While the first three parts of this review chronicle the details of the booths and the images contained there, I had a few other higher level observations and conclusions that I wanted to add in the hopes of creating a more complicated picture of this show. We’ve given you the laundry list of photo information; now here are a few ideas to chew on. In no particular order, they are as follows:
1.) In talking with lots of different gallery owners over the course of the show, I’m more convinced than ever that the photo market slowdown we’ve seen in the past few years was a result of reductions of both supply and demand. Not only did many collectors/museums pull back on their purchases from a demand perspective, the supply of top tier pictures also dried up, as owners were far less willing to sell into the teeth of a headwind. The consensus opinion of the gallery owners I talked to was that both supply and demand are starting to loosen up a bit again, with mid tier and lower end collectors regaining some financial confidence, and top tier collectors (who never really went away) beginning to see pieces of the finest quality and rarity start to reappear.
2.) After coming to AIPAD for quite a few years now, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best thing about this show is what I would call “the discovery of the old”. I think there is really no better place to find the amazing, the forgotten, the unseen, the variant, or the unusual in vintage photography. Every year I am introduced to several vintage photographers who I have never heard of and who have made superlative work, but are outside the mainstream a bit. And there are also always prints by photographers I think I know well that surprise and delight me.
While there was more contemporary photography at this year’s fair than ever before (at least that I can remember), and with sincere apologies to those galleries who showed predominantly contemporary work this year, I don’t think AIPAD is a particularly good place for “the discovery of the new”. Since it is now the time of the NCAA college basketball tournaments (men’s and women’s) in the United States, allow me to use a basketball analogy for a moment. Imagine we were to set up a contemporary photography “tournament” (I know, I know, art isn’t exactly a winners and losers exercise but bear with me), but instead of having the normal 64 team field, we did the following. First, let’s strip out the top 15-20 powerhouse teams (galleries or artists in this case) from the tournament field. Second, let’s strip out the bottom 15-20 newcomers, underdogs, and fresh faces as well. This leaves the solid middle of the field to play in the tournament; once all the games were finished, what would we have learned or what conclusions could we draw from this pared down event? Not much I fear.
Unfortunately, to my eye, this is exactly what is happening with contemporary photography at AIPAD. While there are plenty of strong specialist galleries that show contemporary photography from all over the planet, the fact remains that virtually all of the top photographer/artists in the world are represented not by photography specialists, but by contemporary art galleries. Really, how can we have a show of the best of contemporary photography without Gursky, Sherman, Sugimoto, Close, Prince, Eliasson, Ruff, Muniz, Struth, Graham, Avedon, Hofer, Neshat, Kruger, Soth, Wall, Opie, Tillmans, or Sternfeld (or pick any other of your favorites that I may have missed); none of these were represented at this year’s AIPAD as far as I could tell.
I think AIPAD is the right “brand” to deliver on “the discovery of the new”, but it will require some out of the box thinking. My suggestion is to split the current fair into two fairs. AIPAD Vintage would gather work from the beginning of the medium to approximately 1980. All the booths would show only this kind of work. No exceptions. Schedule it in October, in line with the Fall auction season. It will draw the vintage collectors just like it always has, only there will be a more focused atmosphere. AIPAD Contemporary would gather work from 1980 onward. Schedule it in late March as usual, but not opposite the Armory, ADAA or Maastrict. AIPAD will need to create an ancillary membership category for those contemporary galleries that represent photography as part of their stable, but not as a primary focus. Perhaps a combination of lower dues or booth discounts will be needed, but the goal must be to attract the best galleries to participate and bring only their photography (I would suggest the following from New York as a short list: Gagosian, Sonnabend, David Zwirner, Matthew Marks, Metro Pictures, Sikkema Jenkins, Luhring Augustine, Gladstone, Marian Goodman, Jack Shainman, Sean Kelly, Von Lintel; add your favorites from around the world as well). There also needs to be a way to bring in a group of younger, international galleries with less established work; set up the vetting however you like, but bring in some emerging work to add to the mix. If these things were done, and added to the existing core of great contemporary galleries/dealers who are already AIPAD members, and now we’d actually have a show that would cover the complex world of contemporary photography with some distinction (and attract a broad audience). No one has done this yet, at least in America, and AIPAD has the best chance to do it well, given its historical relationships with collectors.
While I’m sure there are some collectors who collect both Gustave Le Gray and Thomas Ruff, I think this is a relatively small (but likely elite) group. Many collectors focus on one or the other (vintage or contemporary), and breeze by the other booths as though they were invisible. I have often said that I enjoy the juxtaposition of old and new, but I don’t think AIPAD can scale to be everything to everybody without doubling or tripling in size, and more photo specialists doesn’t fix the problem; contemporary photography is just moving too fast. A more focused approach would create more interesting connections and interplays and less dissonance. If we have to go to two fairs, so be it. And an added benefit of this approach (at least from my perspective) is that the focused fairs will eliminate those booths that try to cover the history of photography on three walls with 20 pictures, and encourage both tighter editing and more single artist displays.
Feel free to dismantle this strawman idea in the comments, as I’m certainly open to other good ideas, but I think this is the most straightforward way to leverage the strengths of AIPAD to deliver on an important unmet need in the world of contemporary photography. AIPAD is about excellence in all facets of photography and the membership should take a leadership position in defining the best of contemporary photography, rather than ceding that task to others.
All in, as always and regardless of my nitpicks and suggestions above, I had a tremendous time at this year’s AIPAD. The look of the show itself was better than ever (I liked the use of more colored walls), and there was plenty of exciting work and a high density of fascinating people; overall, it was more to take in than is humanly possible. I was happy to meet all of you who reached out to say hello, and for those I missed in my whirlwind tour, we’ll see you next year.