Is Richmond’s CURRENT Art Fair a Sustainable Regional Model?

The opening night party for the Current art fair was a sold out event.
The opening night party for the Current art fair was a sold out event.
The opening night party for the Current art fair was sold out.

Do we really need another art fair? Do we need an art fair in Richmond, Virginia? Well, last year some galleries in Richmond decided to launch an art fair. It was, by their own account, successful. The second Current art fair took place September 28 to October 1 in a new addition to the beautiful 1901 Main Street Station. There were 14 exhibitors, twice as many as last year. After the inaugural outing, organizers realized they needed a dedicated manager to run this year’s event and hired Sarah Irvin, a local artist who recently completed her MFA at George Mason University.

Current was founded by the seven most prominent galleries in Richmond, who determined to keep the focus local and to create an art fair by Richmonders for Richmonders — the idea being that getting the galleries together in one location (one-stop shopping?) and offering free admission would remove some barriers for would-be collectors who are intimidated by the gallery setting and the art market. Bring in a different group of potential buyers, and maybe, just maybe, some of those buyers will turn into collectors.

Emily Smith, executive director of the nonprofit 1708 Gallery, said that the idea for the fair was rooted in discussions about how Richmond galleries might benefit from each other’s audiences and how best to accomplish that. Each of the galleries had a unique set of collectors, particularly in the coveted 30-50-year-old range. In addition to a cross-pollination, the goal was to grow the next generation of collectors.

Richmond’s best-known collectors, Pam and Bill Royall (who call the space that houses their collection Try Me) are widely credited with supporting local galleries, but one couple, or even a few, cannot sustain a city’s art scene. The galleries wondered, who is going to be the next Pam and Bill? Or even, could multiple collectors like them be cultivated?

Smith credits Alice Livingston, director at Reynolds Gallery, with recognizing that a community-based art fair might do the trick. Livingston’s mother, Beverly Reynolds, moved from New York City to Richmond in the 1970s and ran her gallery for 40 years. She worked with a private dealer in New York and would drive artwork in her station wagon back to Richmond (including Alexander Calder, among others, that were not your typical Richmond fare at the time). One of Richmond’s leading art supporters, she died three years ago, and her daughters Julia and Alice took over the gallery’s operations.     

The second Current Art Fair had a variety of mediums, styles and price ranges to appeal to a broad audience.
The second Current Art Fair had a variety of mediums, styles and price ranges to appeal to a broad audience. (Photo: Terry Brown)

The first fair was a success in several ways. Foremost, all of the galleries I spoke with made money (no shipping, travel, and accommodation costs when the fair is in your backyard). According to Smith, 75 percent of last year’s buyers were new to 1708, evidence, she says, that a community art fair is a way to break down barriers for people who are interested in contemporary art but intimidated by walking into a gallery. Smith said the same thing happened this year. Lots of new faces were buying.

A key factor to the exhibitors’ success has been bringing in affordable art work, meaning prices in the $50 to $200 range. There are more expensive works available for experienced or adventurous collectors, such as those by Sally Mann and Ellsworth Kelly, but there are also more accessible pieces by local favorites like Ron Johnson, who teaches painting and printmaking at VCUarts. The variety of work available, in cost, media and style, is certainly a plus.

This time, Current added panel discussions on such topics as interpreting art and collecting art [BURNAWAY Executive Editor Stephanie Cash served on a panel about criticism]. Irvin feels that the programming is a way to connect with people and get them interested. For at least two of the panels, additional chairs had to be added to accommodate the audience. The panel on collecting could have just as easily been talking about Atlanta — substitute John Wieland for the Royalls — or many cities with intimate art scenes and not much of a collector base.

With the second fair behind them, wrapping up its second successful version, It appears that the second year of Current is as successful, if not more, than the first year. There is already talk of what the third version might look like. Organizers and exhibitors have diverging ideas about how to grow the event, whether to stay focused on local collectors or to bring in galleries from the surrounding region, presumably along with their collectors. Some exhibitors have expressed concern that the latter may only serve to divert collectors away from Richmond galleries. Both are salient in that the success of art fairs is measured by attendance and gallery participation.

Would the Richmond model work elsewhere, say, Atlanta, a city more than three times the size of Richmond? I’m certain that the answer is “yes.” Purposefully helping to broaden the art buying in a community and creating a dialogue around such issues as how to make art part of one’s home environment can only be positive. Without local collectors, there is no local art market.

Carl Rojas is a local art lover and sometimes writer. He is married to BURNAWAY’s Executive Editor Stephanie Cash and was a participant in the fifth cycle of our Art Writers Mentorship Program. 
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