How do you decide, in the space of an hour, to drop more than 50 grand on an ink drawing you’ve only seen once before in your life? Very easily, it turns out, if you are a professional curator shopping at Art Toronto, the international contemporary-art fair now in its 19th year.
Before the fair had even opened its doors to the public on Thursday evening, Art Gallery of Ontario curator Kitty Scott had bought Ken Nicol’s Field II, June 27-Sept. 7, 2017, a big ink-on-paper rectangle formed by rows of minuscule tally marks and priced at $57,000. The title reflects the 10 weeks of full-time work it took the artist to complete; back in 1999, he had made a similar piece when he could only afford to work part-time on his art. From a distance, the drawing looks like a grey screen; up close you begin to read each tally with its four vertical lines and one diagonal stroke: It’s both a beautiful thing and a meditation on the relationship between art and labour, from a Toronto artist who often makes work using large quantities of tiny everyday things.
“We thought it was a masterpiece,” Scott said. “It was a magnificent opportunity.”
She added that there is nothing particularly difficult about making up your mind quickly in the hustle of the fair, where the Thursday-night preview is run as a big-ticket benefit for the AGO. Curators consult their colleagues on the spot and can spend lower amounts without seeking permission from the AGO board.
Dealer Olga Korper, who represents Nicol, was certainly strategic in bringing the drawing to the fair: Scott had already seen it in a show last year. On Thursday, Korper earned herself a big red balloon tethered to her booth; that’s how the AGO marks its purchases at Art Toronto.
The other red balloon of the night belonged to Sonny Assu’s Re-Invaders at the Equinox Gallery’s booth. That work was purchased in the space of a mere 15 minutes by curator Georgiana Uhlyarik. She had never seen it before, but she was only paying $3,500.
That work features bright pink-and-purple graphics of West Coast Indigenous inspiration, laid over a reproduction of the Emily Carr painting Church in Yuquot Village. Uhlyarik was well-acquainted with Assu’s work and had seen similar pieces in a series.
“Sonny Assu is an artist we have been following for a long time and sometimes at an art fair you can be kind of opportunistic,” the curator said. She added that Vancouver’s Equinox Gallery had placed the colourful work strategically at the front of its booth where it would catch the eye.
And the 1929 Carr painting Assu is quoting, which belongs to the AGO, has been in the news recently, because curators changed its name. (It was previously known as Indian Church.)
Equinox director Sophie Brodovitch explained that she chose this particular Assu to bring to Toronto because she knew the Carr painting would be familiar to Ontario buyers who could then grasp his intervention into historical art more quickly.
Certainly, Art Toronto, which is expected to receive more than 23,000 visitors between Thursday and Monday, is hardly the place to contemplate and ruminate.
“People come to buy,” says Art Toronto director Susannah Rosenstock, although she adds that Canadian collectors are thoughtful, do their homework and take their time before making their purchases. Still, time is a relative notion at an art fair: An unknown buyer interested in a small or mid-sized work won’t get a dealer to hold it for more than 30 minutes.
How much art will the dealers sell in this energized atmosphere? Three and four years ago the answer was $19-million, but Rosenstock no longer releases totals because the fair estimates that some sales are only finalized in the weeks or months ahead … when not completed in the space of an hour.
Editor’s note: Kate Taylor is The Globe and Mail’s new visual arts critic. She will cover gallery and museum exhibitions and art-world news in Toronto and across Canada.