Independent Co-Founder Elizabeth Dee On the Art Fair Landscape and Underrepresentation in the Contemporary Canon

Observer caught up with Dee to hear more about what made this year's Independent 20th Century fair so successful. 

Since 2010, the Independent Art Fair has made a name for itself with a simple proposition: it presents a relatively small number of exhibitors doing extremely high-quality booths in a bespoke location. The result has always been a critical darling. The New York Times called last week’s Independent 20th Century, “as dense a selection of top-shelf art as you’ll find this week.”

The show was staged at the Battery Maritime Building, which you’ve ogled up close if you’ve ever taken the ferry to Governors Island, and it marked the second iteration of Independent’s 20th Century spinoff. Observer caught up with Independent’s Co-Founder and CEO Elizabeth Dee to hear more about what made last week’s fair so successful.

Elizabeth Dee, Co-Founder and CEO of Independent. Photography by Sancho Scott, courtesy of Independent 20th Century

Much has been written about the economy and how it’s been affecting the art world. With that out of the way: how were the sales at your fair?

Sales were good, and great things have found homes. We put out two reports this year. A pre-fair market report on the works entering the New York market documented 447 artworks by 50 artists. Much of what was on offer was undervalued from a market standpoint but not from a historical standpoint, which became an opportunity for collectors and museums. For instance, we had 60 percent of the offerings in the $100k-and-under category. Last year, our average price was $150,000. I think the pricing has been good with respect to the current market landscape. The post-fair sales report is set to come out around September 15.

How did the idea to focus on 20th-century art first come about? What’s important about that period in art history? 

There has been a growing conversation about the definition of “contemporary” as it relates to art, which has become more fluid in the last few years. When the next generation of gallerists began exhibiting at our May contemporary fair, many were choosing to contextualize new artists alongside historical work dated before 1970—the traditional cutoff point for the “contemporary” period. It was also clear that we were entering a time of revisionism with respect to gender, race and other forms of underrepresentation in the artistic canon. Fairs have been underserving this aspect of the market, as it requires a different pace of discovery than for new art.

We thought this was an interesting opportunity for Independent—how could we contextualize 20th-century art as strongly as we have tried to contextualize the present and future of contemporary art? I reached out to Sofie Scheerlinck, former global head of TEFAF, to join our team and help us develop the idea with a rising group of gallerists who have true vision in this area, including  Joe Nahmad (Nahmad Contemporary), Alma Luxembourg (Luxembourg + co.) and Vito Schnabel. Collectors and museums are reaching back to broaden the canon to include the artists who were there and can tell the story more accurately.

The fair landscape is becoming ever more crowded. How does Independent distinguish itself?

I believe the art fairs have gotten duller and duller with every passing year, with a few notable exceptions, which is why an intellectually curious and generous show stands out. The well-informed art audience deserves more. A fair can be more than a trade show to establish prices; it can pinpoint the market for the future. That’s why we created Independent originally and why we established Independent 20th Century as a result of conversations with the rising generation of gallery and institutional leadership. More exploration into different angles of contemporary art, more opportunities to assess a broader spectrum of deserving artists, detailed information about the artist’s work as a whole and the society in which it was formed… these are all integral elements of the Independent visitor experience.

Independent 20th Century this year strove to “focus on artists who have historically been underrecognized and overlooked, and who are now being championed by a rising generation of gallerists to make our history more inclusive and representative of our times.” What were some presentations that fit that mold and seemed to resonate with fairgoers?

It was so moving to see the response to presentations that were introducing recent recognition for artists. Alexandre Gallery showed Louise MacIver, who was a major figure in New York in the postwar period and who broke the glass ceiling by being the first female artist to enter MoMA’s collection. Jack Youngerman, who was part of the epic history of Coenties Slip, developed his ideas alongside Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Martin. He is now the subject of a solo show at Hervé Bize. Winfred Rembert’s work with James Barron Art has come into prominence just recently after his passing. For more than five decades, he worked in obscurity and was unfairly incarcerated as a black man in America. Now his work is entering major museum collections for the first time.

Both Independent and Independent 20th Century have unique venues. What do you think that adds to a fair? 

Venues are the psychological and visceral starting point for any art exhibition. Independent’s first edition in 2010 was located at 548 West 22nd Street, in the former Dia Center for the Arts. Immediately, the collective memory of that magnificent venue as a site for art installations and groundbreaking shows that stand the test of time added something very special to the fair’s proceedings. When we moved to Spring Studios in Tribeca in 2016, we were the first (and still only) art show to occupy that building, which feels like a museum. That gave us a chance to establish a different kind of reference point to our own—brief—history.

Independent 20th Century takes place in a much more grand, epic New York landmark: the Battery Maritime Building, built in 1908 as the first passenger terminal or Grand Central station of boat transport (how people moved around the city before the subway). It is stunning—restored by the late designer Thierry Despont after 50 years of neglect—and is now operated by the Cipriani family, who have given it a real heritage glow. We were inspired by the property, and it provided a starting point to develop what we wanted the Independent 20th Century experience to be for gallerists, artists and visitors


Independent Co-Founder Elizabeth Dee On the Art Fair Landscape and Underrepresentation in the Contemporary Canon