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Interview with Michael Workman (Bridge Art Fairs)

Michael Workman and Marek Claassen

AfN: This is an interview with Michael Workman, the director of Bridge Art Fairs. Hello Michael.

MW: Hi.

AfN: This is the first Bridge fair in New York...

MW: That is correct. This is our inaugural fair, and it is the first fully self-produced booth fair that we have. We did a booth fair before in Chicago but it was produced by Merchandise Mart; we were working with them. We have put this show together ourselves entirely. So from top to bottom: This is a fully self-produced booth fair.

AfN: And how did it go?

MW: Very well. We have had everything from good sales to good PR - like they mentioned in the New York Times videopiece - to celebrity sightings; Harvey Weinstein came through early on and bought some work, and yesterday Marina Abramovic was here to watch a performance piece on site... And our opening night was very good, too. We had Amanda Lepore do a performance with us, and some of the people from the old New York nightlife scene came through...

AfN: ...because they wanted to see this location...

MW: Right! The history of this space is that it was part of the limelight club circuit. There was a whole movement during the period when these nightclubs were attended by club kids invoking the spirit of Warhol's superstars - the artists and musicians and other talents who he would promote. So they took that on themselves, creating new personas, new personalities - through fashion and art - and this space was a part of that entire era.

So now no longer a nightclub but it has the history, and that history was important for us. It is connected to art that has come before it. We wanted to invoke that. That is why we had Amanda Lepore perform; she was part of that whole history. And there was Michael Musto from The Village Voice. [...] This is, by the way, another wonderful partnership with The Village Voice. Like them, we are an independent company. We all started as office artists, everyone who works for the company, and early on, began doing exhibitions. It has grown since then but it is still very much in that spirit of making decisions about work that is independent. Village Voice, too, has that background - they are an independent publication - and we thought that was a great partnership.

AfN: I personally liked the geography of the fair, the location and the tunnel situation where you had to walk aside every gallery. How was the feedback on this unconventional way of presenting art?

MW: I think people like it because it is one aisle. You do not get lost in it. It is one straight shot through the whole space, a very long tunnel space. You can go through, and see everything in one movement. People enjoy that because Armory is very big, it is too big almost, and so they can come here and see galleries in the area as well because it is part of their itinerary, very convenient in that way.

AfN: You had a focus on Asia and want to continue to present a certain focus. How do you select the galleries? Do you have an artistic director?

MW: First of all, the focus programme is an identity for Bridge. It is part of our evolving effort to state clearly what our purpose is. For us, it is a geo-cultural focus in a sense. We are introducing the work of one geo-cultural area to another, and in a way, it draws on the history of biennials and what they do - for example, in Venice, you have a pavilion for each country, and they put up one artist. It is like the Olympics of the art world; it is very competitive in a sense because every nation wants to have the best artist. But we want to say "Look, we can do this collaboratively, and you can learn, and your culture can grow by absorbing the lessons of different cultures". The focus is an element of the show that is part of the mission that was there before, to showcase emerging and contemporary work.

We, generally as the staff, are involved in that decision-making process as well as the galleries, for instance, Toomey Tourell Gallery from San Francisco [...]. We work with other people as well. It is like artists get together and talk about what they like. That is the approach we have taken.

AfN: While preparing for this interview, I have read two interviews I really liked. One was with the and the other on The main thing that striked me most was your openness of talking about failure and learning curves. Are you not afraid of teaching others insiders tricks?

MW: Oh, not at all. I do not think there is any. It is really just about gaining knowledge and being involved and active and disciplined in the art community and finding ways to improve what you do. The failure aspect of it is where you learn. When you succeed, you do not learn so much. There are always these little improvements; you think "ok, I did not do this right. Let's go back and figure out a way to do it better". It is a rich soil for new ideas to grow in.

AfN: But this is very unique in a way because everybody says "I am the best" or "We have the best art, and everything is fine"...

MW: I do not think that it is possible. People all make mistakes, and that is part of the process. The thing is, when you say that you have issues or problems with the show, that you are trying to make the show better, people come and help you. There is a receptivity to saying "Well, that is something I could help with", and they can work with us cooperatively. So this is the approach.

It is also about commune-organizing in a sense. For us, the geo-cultural aspect is that you can begin then to look that this is a larger picture - a network with different cities, different ways in which those cities work together... There is a lot of effort to say "our city is the best". New York is best in a sense only if it can bring everyone else in and be international. That is the thing about New York. For us, it is maybe less an American city than it is an international city. We may go to these fairs, and we say "we'll put on a fair here" - it is in a sense because there is that kind of transit between these international cultures coming together in one place. That is how we decided on New York, London, Miami.

You get to see the world community, and that, for us, is really important because that is how artists work nowadays. An artist in Phoenix, Arizona, is making a piece for someone in Barcelona. It is a new kind of international market - not that that was not always international but it is a different way of operating. Artists and galleries, especially in the United States, they are still learning these things, they are still building it. So we can be a participant and help to make that cultural shift which is exciting.

AfN: After having experienced being a publisher, you entered relatively late the market of satellite fairs. You said that you had been amazed when visiting Miami firstly and then adopted the Gramercy Hotel model for your fair. Why did you choose to tread a beaten track?

MW: Well, we do that but we also have a range. We have not given up the hotel fairs. We still do the booth fairs. But the Berlin shows [with the apartments] - never been done before. So that is entirely different. What you should do is to ask "what is out there?". And you look at what is out there, and you begin to look at ways you could innovate on what already exists because there is a community that is already plugged into that. You want to have access to that community as well, but you want to do more, of course. But it takes time. You have to see ways in which you can push at different directions, and what new concepts can be wrought from that experience. We try different things with the old models, and try to expand and innovate upon them.

For us, non-traditional space is a big part of that. The Gramercy model in the history of that was an understood one, it is a way to get the collector community in because we were doing it as a market thing. So you want that but you also want to have the cultural element which can change the market approach and can change the way you think about how they collect work, how the museums get involved,... So you have to start with what is established, and then, you can reinvent the wheel.

Marek Claassen and Robert Mason from Beijing Central Art Gallery

AfN: A few years ago I asked Amanda Sharp from Frieze about satellite fairs, and she answered that there was not enough oxygen. Contrary to that we have seen a tremendous growth in fair activity in the recent years. In your opinion, as an experienced manager, do you have a notion of an evolving process of extrusion (displacement) amongst the smaller and bigger fairs. Or is there, in your opinion, still room for other fairs and for your own growth?

MW: Well, it is interesting. The destination fairs - like Armory, Frieze or Miami Basel - they change and grow as well. These fair models exist on a cultural foundation that can change. And what they do as events or as global community destination has to change as well. I think, what happens is that you have this surge of different satellites now, but it was based on something that was happening a couple of years ago where there was a frenzy in the art market. It is really not there - as much - anymore.

So is there room for more fairs? - Yes, but it depends on how those fairs adapt to the changing climate and the art culture, and on what happens globally with that because you have to move, and you have to keep up with the changes. All the fairs will always change. But there will always be events like this. There is a long history that goes back through antique fairs, and even how galleries are organized in neighbourhoods. It has never been consistent throughout history. It has always changed and adapted.
The satellite fairs are a specific thing. When you throw a rock, and it hits a peak, it is still climbing - but is has a ripple effect when it hits the water. So the issue is that these cities are now trying to push it as an identity, to have a city-wide cultural event, and this is a market graft on whatever exists throughout the year - whether it'd be the galleries, whether it'd be performance art events, whatever it is...

There are more people coming in, and I think that is healthy. It means people are experimenting, they are taking risks, taking chances, and trying to push the art culture further. As long as there is support for it, then yes - I think there always will be in different ways if the model changes somewhat.

AfN: When I read this interview in the "chicago artists resource" where you explained the pitfalls of organizing an art event, I was thinking to myself: Is it really the organizational skills that will wipe out competition or is there something else?

MW: Right now, with the market changing, there are many fairs that have just closed. Art D.C. cancelled, Pulse cancelled its London edition... You have smaller project fairs, too, like the fair at the Jupiter Hotel in Portland, Oregon, which recently announced that it is discontinuing. On the front end, you will see these shows adapting to the market, and what that means in terms of the cultural impact as well. In New York City this year, the Fountain Fair cancelled its show.

So you have decisions being made on a large range. On the front end, that has probably been good because some of the frenzy is fading away. You are getting rid of people who were just doing project spaces, trying to reinvent how they would present their work. And it is healthy, I think, to take a step back for some of these projects and to re-evaluate.

AfN: I have to come back to organization. When I looked at your marketing material like press release and catalogue. The thing that really striked me was the professionalism in presenting your mission. The CI you have designed for the branding of the different city franchise, the way you present very interesting key facts like: Dates, Locations, Number of General Attendance, Collectors, VIP Attendance, galleries and Anticipated Sales. Where do all the structure and conceptual work come from?

MW: It comes from our office, and from our effort to present good marketing and PR effort. We have hired someone full-time, Brenda Schumacher, who is a marketing and PR professional, who worked on other organizations like the Gay Games in Chicago. That effort is necessary. But with other organizations, that may not necessarily be as important. I think you can still put on the fair at the Jupiter Hotel or smaller events like Fountain without necessarily that range of marketing effort.
But we have a large show. There is a lot invested in it, corporate sponsorhips and so on. For us, organizationally, that is what we are doing. I think we need to have all that, and to have an effort to clearly state our mission to communicate to our public.

AfN: And it is very clear, much clearer than at other fairs. I was really impressed.

MW: Thank you. We try very hard because if we want our show to have a larger place in history, then we have to have an identity, an image, a reputation - not just put out a sign. You have to really be able to say what your purpose is in the larger culture, and that is what we are doing. We have to get that message clearly on paper, discuss it with the press, with our clients, our galleries, our collectors, museums, and they see a role for us in the world then, they see a way in which we are useful. Even beyond the merely commercial aspects, there is a certain intersection for the global culture that we want to present. So that is the thing. We think it is unique. We were developing and growing it, and we were borrowing it from existing models that come from the market place, that allow us to serve the clients to sell to collections...

But there is also this other aspect where you are getting into museums and getting into private collections that can help the artist's name grow. There is a new generation of artists coming now, and that is why we get people like Marina Abramovic to come and see these young artists. She is really interested in helping to develop their talents. Other artists realise that we are not an island, we are not alone in this. There is a horizon of intelligibility if you will that connects everyone to all the different efforts we are putting together. So if we can benefit galleries, we can benefit individual artists, benefit just the art level of the street, then there is a way that all that connects together and produces the whole art world and influences its direction.

We like the approach that it is more collaborative, more sympathetic - it is not just about buying a piece of work because it has a certain status or because it reaches a certain price point at auctions - we want people to buy the work because they like it, and because it means something to them. Art as a revelatory experience is a valuable thing, and I think that that is what we communicate and say "you know, you can see the work from another culture and understand the custom from which that work was produced, then it can enrich your own culture".

AfN: In a recent interview, I was asked if it was of interest where the pickup in demand for art came from. I really could not answer that question, do you have an idea why the demand for art is boosting in succession?

MW: I think, in difficult times, when you are in war, and there is a lot of isolationism, and when all these horrible things happen in the world, [art] enriches the spirit and gives hope. It gives different ways to understand the problems. America is a superpower, and it has its own failures in the world, and those are failures to learn from. There are things that we can take lessons from that we as a nation and we as a global community are suffering from now. I think, art is an instrument for enriching your spirit.

AfN: And this counts for everyone who is coming here. They want to take this experience home with them.

MW: That is right, and I think, that is the same for everybody no matter what part of the world you are from.

AfN: Yes, that is interesting. It is indeed a global phenomenon, in Asia, here...

MW: Everywhere, it is so bad recently. There are repressions and things like that - they are challenges for human beings. Art is a different way of knowing things, unlike science.

AfN: Rather subconsciously...

MW: Something like that perhaps. It is hard to explain exactly how it works.

Artfacts.Net booth at Pulse Art Fair 08

AfN: Tell me something about London, Berlin, Miami.

MW: Both, Miami and London, are hotel shows. London in Trafalgar Square, just south of Piccadilly Circus where Zoo is located, and the beautiful Philippe Starck-like five star hotel with a wonderful restaurant and nightclub downstairs, beautiful spacious rooms that open their windows out on Trafalgar Square - that will be our next show during Frieze.

Two weeks later, Art Forum Berlin takes place, and that is a very different, very unique show for us. We have secured an entire apartment building, and we will be using each of the individual apartments for the gallery space. [...] There is also a wonderful restaurant right next door called White Trash Restaurant and the Diamond Lounge downstairs which is a great performance space. So we are thinking about ideas for performance there as well. It is in Mitte, a little strip there. That is really unique. I do not think that has ever been done to have an apartment building show like this.

And then, in Miami, again a hotel show in Collins Avenue, two blocks away from Basel. So that is an ongoing show for us, a very good one. It will be both, in the Catalina and in the Maxine Hotel, so two hotels there.

AfN: What do you think about this year's art market?

MW: Definitely a bit of a softer market. That is, for us, why we have gone to the top performing markets now because you need to be where the greatest density of collectors will be. And the art community, the visitors, museum people, collectors, press need to be where they can find you. That has been New York now, Miami - still good, London and Berlin.

AfN: Dear Michael, thank you for the interview.

MW: My pleasure.

Interview: Marek Claassen
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