It used to be that the story of Seattle galleries and artists at Art Basel Miami Beach was simple: Underdog prevails.
Now, the plot has twisted.
It all began three Decembers ago. Frustrated that the Northwest was invisible at the major annual art fair in Miami—the biggest fair in the country—Seattle artists Jaq Chartier and Dirk Park decided to start their own. They found an open-air motel called Aqua across the street from the beach, and turned it into Aqua Art Miami during the run of the main fair at the nearby convention center.
The first year, 2005, was an innocent thrill: We're here! There were only a handful of satellite fairs like Aqua.
By the second year, Miami was a cash cow for some Seattle galleries as well as the fuel behind a new sense of national and international ambition for Seattle artists. (The connections artists and dealers make in Miami can be as important as the sales.) Here's my report from the front.
But there was a dark side: The number of satellite fairs had risen to more than 12 and it was next to impossible to see everything, let alone for everybody to come away with sales.
And then, the franchise exploded.
More Seattle galleries than ever went to Miami to sell art last week: 10.
Aqua itself doubled, spinning off another satellite from its original hotel satellite, this one called Aqua Wynwood and held in a high-ceilinged warehouse where booths with permanent walls could house art better than a series of hotel rooms.
And the number of satellite fairs rose to a totally unmanageable 21.
Not everybody came away satisfied this time around.
The greatest discrepancy between this year and last happened at Lawrimore Project. Last year, LP sold more than $100,000 of art in a matter of hours and, over the four days, placed seven pieces by four artists in museum collections.
This year, "it was dramatically different," dealer Lawrimore said.
It was supposed to be dramatic: Lawrimore moved from the hotel to the large loading dock area in the Aqua warehouse fair, and hauled several of his artists down to Miami in order to make large new installations for the occasion.
At the Lawrimore Project booth: LED screen by Sabrina Raaf, wire sculpture in mid-air by Lead Pencil Studio, floor sculptures by Cris Bruch, blinking neon sign by Anne Mathern, photographs by Liz Cohen (left) and Susan Robb (right), "black box" area at back right with work by Tivon Rice, Susie Lee, and Charles LaBelle.
At the Lawrimore Project booth: Alex Schweder's "snowball" doorway with horse cops.
The gamble didn't pay off. Technical difficulties riddled the most prominent of the new works, by Alex Schweder, and another piece, a gravitron by Sami Ben Larbi, was very loud and required loads of electricity. "I just didn't make any friends whatsoever," Lawrimore said of the Aqua organizers and the other dealers in the warehouse.
Lawrimore Project made a few sales, including Lead Pencil Studio's 4 Corners and Susan Robb's Toobs (and an Isaac Layman photograph to SF dealer Rena Bransten), but he lost money and made a fraction as many connections as he'd hoped for.
He blames it on a lack of traffic at the new Aqua Wynwood, and says he won't be working with Aqua organizers Chartier and Dirk again: "Next year I feel like we either have to get into the big fair, Pulse, or NADA, or nothing."
Chartier said she's aware that Aqua Wynwood didn't get enough foot traffic, but that next year will be better. There were other problems, too, said Carrie E.A. Scott of James Harris Gallery, another Seattle venue that showed at Aqua Wynwood this year—the warehouse was hard to find and a lack of signs made things worse. Plus, the fair didn't have a swanky opening party to announce itself.
But James Harris Gallery fared better than last year, selling artists across the board and placing work internationally, Scott said.
At the James Harris Gallery booth: works by (clockwise starting at lower left) Tania Kitchell, Marcelino Goncalves, Scott Foldesi, Mary Ann Peters, Steve Davis, Claude Zervas, and Rashid Johsnon.
"We sold more than last year, and we loved the fair, and we thought it was a huge success," she said. "If I'm perfectly honest, it was quiet. There were moments where we needed critical mass, and it wasn't there. Aqua knows that and they know what they need to do to fix that. But I think that they will next year. The buzz that was built by that program—it was a kickass building. It really was a clever buildout."
James Harris wants to return to Aqua Wynwood next year, Scott said.
Portland's Elizabeth Leach Gallery was also at Aqua Wynwood. Gallery director Daniel Peabody said sales were parallel to last year, when the gallery was at the Aqua hotel fair. He echoed the concerns of the other dealers about the lack of foot traffic ("there was not much parking, and not much signage"), but said, "Our experience was good this year; we anticipate it being great next year." Elizabeth Leach wants to return to Aqua Wynwood.
Where Seattle galleries were once housed exclusively at Aqua, now they've become scattered. The Aqua hotel still hosted four Seattle galleries this year: Howard House and Platform, returning, and Roq La Rue and G. Gibson, first-timers to Miami.
It was an unmitigated success for Howard House, said dealer Billy Howard. "It was better than last year. I can not tell you how happy I am. It felt good, and people were really happy, and everybody we took we did really well with," he said.
Aside from sales of work by Gretchen Bennett, Mark Miller, Robert Yoder, and John Haddock, a trustee of the New Museum of Contemporary Art bought a Cat Clifford piece.
Outside the Howard House room at Aqua: work by Lauren Grossman and Oscar Tuazon and Eli Hansen.
"The hotel fair at Aqua is a true Miami fair—it's about art and about being in Miami," Howard said. "After the first, like, three hours, I went down and told Jaq that I wanted to come back next year because things had been flying off the walls."
Platform sold a Scott Fife sculpture within five minutes of opening, and also sold several works by almost all of the gallery's other artists, a lineup that included Jesse Burke, Carlee Fernandez, Matt Sellars, Marc Dombrosky, and William Powhida.
But "I just think that the saturation point was reached with so many fairs," said Platform co-director Stephen Lyons. "In terms of overall sales, it was less than last year."
Platform is not sure yet whether it will return to the hotel next year. "We'd like to check in with other dealers," Lyons said. "See how Pulse did, how (Aqua) Wynwood did."
Greg Kucera Gallery and Winston Wächter Fine Art found themselves at Art Miami, a fair formerly held in January but moved to coincide with Basel, and targeting blue-chip dealers.
At the Greg Kucera Gallery booth: Greg Kucera standing, with works by (l-r) Margie Livingston, Dan Webb, Chris Engman (photograph), Jack Daws (penny), Peter Millett (sculpture above).
Kucera said this year was a total success. The gallery sold works by Deborah Butterworth, Margie Livingston, Marie Watt, Whiting Tennis, and others. The floor was a little lumpy because the fair was built on an empty lot, but it didn't bother Kucera much, he said. For next year, he plans to stick with Art Miami. "That's the fair that has the most to gain, because there's a lot of dealers who want to find a venue that will really compete head-to-head with Art Basel," Kucera said.
Winston Wächter, which has locations in New York and Seattle, was in both Art Miami and a fair called Flow, and "we were very pleased," said Seattle director Stacey Winston-Levitan. "We made money plus a lot of contacts." Susan Dory and Betsy Eby were the only artists from Seattle that the gallery represented in Miami.
Roq La Rue and G. Gibson, also at the Aqua hotel, both want to return to Miami for a second time next year. Both made profits and connections, just as they'd hoped. "They say if you break even, it's a good fair; if you make money, it's a great fair; and we made money, so it was a great fair," said Gail Gibson. "It's like paying for a great big advertisement."
Two more Seattle galleries—Miami first-timers—could be found at the new hotel fair Art Now, another spinoff of a spinoff.
There, Viveza Art Experience made only one sale but hopes to do it again next year. "It's freeing not having to worry about making local sales or focusing on the first-time buyer market as we have," Viveza director Michael Rivera-Dirks wrote in an email. "It's really exciting to be developing our aesthetic and receiving confirmation from national perspectives that we are on the right track."
Patricia Cameron Fine Art also plans to return to Miami. "All my artists received incredible attention," Cameron said. "We met some very important curators, so that was exciting to me."
Ironically, all four of the Seattle galleries new to Miami this year—in addition to the veterans—complained that the fair was far too crowded. Several people said they thought this was the breaking point.
Nobody said they were staying away next year.