When gallerist Jessica Bradley asked artist Katie Bethune-Leamen if it was true that taking an artist to an art fair is like taking a pig to a sausage factory, she got a big laugh from the assembled audience at the first panel discussion at Art Toronto (aka the Toronto International Art Fair) on Sunday afternoon. Standing as I was at the back of the room, I couldn't tell if the crowd was also licking their lips.
Bethune-Leamen's response was congenial. She, like everyone else on the panel, acknowledged her initial trepidation about art fairs and then admitted to having succumbed to their charms. Despite recent high profile statements of discontent from the critical classes (see David Hickey and Sarah Thornton) about the deleterious effect of the market on the art, the consensus on Sunday was that they're inescapable and we should make the most of them. The benefits of the one-stop shopping model aren't simply for collectors; the new normal is that curators need to hit the circuit to get a sense of what is out there. Having never been to Basel, Miami Beach, or London's Frieze, I can't say for sure whether these events are necessary cultural experiences, but the Marxist in me recoils at the thought that the significant artists of our age are being identified by their participation at such trade fairs.
On the other hand, the realist in me understands the economic necessity of the commercial gallery system and appreciates the idealism and efforts of all those who sign up. It's not all crass consumerism; in fact, it's still a very human world where people work hard to share what they believe in. Artist Julie Voyce said as much from the panel audience when she voiced her appreciation for the sacrifices and risks the gallerists took on to be there.
I had a chance to witness the payoff for the dealers on Thursday night when Pierre-Francois Ouelette cornered me to rave about the upcoming exhibition by Maskull Lasserre in his Toronto space and Paul Petro practically glowed with pride when he told me the AGO had just purchased a massive Stephen Andrews painting.
In this new era, an art fair's saving grace is its parallel programming – the artist talks, gallery tours, exhibitions and events that get crammed in amongst the business at hand. Art Toronto faired well with a respectable group show of both established (Rirkrit Tiravanija) and emerging Asian artists, and an opening night performance/foot race from Geoffrey Pugen and Tibi Tibi Neuspiel. The highlight of the weekend's curating – partly because it enveloped you all weekend – was the Gamelatron sound installation. This robotic percussion orchestra wrapped around the escalator entranceway and provided a subliminal soundtrack for the gathered masses. Composer Aaron "Taylor" Kuffner talked about his creation with C Magazine editor Amish Morrell later Sunday afternoon to an audience of me and C publisher Kate Munro. He talked about his background in activist art directed toward reclaiming the street and recounted examples of work that could never fly in the context of the fair. It provided a nice balance to the object-oriented art commodities that surrounded us. If only more people bad were listening.
Art Toronto 2012: http://www.tiafair.com/
Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.
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