Emily Gherard was thrilled to learn her untitled piece—ghostly towers of pencil and charcoal on paper—would appear on promotional cards for the 2016 Seattle Art Fair. That kind of exposure boded well for her, one that might help her work stand out from the 81 other galleries featured on the show floor. “I still have the piece though,” she says, nearly a year later. Meaning it didn’t sell.
Now in its third year, billionaire Paul Allen’s gift to the Seattle art community is, by many measures, a success. Attendance grows annually, says fair director Max Fishko, along with the number of galleries featured (93 this year).
For three days, the CenturyLink Field Event Center is wall-to-wall art, an indelible and sometimes overwhelming display of modern and contemporary work curated by galleries from Los Angeles to Tokyo. Big-time collectors jet to these events around the country to shop. But those lines of locals stretching out to the CenturyLink parking lot aren’t exactly filled with potential buyers.
That’s because Seattleites seem to treat the fair as an exhibition, not a market. Why do we appear to be a city full of window shoppers? Gherard thinks people here would rather pay for a class and make something themselves than buy it from an artist. “Whether or not that’s a bad thing, I don’t know.” Or maybe it’s a lack of tradition, says Sharon Arnold of Bridge Productions, who last year presented work by Gherard and six other Seattle-based artists at the fair. Without a long history of art collectors and museums compared to other major cities,“it’s up to the community to educate” and foster patrons.
The Seattle Art Fair is a huge part of that education, and consensus is that it’s an overwhelming positive for the local art scene. But for smaller galleries like Arnold’s, the booth fees, which range from around $6,000 to $20,000, can be a significant barrier. Every year she hopes to break even, either by direct sales or later attention attributed to exposure at the fair.
And that’s exactly the point, according to Linda Hodges, whose gallery has been a Pioneer Square mainstay for the last 34 years. “These fairs are an advertising opportunity more than anything else. Down the road somebody remembers you. It’s a long-term strategy.” Playing the long game may drain the piggy bank for some, but galleries and artists alike remain excited to have a major art fair at all. Gherard, who returns this year as Bridge Productions’ only artist, even sees a push on the part of the fair to promote the local artists in its outreach and programming. “We’re on the upswing. I’m feeling positive.”
Seattle Art Fair
Aug 3–6, CenturyLink Field Event Center, Free