Friday, May 30, 2008



The NY show’s venue has changed back to the original armory at Lexington and 26th and held one week earlier. From the exhibitors' viewpoint this was a long overdue and necessary move. Our set-up and show schedule at the previous venue was awkward and tight, to say the least. We were forced to get everything ready in less than one day leading to either a rushed opening on Friday night or early bird entry on Saturday morning as well a ridiculous four days run that ended on Tuesday.

At the new venue the show organizers had enough time to properly prepare the booths (walls, paper, lighting, displays, and shipments) allowing two days for set-up and vetting. Behind the scenes, logistics were smooth and relatively stress-free. Also, I like the neighborhood better than the uptown armory: more restaurants, bars, and businesses.

Seller anticipation was mixed. Prior to 9/11, NY was the hottest tribal art venue in the US, overshadowing the SF and LA shows. Sales were brisk and attendance was consistently high, with considerable representation from dealers and collectors from Europe and other areas of the US. After 9/11 the show waned and frankly, never recovered its previous glory.

Attempts at getting sponsorship and serious new collectors to our opening nights failed miserably. None of these sponsors brought out “their” people. Another big disappointment: even the regular collectors barely made the time to come by. Eventually, this led to dropping the opening night for a 10 am Saturday early entry. The only advantage was it allowed for a few more hours of set-up on Friday.

The last two years at the previous venue, the organizers and PR firm were able to get stunning reviews in the NY Times, which we all hoped would bring in those valuable “new” collectors we are all looking for. Unfortunately, our awkward show schedule could not get this review out before the weekend and instead came out on Monday, when things were winding down. The first year of the review did appear to bring out some new faces on Monday and Tuesday, but no serious buyers. It was difficult to tell if the second review had much impact.

This year, opening night was on Wednesday with regular hours running from Thursday through Sunday. I assume the extra week day was added so the NY Times reviewer would have ample time to review and publish before the weekend. A tepid review by a different (and clearly unenthusiastic) reporter did make the Friday addition however; it did not appear to help bring in new buyers this year.

Much to our relief, this year’s opening night was relatively a big success. Attendance was way up with many of the big collectors making an appearance. There was actually an excitement in the air and it looked as if the show was making a serious comeback! From what I heard, most sales were made on that night or by the next day.

I felt attendance for the remaining regular dates was adequate, but in my opinion there was a real lack of enthusiasm for buying at this point. I saw regular clients and chatted with many people new to me, but had virtually no sales after the first day or two. Again, most of the exhibitors I talked to reported the same story.

Many will blame the economic slowdown or discouraging political news. Others would like to blame the show organizers for failing to get the word out. I disagree with that assessment. First of all, I think the organizers and their PR people do a very good job of promoting the show. The word is out, but for reasons out of their control, only so many people bother to attend and even less buy. I suppose the economy might affect the buying habits of some mid to low level collectors, but in reality most of the regular collectors I know tend to live above the whims of temporary economic changes, so I don’t think this was big factor.

Sotheby’s and Bonham’s/Butterfields were holding their tribal auctions that week, which should have attracted more serious buyers to town and in theory brought them over to the tribal art show. However, it also has the potential to dilute sales in a now overly saturated marketplace, so perhaps that had some negative effect. Hard to gauge this one. It should be noted that sales at the Sotheby’s auction were very good with a record price paid for an African piece.

Perhaps the tribal art community is just not making a good enough case publically to encourage new collectors to pay attention. Perhaps, as sellers, we are just not bringing the right material and offering them at prices that would entice new (and old) collectors? If so, I don’t know how to solve this last problem as any seller will tell you that prices at the supply end are consistently up and the availability of good material is down.

It is my view that one significant part of the problem is many buyers do not really pay attention to the dynamics that support these tribal art shows. Do buyers really understand that sellers pay considerable sums of money, plus the costs of inventory, with some risk of loss and damage, as well as their time to exhibit at these shows?

Yes, we are all networking with other dealers, museum curators, academics, and of course collectors, that may or may not bear fruit over time. There is much to learn at these shows and acquiring important information cannot be underestimated or easily valued. For each locality this is THE tribal art event, a “Tribal Art Woodstock” if you will, that brings us together as a community. Without a sense of community, we are potentially nothing more than rogue sellers, naïve collectors, or ivory tower academics that will lose the benefits of standards, openness, and cooperation.

But, the bottom line and economic stimulus that insures these shows will continue is sales. If buyers are not buying, sellers cannot afford to pay these high fees to exhibit. Without regular high quality sellers, the shows will fall to the wayside (take the struggling University of Philadelphia show and failed attempts in Seattle and Chicago as a good examples). Without these shows, the community loses a valuable educational and promotional asset.

Obviously, I would encourage buyers to pay more attention to the needs of sellers at these shows. We are here to sell, so if at all possible, buy. Take advantage of the opportunity presented to view and purchase great, authentic (and vetted) tribal art. We all want to see these shows survive and thrive, so any cooperation on the part of buyers will be rewarded and appreciated. Lastly, we all need to continue working on better ways to promote tribal art to a wider audience.

For another viewpoint and review of the NY Tribal and Textile Art Show I would encourage you to visit the Tribalmania website at: Michael Auliso does a more comprehensive review with lots of good images. I am not sure if his review of the NY show is up at the time of my posting, but I am sure it will be soon.

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