Is Nashville Ready for an Art Fair?

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nashville map
Will a planned art fair put Nashville on the international art fair map?

Nope. Well, maybe? It’s complicated. On November 21, Artnet published an article about a new contemporary art fair coming to Nashville. Art Nashville is gunning to be the first-ever annual international art fair for the city. Founded by entrepreneur Matthew Eck, it’s slated to be held in a 40,000-square-foot tent downtown in October 2018. Eck, an enterprising business-type with no real ties to Nashville’s art scene, is a man of many titles. He bills himself as an artist agent, event producer, art dealer, artist, and creative mind. He founded Miami’s X Contemporary art fair and co-founded the now-defunct SELECT art fair.

The article claims Eck aims to highlight Nashville’s “ascension as a blossoming center of arts and culture.” He then claims there is a “great demand for a fine art event such as this.” But I fear what the public—and, perhaps Eck—do not quite realize is that Nashville has a big, peculiar problem (or, probably, not-so-peculiar). Yes, there is a wealth of prolific artists making work here—fantastic, intelligent, mega-talented artists—and, as of late, there’s been a somewhat growing number of commercial galleries and artist-run exhibition spaces in town, and sure, there are decent art programs and art schools here, but you know what we don’t have? Folks who buy art. Or, we have them, but they aren’t buying art here. Presumably, the fair would bring the galleries they do buy from to Nashville—and local artists and galleries gain little, if anything, from that.

I’ll let you in on a not-so-secret secret: any gallery that exists here is doing so by the skin of its teeth. They are wringing the towel of funds harder and harder every month to pay the bills. I worked in one of the top Nashville galleries for two years, and the grapevine winding through the tight-knit network of galleries around town was loud, clear, unmistakable: no one is buying art in Nashville.

I don’t know what it’s like in other cities of similar size, but all I can say is that Nashville is not home to a stable pool of local collectors. It has nothing to do with the quality of art offered here. In addition to stellar regional artists, Nashville is now home to artists from all over the world—Brooklyn, Paris, Berlin, LA, you name it—who make up a lively, diverse, top-notch community of artists. Our galleries have mounted exhibitions featuring artists you’ll find at Jack Shainman Gallery or Gagosian or Cheim & Read. It’s all been on the market here, and it’s been proven time and time again that nothing—no matter how blue chip or up-and-coming—sells in any kind of reliable way. Of course, every gallery has their home runs and Hail Marys in terms of sales, but it’s simply not enough.

Galleries are hemorrhaging money to promote their exhibitions, staff their buildings, install their shows, and, if they participate in the monstrosity that is the First Saturday Art Crawl, they must keep the free wine flowing every month to hordes of apathetic socializers, the majority of whom never give a penny to the arts. Galleries are lucky to sell one or two big pieces of work per month. Sometimes it is two, three, four months with no sale at all. Not a drop in the bucket.

So, returning to the topic of an art fair: say a big contemporary art fair lands here. It brings outside collectors and art-goers in — and it’s a party! Tourism dollars. Publicity opps. Networking, I guess. The thinking is, outside collectors come to Nashville to buy work from the international galleries who are represented at the fair, and maybe, just maybe, buy from the few local galleries that could cough up the fee for a booth with no guarantee of sales.

Let us not forget how art fairs (and their founders) make money in this arrangement. Galleries submit applications to participate; there is often an application fee that can be anywhere from $10 to $1,000. If accepted, galleries pay for their booth space at the fair, which costs anywhere from $3,000 to $100,000. Fair-goers buy tickets (Art Nashville will be $100 per ticket). So the organizer, Eck, makes money off both the galleries and the visitors. For the galleries, it’s a gamble.

I asked several gallery owners how they felt about Eck’s fair, and across the board their reactions were lukewarm, lackluster, indifferent. I might as well have asked them their feelings on pea soup. This is likely because Eck’s first proposal of the fair to a group of local gallery owners was, reportedly, a disaster. The consensus was that Eck’s presentation was disorganized and uninspired. At that time, the fair was going to be held on a floor of the Omni Hotel, a luxury hotel on 5th Avenue, but recently the hotel pulled out of the deal. Ergo, a giant tent downtown. (If you want to get a sense of Eck’s sales pitch, read this.)

So what benefit does the local art economy see after the faraway collectors fly home with their Jack Daniels hangovers to their homes in Denver or New York or Miami? We are still left with  no internal support. We are back, essentially, at square one. I suppose, perhaps, our “image” as an “art city” could get a little boost, but whether or not that translates to quantifiable support for the arts is debatable.

In Miami, the art fairs haven’t much helped the local community. In a Miami Herald article on the impact of Art Basel, Ricardo Mor writes, “While one would think that the fair would have a trickle-down effect on the local galleries that have spaces here, that is far from the reality. For a number of reasons, visiting collectors often keep to the fairs themselves with only a few side trips, rarely making time to venture off the beaten path to a gallery.”

Don’t get me wrong, my intention is not to propagate pessimism re: the arts and my city. However, as an art writer and former gallery and museum worker, I’ve been on the inside. I have watched genuine optimism morph into fake optimism, and spunky hustling morph into silent withering, over and over. I don’t really care about a week-long tourist attraction. What we need is for Nashville’s art community to be functional, supported, and self-sustaining, all the time.

That said, I can’t help but wonder if maybe an art fair would kickstart long-term support for Nashville’s parched and starved artists and galleries. Maybe in some magic way, a contemporary art fair bringing more and new hype and buzz to the community will have some sort of lasting positive effect for local galleries. Perhaps it will start to cultivate a new crop of art appreciators in town. My argument is that it needs to be done with the understanding that our visual art scene isn’t “flourishing” in the way the rest of Nashville is. I get it, Nashville is the “It City.” Nashville has money rushing through its veins. Businesses are coming to Nashville and thriving. Its culinary scene and fashion scenes are booming. But the thing is, everyone buys food. Everyone buys clothes. But, art? Well, art just isn’t the same. Not everyone buys art. You can’t manufacture an art-savvy community; you can’t transplant that level of culture.

That said, Eck isn’t the only hungry enterpriser eyeing Nashville for a contemporary art fair. Rumor has it that a major art fair production group is also scoping out Nashville for a new fair. So whether the city is ready or not, the arms race for a new art fair has begun.

Sara Estes is a writer and editor living in Nashville. Her writing has been featured in The Los Angeles Review, The Bitter Southerner, Hyperallergic, Oxford American, BookPage, Filling Station, Number, Chapter 16, Empty Mirror, The Tennessean, Nashville Scene, and more.

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