Is Dallas Big Enough for Two Art Fairs?

Interstate 30 leading to downtown Dallas, at dusk featuring Margaret Hill Bridge. JOE SOHM/VISIONS OF AMERICA/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGE

This Thursday, the Dallas Art Fair (DAF), which was launched in 2009, will welcome VIPs to its 2024 edition. The same day, and just across the street, the newer Dallas Invitational will open its second edition at the Fairmont Hotel. The Invitational, which features just 14 exhibiting galleries (versus DAF’s 91), is the latest boutique art event to stake a claim abutting a major fair. As such, it is billing itself as having been “created from conversations between galleries, collectors, and curators.” For founder James Cope, the Dallas-based proprietor of And Now gallery, that is a recipe for quality.

“It’s always quality over quantity. It’s a fair per se, but I really see it as more of a forum of like-minded galleries coming together,” Cope told ARTnews. “We are all either friends or we share artists, so there’s a real kind of collegial philosophy behind it.”

That translates, of course, into context, the art world’s buzzword for excellence by association. Among those returning to the Invitational are Hannah Hoffman and Lomex galleries. Meanwhile, longtime DAF exhibitors like Night Gallery and Various Small Fires have jumped ship for the Invitational this year. Cope says he had enough applicants that, if he’d wanted to, he could have expanded his fair. “We had a lot of interest. I think we could have easily doubled or tripled the size,” Cope said. “But I want to take it slow. This was meant to be a one-off that really takes as its inspiration the Gramercy International Art Fair in New York before it became professionalized and turned into the Armory [Show].”

Context, according to several dealers who asked to remain anonymous to protect business relationships, has been lacking at DAF since cofounder Chris Byrne left the fair in 2017, leaving real estate developer John Sughrue as chairman.

“Chris understood the art world,” one dealer told ARTnews. “He used to have a gallery. He was a dealer. He really understood what the galleries wanted. The Dallas Art Fair’s branding and the vision all came from him.”

It was under Byrne’s leadership that Rome’s Galleria Lorcan O’Neill and London’s Modern Art joined the fair, boosting its international profile and taking it from 30 participants in 2008 to 90 a decade later. Byrne’s departure came after what he called, at the time, its “pinnacle of achievement”: the participation of top global galleries like Lehmann Maupin, Skarstedt, and Gagosian. While none of those galleries is on board this year, the fair continues to have international participants, like Galerie Max Hetzler and Perrotin.

Byrne’s departure from DAF may have been a factor in the Invitational launching last year, but dealers told ARTnews that the real spark was DAF’s 2020 cancellation due to what it called at the time “pandemic-related restrictions.” At the time, DAF refused to refund exhibitors fees already paid, an unwise decision, given that the cancellation came after they had already postponed the fair from April to October, according to the Canvas newsletter. DAF told ARTnews at the time that it was “not in the financial position to issue cash refunds to our dealers” and instead planned to offer equivalent credits to exhibitors for “future fairs.” A person familiar with the credit agreement said that some galleries have used the credits since 2020, though they didn’t immediately confirm which galleries or how many.

A group of 34 galleries, including New York’s Galerie Lelong & Co., London’s Carlos/Ishikawa, and Dallas’s Barry Whistler Gallery, sent a letter to Sughrue demanding a “substantial refund,” noting that Art Basel and Frieze both refunded exhibitors for canceled fairs. DAF called the equivalency “misguided,” saying that it’s “a small, independent business, and our revenue base is less than many of our participating gallerists.” For many, that explanation was not satisfactory.

“Sughrue already owns the walls that the art is hung on. He owns the building,” one Dallas-based art dealer said. “They don’t have a big team like Frieze. Where did all the money go?”

While hotel fairs have been around for many years, Hannah Hoffman, one of the Invitational’s new exhibitors and a Dallas native (she’s the daughter of late Dallas mega-collector Robert Hoffman, and stepdaughter of Hoffman’s widow, Marguerite Hoffman, who continues to add to her collection), told ARTnews, such fairs are particularly well-suited to Texas. The city’s collector base, she said, is atypical in that they tend to buy near the end of a fair, rather than during the preview day, thanks to the slower paced Southern “style of appreciation.” The preview day buying frenzy that marks most other fairs, spurred by the sending of advance PDFs, does not prevail there.

“What James has been able to do is reinfuse a sense of adventure in the art world,” Hoffman said of the Invitational. “There is so much art fair saturation, and even saturation at the exhibition level. The smaller format allows galleries to be more experimental and, for visitors, the chance to discover something on a more intimate level than you would at a traditional fair.”

It also surely helps that while participation in DAF starts at around $11,500, the cost for showing at the Invitational is merely the fee needed to finance the gallery’s hotel room. And Cope has reserved a block of them, likely at a discount.

The Dallas collecting circuit is also unique in the level of value it places on participation “within its ecosystem,” Stefano di Paola, senior director of New York– and Los Angeles–based gallery Anat Ebgi, told ARTnews. “They really like people that are spending the time and actually participating in the Dallas and Texas [art] scene itself. For them it’s really all about the primary experience and the physical connection.”

Despite some galleries with long histories at the original Dallas fair having moved to the Invitational, DAF director Kelly Cornell sees the new fair as a boon for the city.

“Since its inception in 2009, the Dallas Art Fair has been a catalyst for the development of Dallas as an international cultural destination. At the same time, we’ve benefited from Texas’s explosive population growth,” she told ARTnews in an email. “We believe a rising tide lifts all boats and wish the Dallas Invitational well.”

Some are nevertheless put off by the Invitational’s highbrow undertones. One dealer called the venture “elitist.” Another said that by starting a new fair “like Felix in LA, but designed to be exclusionary instead of a fun alternative, it’s perpetuating an unhealthy art market by creating the type of ‘exclusive’ environment that allows for flipping in the first place and catering to those checklist investor types.”

Charlie James, whose eponymous Los Angeles gallery will be showing at DAF, told ARTnews that regardless of what people think about the Invitational, “the more draw into the city the better.”

“It’s more action for everybody. If you feel the need to peel off and rarefy yourself a bit, that’s okay with me,” he said. “Everyone gets a bit of light off a comet’s tail.”

– Published courtesy of Daniel Cassady, Senior Writer, ARTnews

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.