means Uber prices will be surging and high-heeled feet aching all across Manhattan well into Sunday. This season marks the debut of newcomer PHOTOFAIRS, which focuses on photo-based and digital artworks from fifty-six galleries across the world. The fair runs at the Javits Center from September 8 through September 10, with VIP previews starting tomorrow. Director Helen Toomer came to the fair having previously directed IFPDA Fine Art Print Fair, PULSE Contemporary Art Fairs and Collective Design Fair. She recently caught up with Observer to talk about her latest endeavor.

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A woman in a baggy men's shirt and glasses stands in front of a wall
Helen Toomer, director of PHOTOFAIRS New York. Casey Kelbaugh

Why does New  York need another art fair? 

New York is the center of the global art world and the pulse of what’s next in contemporary art. Yet there is this rapidly evolving area of contemporary art, where photo-based practices and new technologies are intersecting, that has no dedicated platform to explore it. There is so much exciting work happening in this sphere, as well as a growing audience for it, that it needs its own devoted space and platform to support and continue driving it forward. PHOTOFAIRS New York is not just bringing a new dimension to the art fair landscape in New York but also to the arts ecosystem overall.

Where does photography fit in the modern world, where the average person consumes an insane amount of photos on social media daily?

Photography is a language I never tired of and one in which we are all visually well versed. That means that photography and image-making are absolutely core to our culture, so we can’t understand the story of art making without the story of photography.

Photography and digital works don’t tend to be collected in the same way other art is. How does your fair hope to market these mediums to collectors browsing others at the Armory Show?

Some of the most exciting artists working today are multidisciplinary in their approaches, engaging in photo-based practices or new technologies in some form. Photography and new media simply cannot be ignored in our understanding of the past, present and future of contemporary art. Anyone interested in contemporary practices can find something at PHOTOFAIRS New York to pique their interests and deepen their engagement with contemporary art overall.

That said, over the past several years, there has been a growing trend toward collecting both photography and digital art, particularly with up-and-coming generations of collectors. So there is already a devoted audience for the intersection of photo-based and digital practices that PHOTOFAIRS New York offers.

You’re the founder of Upstate Art Weekend. How has the upstate scene changed since the pandemic? What’s the interplay between the city and upstate at this moment?

Upstate has always been a beautiful haven for creatives, and that was amplified by the pandemic. What was also amplified during the pandemic was the fundamental need to reconnect with people and art again in the safe arena of nature, which is in abundance in the Hudson Valley and Catskills.

The interplay, for me, has always been the proximity and the exchange. When I lived in New York, I traveled upstate to escape and unwind. Now I live upstate and I come back to New York to refuel and engage with the ever-changing magic of the city. It is the best of both worlds, for which I’m extremely grateful.

SEE ALSO: Does NADA Foreland Indicate the Growth of an Upstate Art Market?

You’ve directed several fairs at this point. What’s the hardest part of the job? 

I love this job! To be able to oversee and craft a convening of this scale is a challenge and a gift. You’re wearing lots of different hats and your hands are in every aspect of the fair, from programming to operations, partnerships, collector and museum relations, marketing—just about everything. It’s incredibly fun and stimulating working with so many different galleries, artists and partners.

Are there any booths or programs for PHOTOFAIRS’ initial edition that you’re particularly excited about?

I’m very excited for every aspect of this inaugural edition, from the solo presentations to our talks, projects and partner booths. It’s a joy to be able to work with old and new colleagues to provide a spotlight for them and their artists in New York City. This is also especially tricky to answer because I know how much care each gallery and partner has put into their presentations for our launch edition. I’m excited to see the dialogue created between the works in the fair, which you really need to experience in person. Come visit!


Helen Toomer On Photography, New York Art Fairs and the Challenges of the Job