“Everybody is very excited!” – Robert Ayers in conversation with Katelijne de Backer.
This Wednesday, March 3, sees the opening of the twelfth edition of the Armory Show, the biggest yet, with almost 300 galleries exhibiting. Of course the Armory Show’s arrival in New York City each spring is not simply about one of the world’s most important art fairs. There is the palpable sense of the art world’s annual cycle getting underway again, and this year in particular people are beginning to think ahead to how the making, exhibiting, buying, and selling of art is going to evolve over the next twelve months. Though she claims here that she doesn’t have a crystal ball, there is probably no one with a clearer feel for these things than the Armory Show’s globetrotting Executive Director, Katelijne de Backer. I spoke to her on Friday afternoon and was once again struck by her unflappability: we’re embarking on the busiest and probably the most important week in the New York art calendar, and Ms de Backer is at the center of the whole thing. And she still manages to maintain a clear-headed perception of what’s going on around her.
Katelijne, in simple terms, what’s so special about the Armory Show? Why should people bother to come this week?
To find out what’s happening in the art world today, and what’s going on in the heads of artists. I think the Armory Show gives the clearest sense of what’s happening in the global art world. Taking the Armory Show Modern and the Armory Show Contemporary together, we have 289 galleries from 31 countries (plus five non-profits, and publications, and a bookstore) over the two piers.
You started Armory Show Modern last year. Do you feel it succeeded?
Yes, this is the second year, and last year the responses were very positive. The collectors and artists especially loved it because they found that being able to put the art that had just come out of artists’ studios next to more historical works provided a nice reference point for the contemporary art.
But we’re still establishing the idea of the Armory Show Modern, to be honest. We keep seeing people continuing to refer to us as the “Armory Show International Fair of New Art” and we feel we still have to hammer home the point that we’ve expanded to include the twentieth century as well as the twenty-first.
This year’s innovation is the focus on Berlin galleries. What’s the thinking behind that?
The whole idea of connecting New York with Berlin started because we felt that in Berlin today there is a very similar energy to what existed in New York when the Armory Show was founded at the beginning of the nineties: very ambitious, organic, and with a love for art. There are many artists living there, and lots of small galleries and not-for-profit spaces opening, and we thought it was perfect to bring Berlin to New York. Berlin can benefit from the collectors who live in New York and the institutions that are here, and we can benefit from Berlin’s energy. That is why we did it. As you know, I traveled to Berlin and met with many of the galleries there and in the end we have twenty-two Berlin galleries. Some of them are galleries that would usually have a huge space in a fair, while others are small galleries that have just opened up, but they all agreed to go for a small same-sized booth to show that it’s really about Berlin rather than any particular gallery. They’ve come to the fair together with a united front and to show what’s really happening in Berlin at the moment. That’s exactly what we wanted to do, so I’m very happy with that.
Is all that an elaborate way of saying that New York has had its day?
Of course not! We had a really great application to the fair from galleries in New York’s Lower East Side. Our selection committee gladly accepted them. We haven’t grouped them together, but it’s really great to have these galleries in the fair, and it really makes sense, especially now that we’re doing the Berlin section because these galleries have that similar kind of energy and organic way of working: they’re very ambitious, they’re in small spaces, and they just go for it! It provides a nice contrast to what I’d call the more business-like approach of the Chelsea galleries, where they are very established, and they all have beautiful big spaces. In the Lower East Side they really have the feeling that existed in New York in the nineties, and that the Berlin galleries bring as well. There’s a very strong feeling of community among them, and a very solid sense of camaraderie. They actually work together, and I don’t think we see much of that in Chelsea.
The question that everyones’s going to want me to ask you is about the financial mood. Are we going to see a lot of money changing hands this week?
Well, I wish I knew! I have no idea. That is one of the things that everybody is asking themselves. From walking around Chelsea and the Lower East Side and talking to galleries and collectors, I can tell you that everybody is very excited, and there is a real positive feeling about. One indicator is that we had an amazing response from our VIPs to the events that we organize. Everything was full within three or four hours, which means that people are coming to New York and they’re all looking forward to it. Remember that we have more galleries this year than we’ve ever had before. I think that came about because when people were at Art Basel Miami Beach in December all of a sudden everyone started feeling much more optimistic about the market, and then with the results of the more recent auctions where records are being broken again, I think that there’s been a big shift in the mood. You can also see it in the number of ancillary fairs that are happening this year. There are a couple of new ones: there’s the Dutch art fair, and there’s the Korean art show. They’re relatively small, I know, but the fact that people are starting new fairs shows a very strong confidence in the market. Also, another interesting thing is that there is an inordinate number of solo shows happening this year – on both piers. That’s a gutsy move on the part of the exhibitors, because it’s risky to give over your booth to just one person. You have to be feeling pretty optimistic.