I have my personal narrative of the development of the fair. Historically, I’ve called it the “Chris Byrne Show,” or the “John & Chris Show,” named after the fair’s founders. Ten years ago, John Sughrue, a Dallas-based developer and art collector, had an odd-layout building in the center of downtown Dallas, next to the Dallas Museum of Art, that needed to find its purpose and some profit. Chris Byrne was an independent art dealer and consultant with a big Rolodex. They paired up. The first year of the fair in the FIG building (or F.I.G., which stands for Fashion Industry Gallery) was a predictable mishmash of local and non-local dealers, but the caliber was pretty low: there was a lot of southwestern-y art and decorative stuff. But it evolved, notably, and I’d say it really hit its stride about three years ago (which makes sense given the awful resonance of the ’08 crash). By then it was a small and intimate but truly international fair. It had dealers in from Tokyo and Antwerp and Mexico City. The work was good. The DMA started its Acquisition Fund around that time, too, and in response exhibitors brought even better, more serious work. Gagosian showed up last year, though, also notably, it didn’t put its own name on its booth. It’s like it was both there and not there.
Chris Byrne sold his stake in the fair last year, and his job was given over to two directors: Kelly Cornell and Brandon Kennedy. (It really did need two people to fill his shoes.*) This year the exhibitor listincluded Simon Lee, and Casey Kaplan, and Luhring Augustine, and James Cohan. These are some rock stars in the gallery world, if you pay attention to these kinds of things. Marlborough keeps coming back. Los Angeles’ (cooler-than-Jesus) Night Gallery returned. Canada keeps coming back. Karma Gallery came back. But I talked to some local dealers, too, who told me (and I believe them) that they did so well at the fair this year that they’re beside themselves. I also talked to some Texas dealers who didn’t sell as much as they would have liked or predicted, but that they want to keep doing the fair because it’s so good for exposure, and they like the energy. Four Houston galleries (in the absence of any good Houston fair) showed up. Interestingly, Dallas’ Barry Whistler voluntarily sat out the fair this year. (In relative terms, in Dallas, this is like Luhring Augustine not doing the Armory anymore starting around 2009, which always seemed kind of badass to me.) Ro2, a beloved Dallas gallery that shows a ton of Dallas artists, did not get invited back, but then this year the upstart Liliana Bloch finally had a booth at the fair (her gallery was ushered in by Kennedy) and sold work directly to the DMA.
Here’s what I think. I think the fair is, this year, powered along by its own momentum. I think it’ll take a couple of years to feel the impact of new directors and a fair without Byrne. I think the North Texas economy and the Texas collector base is (always) enticing to out-of-town galleries. I think a lot of us in Dallas have started to take this art-heavy week for granted, forgetting that ten years ago, 90% of the tertiary art-related things that happened in Dallas this week would not have happened without the fair as a hub. Conversely, the fair couldn’t exist or be getting better without the evolving seriousness of the DFW art scene, including its museums, collectors, curators, universities, galleries, press, et al. In fact, the other events, like the Nasher Prize, aren’t at all tertiary. They’re fellow drivers. These art events are large and small, and serious. The fair has been a catalyst for Dallas-driven art events (despite the ongoing fire marshal problem); my friends and I have been burning ourselves out trying to make it to everything, to see everything. Right now things are not just holding steady; they’re getting better. It’s a groove. Fingers crossed that it continues.
*Ed note: Technically, Chris Byrne’s direct replacement, as Director of Exhibitor Relations, is Brandon Kennedy. Kelly Cornell returns for the second year as Director, and for the seventh year working for the fair.