The idiosyncrasy of an internationally appealing art fair largely comprised of provincial wares is formidable for its very contradictions. The 13th year of Art Toronto featured more than 100 booths, an expanded layout, and an appealing roster of lectures, panel discussions, presentations, and performances. However many collectors and gallerists reflected that what sets Toronto apart is its sense of community. “We wanted to represent among Canadian gallerists and collectors, and get to know our fellow dealers,” said Deborah Herringer Kiss (representing the Calgary-based Herringer Kiss Gallery). “It’s our first fair, and we chose this one because Toronto has such a strong reputation for bringing Canada together.” Comparing Art Toronto to Miami fairs, one Los Angeles dealer commented on the softer tone the collectors take to their approach. “It puts things in perspective, coming here. In Miami, it’s an intense and brusque experience -- people say ‘I want this, this, and this, I’ll be back in two days to pick it up’ -- but here you see a largely Toronto-based clientele, and it’s insular, yes, but more thoughtful, too. This is a community, people don’t drive by and shoot.”
Sales were brisk despite a driving rain that sustained the four-day fair (some gallerists actually attributed the bad weather to their success, surmising that it kept collectors at the booths, rather than touring the city). “The economy didn’t deter people, this year,” reflected Paul Petro, who still recalls the 2008 edition with a shudder. “That year was hard on everyone – the fair opened just after the Lehman Brothers bottomed out, and there was no saving it. But we haven’t lost a profit since,” he said, gesturing to his eponymous gallery’s dotted booth. Among his many sales, one stood out: the AGO purchased Stephen Andrews’s large-scale oil painting, “Nocturne,” which sold for $45,000. “It’s been a great weekend,” Petro nodded.
Others agreed, with Toronto’s Daniel Faria Gallery, LE Gallery, and the emerging Erin Stump Projects all reporting high sales; and international galleries, like Beijing’s UCCA and Los Angeles’s Charlie James Gallery, remarking it was a good year, too.
Not everyone turned a profit, however. “It’s been a bit lackluster, honestly,” said a representative of London’s Jill George Gallery. “There were fewer people than in years past.” Of the galleries that reported a tough fair, most were first-time attendants. Dealers hailing from Buenos Aires’s Galeria Rubbers Internacional discussed the difficulty being particular to Toronto, too. “We attend about eight fairs a year, and though it’s our first time here, we’ve noticed that Canadian collectors are hesitant to buy from galleries they don’t know. Even though our artists are the most successful in Argentina, collectors are not confident about us.” A second Rubbers gallerist agreed. “Other fairs we sell on the first day. Here we sell on the second day, or maybe on our second time.” When asked if they’ll return to Art Toronto despite the poor sales, they nod their heads. “Yes, we will come back next year. Because it’s step-by-step. If you only come one year, what’s it worth? You have to develop an audience.”
Though Art Toronto is one of the more expensive art fairs, internationally (a booth in the emerging section of the fair, “Next,” is comparable to the price of an established booth at New York’s Volta), many Canadian dealers find it preferable to traveling afield. “You have to wonder why you bother exhibiting in your own city,” Inuit art dealer, Pat Feheley, commented. “But it brings returns, it always brings returns.” A gallerist from Montreal concurred, adding “it’s a big country. You don’t get the opportunity to see your colleagues very often, in this way. It’s also important to remind everyone you’re still here.”
Apart from the large turn-out of locally-based galleries, Art Toronto featured a unique exhibitor section titled “Focus Asia.” Comprising fifteen galleries hailing from countries like China, Taiwan, and Japan (as well as some New York galleries focused on an Asian roster of artists), and including Taipei’s Galleria H, Toyko’s MA2, and Seoul’s Wellside, the section illuminated a contemporary art vast and compelling, and often concerned with difficult issues pertaining to censorship. Reflecting on this, a special exhibition curated by Katherine Don and Zheng Shengtian, titled “Beyond Geography,” included some stand-out works, like “Writing in the Rain,” by Indonesian artist FX Harsono; a staggering video piece by Java-born video artist Jompet Kuswidananto; and a compelling photo series by Manila’s Poklong Anading. Further, a rare physical work by Rirkrit Tiravanija brought a familiar name to the fold, with the artist mapping his itinerant upbringing and peripatetic lifestyle on a wrap-around sheet of paper which bore his mapping like so much design. The piece was balanced nicely as a backdrop to Xiaojing Yan's "Cloudscape," a whimsical and symbolic sculpture that produced a signature for the fair’s Asian focus.
However "Beyond Geography" failed to do the very thing its title proposed, by uniquely emphasizing artists dealing with the influence of Western culture on Eastern tradition. I don’t know if we can escape the cast of our national identity, but surely we’re capable of transcending curatorial didacticism.