The Future of Art Toronto, and How It Plans to Adapt

Art Toronto
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A dramatic narrative emerged in Toronto’s artworld, this fall, regarding the perceived challenge presented to Canada’s best-established international art fair, Art Toronto, by the incumbent non-profit start-up, Feature Fair, which ran concurrently in late October, and marketed itself as exclusively focused on contemporary art, and curated. The media perpetuated a reference to David and Goliath, with one paper calling Feature’s initiative “a shot across the bow.” Meanwhile, some of Toronto’s best-established gallerists, such as Olga Korper and Jessica Bradley, struck a discord that, while never reported outright, was deeply felt and oft-discussed within the Toronto art community. Despite this atypical demonstration of ambition, bravado, and competitiveness, Canada’s young and halting contemporary art market endured the tumult, and the financial results and attendance records from each fair suggested they had, uniquely, both come out on top.

This year Art Toronto established an increased program of artist projects (seven in total), including Quebec trio BGL (Canada’s highly-anticipated representative for the 2015 Venice Biennale) and respected collaborators Jennifer Marman & Daniel Borins. Feature Fair focused its inaugural showing on a small coterie of top gallerists, and exhibited its wares in the historic Canadian Opera Company’s rehearsal space, striking a dramatically different atmosphere to Art Toronto’s oft-maligned site at the nearby Convention Centre. The latter fair celebrated its 15th anniversary with over 20,000 visitors, 110 presenters (including 32 international galleries), and over $19 million in sales. Meanwhile, Feature Fair’s inaugural year centered on 23 Canadian galleries, a rich program of panels and tours, and, with many of its booths selling out, over $1 million in sales. Both events appeared to transcend the fracas, and achieve their aim.

Yet following this heady fair-week’s close (and our media’s return to its typically single-subject focus), several significant questions persist regarding the fairs’ future. How will Feature establish constancy and evolve? How will Art Toronto rebound from its recent losses (many of Feature’s gallerists had previously exhibited with AT), respond to its enduring criticism, and establish a new agenda? How will the fairs work with one other, and adapt to an  increasingly-demanding international art market? Will Canada’s contemporary art market ever arrive on the artworld’s stage? Will an increased number of fairs increase its chances of doing so, or fracture the odds?

Following our significant coverage of Feature Fair (Momus was its main media partner), we wanted to follow-up with Art Toronto, especially after its recent announcement that founding director Linel Rebenchuk had resigned. I sat down with incumbent director, Susannah Rosenstock (formerly Art Toronto’s VIP relations and programming manager), to discuss the fair’s establishment, challenges, and future.

Art Toronto celebrated its 15th anniversary with an increased program of artist projects. Where did this focus come out of? 

We’ve always done one or two projects, but they take a great amount of resources, both time, money, and space. But because it was the fair’s 15th anniversary, we wanted to do something different. We decided that we would dedicate our resources to these projects; we spoke with the National Gallery early on, and the BGL project arose through that. Space that would normally have been dedicated to booths was devoted to the projects.

You had a geographic focus in 2012, where a section of the fair was devoted to Asian galleries. This feature was notably absent in 2013 and 2014. Why was it not maintained?

It was quite successful in 2012, in that it brought twelve new galleries to the fair. And several of those galleries have returned, and made connections with other galleries in Canada. I don’t know if it increased our audience. You don’t want to do the same thing year in, year out.

You’ve mentioned that a big part of your job is looking at other international fairs. What art-fair model is Art Toronto looking to emulate?

I don’t think we’re trying to emulate any specific model. We’re a large international fair. We’re not as large as, say, Basel or the Armory, but we are a large fair that shows both modern and contemporary art. So in that way, the [Basel or Armory] model is not unlike our own; but we don’t consciously try to emulate one type of fair over another. Each city is different and we really need to respond to Toronto and what the galleries here are doing, what the collectors here are interested in, and the institutions, too. You couldn’t pick up another fair and put it here – it wouldn’t function.

The fair’s former parent company, Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. (MMPI), sold the fair to Informa in 2012. How did this change inflect Art Toronto’s operation and tone?

The change in ownership was simply a business decision by MMPI, which is based in Chicago. They didn’t just sell Art Toronto, they sold all of their holdings in Canada. And it was a business decision in that they were looking to focus more on their real estate, as opposed to shows and exhibitions. So they put up all their holdings in Canada and Informa was their buyer.

What has that change meant for Art Toronto?

Very little, actually. While we have a parent company, each of its art shows functions on its own. And I think Informa would like its fairs to work together so that there is some overlap, but it hasn’t made for a huge – or even small – change for us [so far]. They’re very supportive of the show, and the directions we want to take it. They made a huge financial commitment this year by purchasing new walls for the fair. From the outside, you don’t think about this much, but the walls are the largest investment that an art fair has. These aren’t something you can just rent or buy; they’re all custom-made, and a huge investment. It was nice to have a company behind us that could do something like that.

What’s the budget for something like that?

It’s in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands.

How beholden is Art Toronto to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, which is a major source of the art fair’s criticism?

We did a survey of the galleries after the fair this year, and one of the questions was about the venue, and the overwhelming result was that it was positive for the galleries, that they’re quite happy. The positive aspects are that it’s central, that you can get to it by car or public transit; that there’s a massive amount of parking – which sounds boring, but people in this city like to drive themselves to events. And that it’s easy to move around inside, and navigate, because of the sheer size of it. You can drive a truck into the building, and there are not a lot of buildings in Toronto where this is the case. If you need to install something like the BGL carousel, there aren’t a lot of places where you would be able to do that, here.

It’s also nice that you get a lot of natural light; it creates a nice environment and atmosphere. There are nice high ceilings, space for wide aisles, and space to play with things like restaurants.

Are there things about the building that are challenging? I’d say yes, for sure.

What are some of those?

It’s not inexpensive, because of where it is, right in downtown Toronto. And of course we receive criticism that it seems a little bit corporate, that there are fairs, for instance in Paris, that take place in places like the Grand Palais. Toronto doesn’t have a Grand Palais, or anything similar. So will we be in the Toronto Convention Centre forever? I don’t know. It’s worked well for us for now.

Are there alternatives, in terms of space?

I’m not aware of any other building, except for the Direct Energy Centre, that has the same square-footage.

What do you require?

The square-footage that we rent is 180,000 square feet, an adequate space for storage, machines, and trucks. Shows need more space than simply what you see.

Is Informa dictating decisions of that nature, like where you show?

No, it’s all up to us.

We should talk about Feature Fair. When it emerged as an announcement, last spring, that it would take place this year, concurrent with Art Toronto, what was your first reaction?

As you know, in cities around the world where there is an established fair, it’s quite common for other fairs to take place at the same time. So I wasn’t surprised that it happened; it’s a natural progression that we’ve seen in Miami and New York and other places where there’s a major fair.

Were you anticipating it?

I don’t know that I was anticipating it this year, but like I said, I wasn’t surprised.

Did you feel the loss of quality galleries?

There were several galleries that showed in both fairs, which was an interesting choice, and they chose to feature different kinds of work between them. But are there galleries in Feature that I would like to have in Art Toronto? Sure. A lot of those galleries used to participate in Art Toronto in one way or another. We did gain some other galleries at the same time. So we’ll have to see what happens.

What did you think about Feature’s initiative to be “curated”? What’s your reaction to that term being used in relation to a fair, generally? 

I heard David Balzer talk about his book Curationism at a panel [at Art Toronto], and it’s a word that is used so much these days that it’s lost its meaning – or taken on so many new meanings. In terms of an art fair being curated, I know there are fairs that consider themselves curated, and it creates an interesting dynamic. I’d say at the same time that within other fairs that don’t claim to be curated, each gallery curates its own booth. The fair organizers organize the booths in a certain way, and the projects therein. So I’d say that there’s a curated aspect to any fair.

Do you have any criticism about the term’s application to art fairs?

I think they’re just different types of fairs. They create one kind of perspective. You get the viewpoint of one or a few people. It’s an interesting way to look at a fair, an interesting business model. But the dealers are there to sell, not to exhibit.

But I know that there’s a misperception – comments I’ve heard from gallerists – that Art Toronto is not vetted, that the galleries aren’t selected. Because Feature is curated, there’s this idea that Art Toronto is not curated. I want to emphasize that that’s not true. We have a selection committee, all of the applications are reviewed and discussed. We reject many galleries that apply to the fair, and have conversations back and forth with our galleries about which work will be featured. What we would like them to show, or not show, for the best presentation. So while it’s something that is not advertised, it is selective, it is vetted.

Sure. However the argument gets made that within a more focused context than Art Toronto, for instance, the level of quality and aesthetics gets raised such that it better allows the work to shine. How would you respond to that?

I’d say that’s all really subjective, whether you think showing the work in that way lets it shine or doesn’t. Any way you show it, what happens in an art fair is that you’re comparing work, looking at things side by side, you’re walking around looking at art in one booth and then another booth, and thinking about it. I think that can happen in a lot of different modes. In a fair that’s more curated, you might get a tighter group of work shown in one space, and in a larger fair like ours, you get both contemporary and modern, which is interesting to see because of the connections and influences you see at play. The works can speak to each other in different ways.

Were you able to see Feature, and if so, what were your impressions?

There was some interesting work. And it seemed that Miami’s Untitled was the kind of fair they were emulating, and that it’s a kind of fair that’s more and more popular.

It’s been suggested that the relations between you and Feature’s directing organization, AGAC, have been minimal and even acrimonious. What would you say? 

I‘d say more minimal than acrimonious. We attended Feature, they attended Art Toronto, we spoke a little bit. It was minimal, but we were working hard in service to our galleries.

Are you hoping to have some relationship with Feature, going forward? In terms of collaborating or finding a way to mobilize your audiences between the two fairs?

I mean, I’m not hoping to not have a relationship with Feature. We’re open to having conversations. Since it’s just finished, they probably have a lot to think about in terms of where they want to go from here. We worked with AGAC for many years before this, so we did consider them friends and colleagues.

What informed Linel Rebenchuk’s decision to step down this year?

He’s been doing this for fifteen years, and a job like this is very exhausting. It’s very rewarding, but very stressful. I think he was ready for a change, ready to move on. He felt that he had done it, and that it was in a good place such that he could pass it on and leave it for others to carry on into the future. He wants to spend some time with family, his vineyard, and do some traveling that’s not only about art fairs. He’ll have other projects in the future.

How do you anticipate your leadership will differ from his?

That is what I’m trying to figure out. This position is quite new for me. I would like the fair to become more international. It’s a goal we’ve had for years but it’s one that I’d like to work very hard on achieving. I am not Canadian, I moved here from New York. So I come from a very international artworld, and it was a bit of a shock to me when I first moved here seven years ago that the artworld in Canada seems so national and provincial. I think there’s a larger international conversation that we’re missing here, and not just in art fairs, but in museums, galleries, and publications. So it’s something I’d like to work on.

Do you think it will be difficult?

Oh I’m sure it will be difficult. It always has been. When international galleries come to the art fair they have a great experience, but it’s an expensive proposition for them. There are a lot of art fairs out there.

Art Toronto is expensive, comparatively speaking.

We are the same or less expensive than most international art fairs. More than some, less than others. The rent in Toronto on any building is more than in Miami. The cost to rent the Convention Centre in Toronto is four times what it is to rent the Convention Center in Miami. So it just has to do with the general cost of doing business in Toronto, and in Canada generally. It’s an expensive country, these days.

Are you considering the option of paring down the fair and focusing more on top galleries, such that you could move it into a smaller space and make it a more affordable option for international galleries?

There are things that you lose and things that you gain, depending on the size of the fair. If you want, for example, to have a fair that includes a stage for serious programming, and a VIP program that includes off-site events, and a restaurant, and publishes a catalogue, and has customer service and marketing, you need to be a fair of a certain size. Marketing is incredibly expensive. A satellite fair like NADA or Feature, for example, doesn’t have the budget for marketing. So in order to afford those things, you need to be a certain size. You have to look at the whole model.

How much room is there to change?

There’s always room to change, to grow and improve. We’re working with a shifted team, and the fair is adapting to a changing art market. What we’re doing now is quite different from what it was doing in 2000. We’re always aiming to be responsive.

Chicago is a city whose artworld gets compared to Toronto’s, and when it underwent a similar multiplication of art fairs and a resulting fracture, a diminishment occurred, and Art Chicago closed its doors after three decades of presentation. It’s a narrative that many Canadian artworld-insiders consider portentous, and worry we’re doomed to repeat. Are you concerned that Art Toronto will suffer a similar fate as Art Chicago?

It’s hard for me to comment on Art Chicago, as it’s gone through a lot of different iterations. The original Art Chicago is over thirty years old. And when it started there was Chicago, Basel, and Cologne; those were the only fairs. And in that time, 300 fairs have opened. The entire landscape has shifted.

Fairs go through their ups and downs. Cologne has endured them over its history, same for FIAC. So I think as time goes on, markets change, and the importance of a city changes. I think Chicago was more important as a fair before there were fairs in places like New York and Miami and LA. The audience fans out to different places. I went to EXPO Chicago in September and it was a beautiful fair, I think it’s doing quite well.

It’s hard to predict the future here because the art market in Canada is so young. And Toronto is only getting stronger. I hope the art fair can grow and get stronger along with Toronto.

How do you reflect on the Canadian art market’s seeming hesitance and conservatism?

As an outsider who’s only been watching this market for seven years, I can see that it’s a younger city. It doesn’t have the history that Chicago has, for instance, the families that have been building these collections for several hundred years, the robber barons. But I’ve seen it change so much in that time, so I’m optimistic that it will keep going. And this goes back to my desire for the fair to be more international: we can work hard on that but an art fair is just one aspect of a larger market, a growing market.

It all has to do with showing more international work here, and showing Canadian artists with international artists. I definitely think our artists can hold their own with artists in New York and Berlin. Curators, museums, and galleries just need to take a risk and do more of that – show ours in counterpart to those from other countries. That’s always something that I thought was lacking here. Growing up looking at art in New York, I never even thought about the nationality of the artist. That wasn’t the issue, that wasn’t the first thing you thought about. But it does seem to be the first thing you know about an artist here.

With art fairs multiplying at such a rate and proliferating new models (in addition to the popularity of the “curated” fair, there are established players like Independent Fair issuing two iterations within a single year, in a single city, that articulate different agendas), the art-fair landscape is actively changing. Some of these shifts suggest evolution, and some a more conservative line of thinking. Where are you taking your cues from? 

That’s a big question, and I might have a better view after I visit Miami. I’ve had my head in Art Toronto for the last six months so it’s hard for me to take a broader view. But I think there are a lot of art fairs, an uncomfortable number of art fairs. And it’s hard to know if the market can sustain this many. There does seem to be the appetite, with the collectors going from fair to fair, and many galleries doing several fairs a month, right now. I think a lot of them must be doing something right.

I’d love to go to FIAC, because I hear rave reviews about the fair and what happens in Paris at that time. Maybe that’s a good model for what makes a strong fair. It’s picked itself up, and has struck a perfect harmony with its city – its projects and museums.

Are there any models whose warnings you’re heeding?

I do have to say that when I go to Miami, I find it overwhelming. There are so many fairs, it seems like they just keep adding another tent. I don’t know how each one is surviving. I think that kind of volume is problematic. What it’s created is that while there are some very strong fairs and incredible museums, it’s an overwhelming party atmosphere where you’re kind of losing the art in all that. It’s an over-saturation. But where other cities have satellite fairs, nothing quite compares to Miami Basel. And maybe the volume is just the product of having a fair on the beach in the winter. [laughs] Everyone wants to go! I don’t think there’s any danger of that happening here.

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