Our Mutual Desire for Critical Change: Momus and Feature Art Fair

Lynne Cohen, "Windows," 2011.
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In Venice, last spring, over the requisite Spritz, I met with the London and New York-based critic Orit Gat to discuss the possibility of her joining Momus. It was there that she explained her concern over our partnering with Feature Art Fair. The publication asserting a relationship with an art fair (any art fair) caused her hesitation. And while I don’t suppose it escaped Gat that many – even most – art fairs have various relationships with art magazines (and that the artworld’s most eminent of these, Frieze, embodies both), the exception she took with Momus doing it, I gather, was that the partnership jarred with our publication’s very ethos. Our assertion of critical integrity and a resolute focus on art criticism had bit us in the ass.

Gat joined our masthead in late spring. Fittingly, the first piece she published with us was titled, “What Is An Art Critic Doing at an Art Fair?” In that article, she did a similar thing to what I’m attempting to do here, which is: she asked herself a question, and played out her inner dialogue in trying to answer that question, for everyone to see. Hers was an effort to resolve something that, she rightly asserted, we (the art public) should be working to resolve for ourselves as well. In the offing, Gat had realizations (“The gallery is a space to test new work and ideas, but it may not be as different from the art fair as we want to believe”), and contradictions (“a gallery exhibition may disguise the direct work-to-market relation by emphasizing viewing, by the sheer familiarity of the white cube. A fair presents it, and yet, it’s part of what we renounce when saying fairs are not places to really experience art”). Then she had a conclusion: “Divorcing criticism from the economics of art doesn’t add up,” because, she wrote, “one of the critic’s most important roles is to keep the market in check.”

The questions I’m now asking myself are slightly more specific: How does the critic’s responsibility shift when the market she’s critiquing is newly established – or even fledgling? Should she offer abiding support, in the way of “wishing makes it so”? Or should her criticism yield directions and cautionary tales to help steer her market clear of others’ failings?

As a critic working in Canada, these are the secondary concerns that accompany the ones established by our international cohort. It’s a different reality here, our artworld seemingly motivated by everything but art-market concerns and collusions. The veritable absence of a market might sound ideal to those working outside it – “all those grants!,” they exclaim – but for those working within our sphere, it’s a source of deep anxiety. The absence of a strong art market is as disconcerting as the overbearing nature of one elsewhere. We keen for both the ballast and forward motion that a healthy art economy can supply. (And what “healthy” looks like is up for debate.)

Entering into its sophomore year, Feature Art Fair is convincing Canadians of their potential for a more legitimized art market on a scale that makes sense. Small, focused, controlled, and “curated,” Feature’s framework bears out integrity and doesn’t over-reach. Its assertion that this country has room for two leading art fairs – that our artworld doesn’t equate with a one-horse town – demonstrates a steady confidence that affirms its directors’ ambition. For all these reasons and more, I have no compunctions about showing my critical favor and support of Feature, in part, because I know we’re working in a community in which we tend to heed our own. Canadian art criticism doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When it’s good (ie. rallying, demanding change, evaluative, clear, and confident), our artworld has a history of absorbing its notes.

As an example, I’m told Feature Fair was partially inspired by something I wrote. In early 2014, I published a (hopefully) galvanizing call for the Canadian artworld to institute a more focused art fair (“Do it elsewhere, somewhere smaller. Invite fewer galleries. Be more selective. Show greater confidence in what you present,” I implored). Julie Lacroix, Feature’s founding director, told me the idea was already percolating at AGAC, but that once this article was published they realized, “if we didn’t do it soon, someone else would.” What a moment of mutual animation! A critic being heard, a market being built!

As Momus enters its second year, I think about what’s been produced, and how to push it on. When this began, I wanted no lack of clarity in our brand, sewing my agenda into the publication’s very tagline (“a return to art criticism”). I was aware of its possible hubris, a perfect set-up for a potential fall. But I wanted to issue a goal that yielded something clear, an object that raised the bar for its very stewards. I wanted to solve – or salve – the “crisis in criticism,” but not just this, as the crisis had proved a red herring that bore no hound. What I most desired was to both focus and broaden the forms for art criticism, to make its matter finer. A place free of art news, free of tabloid journalism, and, yes, free of market reports. But I recognize that we’re now less in need of a “return” than an inspired way forward.

One year ago, an emerging art fair met with an originating publication in a market needing both, we’d argue, and decided to hear one another’s big idea. In their mutual desire for critical change, change happened. This is the beginning of a good story.

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