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M/The New York Art World - Guest Editorial

Having played a key role in transforming The Armory Show from an alternative art fair in 2001, into the main event that it is today, former Managing Director Timothy Hartley Smith reflects on the fair¹s history and the implications for its future under its current management team.

By Timothy Hartley Smith

The genesis of The Armory Show began during a conversation among Pat Hearn, Colin De Land, Matthew Marks and Paul Morris; New York art dealers, during a slump in business. Collectively, they were looking for a stimulus to increase exposure for their artists and jump start the art market in New York. The result was an art fair in a hotel and The Gramercy International Contemporary Art Fair was launched in May 1994.

Timothy Hartley Smith - Managing Director of The Armory Show 2001 - 2005

The new, unconventional art fair proved popular and grew over the next several years to the point where the hotel venue no longer proved adequate for the display of the artworks, or to accommodate the growing crowds. In 1999, the fair was moved to the Armory on Lexington and 26th Street and subsequently adopted a new name, The Armory Show – referencing the legendary exhibition of 1913 that took place in the very same venue. The advent of The Armory Show coincided with a resurgence in the popularity of art fairs as gathering places for collectors, art lovers and dealers.

In 2001, The Armory Show doubled in size and was moved once more to its current location on the Show Piers on the Hudson River. Unfortunately, the owners of the fair failed to anticipate how a split venue (i.e. two separate piers) and doubling in size would impact both the management and production of what had traditionally been a “mom and pop” operation; the organization was strained to the breaking point with only two permanent employees and a tiny, temporary show staff. The fair was disastrous from a production standpoint, culminating in a petition signed by dozens of participating dealers calling for heads to roll and a complete revamping of the fair’s management.

Partly in response, I was brought in shortly after the 2001 fair to bolster management and initiate a retooling of the organization. I instituted policies and procedures that raised the professionalism of the operation, expanded its brand, and enhanced its competitive position among Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach, Frieze Art Fair and a host of new and developing
venues like the NADA Art Fair, Scope and a number of more regional fairs in Europe, Latin America and Asia. I concentrated my efforts on building strong relationships with exhibiting galleries, institutions and private collectors. I instituted a VIP program that proved a standard for art fairs everywhere – especially in terms of ancillary events during and around the fair, most notably extensive visits to private collections in New York. I developed the first formal sponsor program for The Armory Show, the seeds of which continue to bear fruit for the organization.

After the death’s of founders Pat Hearn and Colin De Land, there was clearly a loss of hands-on, creative involvement among the remaining owners. Matthew Marks has little or no interest in the business; he has been quoted in the press as referring to the fair as a “pain in the ass” and his public comments are supported by a continuing detachment in the development of the business. Paul Morris is not a collaborator or innovator. My title in the
organization was Managing Director, but there was and continues to be a Director of the fair, Katelijne De Backer, who remains largely behind the scenes. It is perhaps a telling sign about the direction of the current management that the Director of the fair was no where to be seen in Miami last December, when the entire contemporary art world gathered there for Art Basel Miami Beach. A number of dealers there cornered me to discuss developments at The Armory Show, though they well knew that I was not longer involved. Given the increasing competition from London and Miami, it is essential that the the fair's remaining owners rededicate themselves to maintaining and building excellent relationships with all of the stakeholders. Today, it is simply not adequate to rely on reputation or location. The old adage that if you build it, they will come, no longer suffices.

The fair has generally done a superb job of selecting the best galleries for participation, thanks in large part to an excellent and independent Selection Committee. Strong leadership, however, is critical to keeping and attracting the world’s very best and The Armory Show’s 2006 lineup is sadly missing some key galleries. My hope is that this reflects a very demanding art fair calendar and focus on markets outside New York and not a loss of confidence in the future of the fair. New York, as the center of the contemporary art world, deserves a strong, world-class art fair.

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