When the Contemporary Art Galleries Association (which goes by its French acronym, AGAC) announced, last spring, that it was launching a second art fair to compete with Art Toronto, Canada’s largest and leading art fair, the country’s art community was set ablaze with anticipation and some measure of controversy. The non-profit Montreal-based organization that had established the more niche fair, Papier, seven years ago, was credible but largely Quebec-centered, and the questions that skeptics issued behind closed doors were two-fold: can Canada handle a second art fair without dividing its collector base? And, is AGAC capable of pulling this off?
In recent months, however, the momentum for Feature (which includes sponsorship from TD Bank, and a partnership with Albright-Knox Art Gallery) is proving that the inaugural year will be well-supported and foster some important conversations on what’s important to the Canadian artworld, and where our attention is most needed. MOMUS (the main media partner for Feature 2014) caught-up with AGAC executive director Julie Lacroix to ask some pressing questions as the fair prepares for its launch on Wednesday, October 22 (it will be open to the public from Oct. 23-26, coinciding with Art Toronto, Oct. 24-27). We discuss the timing, challenges, and the things to come for Feature.
Why now? What were the motivations to do this in 2014 and not another year?
There was something in the air. First of all, many gallerists had decided not to participate in Art Toronto 2013, and they wanted AGAC to do something to put the spotlight on the galleries, the members. We used to do a party for one night during the art fair, called Art Fair Confidential; we could’ve gone in that same direction, and presented an exhibition, but the galleries wanted something else. The idea of another art fair was brought up, and I think it had been in the minds of the gallerists for a long time. But I’m not sure they thought we were ready. I think, though, your article [“Five Things That Should Change in 2014”] that said something needed to change, it made it clear. Everyone knew there was a demand, and that a second art fair would happen. So we figured, instead of the galleries [we work with] going to another organization, it would be better if it was us – a not-for-profit that would do it with the galleries and for the galleries.
What makes this a bigger challenge than putting together Papier? What were the expected and unexpected challenges in shifting your focus to Feature?
For Papier, there was lots of work done on our seventh edition already, when we made this decision (at this point with Papier, it’s a process that is recurring and really just builds on what was done before). With Feature, it wasn’t as clear. Even though I’d had the chance to sit with a lot of gallerists who were highly respected and senior, and received a lot of perspectives and good ideas, the logistics needed to be addressed. We were making a new art fair from a remote center (Montreal) in a city that’s much more expensive (Toronto); everything is three times the price. We knew Papier’s recipe couldn’t be translated to Toronto, but we were hoping for more funding from supporting institutions. So it’s been harder. We are dealing with people who don’t know us as well, in Ontario. We’re quite a new player in the visual arts scene [there]. And I don’t have the same contacts, in terms of preparing the VIP evening and our ambassadors. But through a few people, like Jeanne Parkin and Samara Walbohm, we’ve been very lucky in the connections we’ve made. And the concern of “does Toronto need another art fair?” has, through Parkin and others, begun to subside. They really believe, as we do, that Toronto needs a more curated fair.
AGAC is expanding its presence to be more inclusive of galleries outside Quebec. Launching a fair in Toronto is an indication of this, of course. How do you perceive the organization’s progress, in this regard?
The progress has happened smoothly. What makes us different from another gallery association is that our mission is driven by a project that the galleries would want. Right now the main thing we’re offering our galleries is the opportunity to participate in these fairs, but there are more opportunities coming, and more outside Quebec. We want to be a seal of excellence in contemporary art, and build a network that shows the best of it. We want to build a bigger market for our galleries, as the need, for our Quebec galleries, to bring clients from outside Quebec is so important, it must be the same everywhere. We want to help with this, and make it our main project.
How would you characterize Feature’s relationship with Art Toronto?
I think we’ll do this first show, and then talk. Right now relations are minimal. We’ll see. Everybody wants the relationship to be better between the two fairs, obviously. I’m hoping that after the fairs we’ll sit and discuss, and build a better bridge.
What fairs provide inspiration, and which fairs do you not want to emulate?
We wanted to be complementary to Art Toronto, so we were looking at Independent, in particular, as it was a big inspiration in terms of the room they gave to installation, and the layout of the show. We wanted to get out of the typical floor-plan, which is a geometrical division of the space, booth after booth. We worked very hard to articulate a different design. (We definitely weren’t looking at the Armory, or a huge fair like that.)
This is also a model that the galleries wanted, and not just for the first year – they want the show to stay small. We want to keep it intimate. And now there is the option available for certain galleries to do both. For example you have a gallerist like Georgia Scherman. She has clients who are definitely going to Art Toronto and hope to see specific artists from her roster. But she also has artists who better fit Feature, a more curated project. So compare a more senior artist [of hers] like Margaret Priest with a younger presence like Ulysses Castellanos. For the galleries, this is great; they have two very different options.
What do you hope to build on and change in the year or two to come?
When we started discussing with the Albright-Knox Canadian Foundation, they said, “let’s build bridges and eventually develop international relationships.” We’re fortunate to have the opportunity to bring recognition to Canadian artists outside Canada. That’s the goal. Feature might be the perfect fair to welcome international galleries. So we have already started to build such relationships through this partnership with the AKAG, but this year, anyway, we’ll present a great example of a fair that mirrors what the gallerists want.