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The 15th annual Art Toronto fair had a record attendance of 20,000 with sales surpassing $19-milllion in 2014.

Arash Moallemi

Art fairs – those ritualistic gatherings of commercial dealers for the display and selling of (mostly) contemporary and modern art in real time and space – have been around for a while. While Art Cologne is generally regarded as the first of its ilk, having begun in 1967, New York's inaugural Armory Show, which saw a San Francisco lawyer pay $324 (U.S.) for Marcel Duchamp's epochal painting, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, occurred in 1913.

Still, it's safe to say it's only in the past 15 years that the annual art fair has come into its own as arguably the dominant, or, perhaps more accurately, the most efficient medium for the presentation and disposal of modern and contemporary art. Toronto art maven W. Bruce C. Bailey drew audible gasps earlier this week when, during a speech on the art of collecting to about 200 attendees gathered at the city's Harbourfront Centre, he suggested dealers today generate two-thirds of their annual sales via art fairs. An arts economics study released last year placed that figure at 33 per cent for 2013, while a report this spring by the European Fine Art Fair said the percentage for 2014 was 40 per cent. Whatever the precise tally, the art fair clearly is a thriving and significant factor in the frenzy of the contemporary art market, and woe to the dealer or gallerist who doesn't pencil in an appearance (or three) each year. Today, almost 200 international art fairs are considered "major," with the top 10 per cent drawing a total of more than one million visitors.

It's against this backdrop that the 16th annual Art Toronto fair, billed as Canada's longest-running, most-established international art whoop-up, is happening this week, opening to the public Friday morning for a run that concludes late Monday afternoon. As happened last year, it's being joined, so to speak, by the Feature Contemporary Art Fair, which makes its public bow Thursday and closes Sunday afternoon. Feature, the creation of the Montreal-based non-profit Association des galeries d'art contemporain (AGAC) – which also organizes Montreal's popular Papier Contemporary Art Fair of Works on Paper – presented its premiere iteration last October where, in some quarters, its arrival was deemed a sort of David-versus-Goliath/threat-in-the-making to mighty AT.

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No one, of course, can predict how this narrative will play out, say, 10 years from now. But for the time being, the chatter is less about AT and Feature being locked in some zero-sum game where one winner will take all than how the fairs, together, represent the sort of maturation you'd expect in a city of 2.6 million (almost six million if one includes the Greater Toronto Area). If Art Basel Miami Beach, founded in 2002, can serve as the wellspring for what are now some 20 simultaneous satellite festivals, can't Canada's largest, most multicultural metropolis, the argument goes, support its own variegated art "garden"?

On a superficial macro level, each fair seems very similar to its 2014 incarnation. AT, buoyed by a record attendance last year of 20,000, is renting about 16,000 square metres of space at its perennial locale, Toronto's huge Metro Convention Centre. It's hosting more than 113 exhibitors there, including 91 galleries overseen by an eight-member dealer advisory committee, and hopes by fair's end sales will have equalled or surpassed the $19-million that changed hands last year. Feature, meanwhile, claiming more than 3,000 visitors in 2014 and sales of slightly more than $1-million, is back at the historic Canadian Opera Company building 10 minutes east of AT, as the car drives. It was thought after last year's debut highlighting 23 galleries that Feature might seek another, bigger location. This led some to worry that the fair would lose the intimacy that was among its prime attractions. Instead, Feature 2015 is splitting its 29 galleries into two clusters, putting 18 on the main-floor studio it used last year and 11 into another space upstairs. Project director Stefan Hancherow thinks Features' berth at the COC "is something we can maintain for a bit longer. We see the brand connection as being very strong."

As it did in 2014, Feature has ruled that each exhibiting gallery can present works by no more than three artists in the trapezoidal booths at a time – although this year, Feature's project director Stefan Hancherow says, "We've allowed for galleries to bring in a backup artist," in case, for example, one of the original three sells out on the first night. Further, each of the galleries has had its artists and art vetted by a five-person curatorial team. This same team also has advised on where each gallery should be positioned relative to the others, an exercise Hancherow calls "contextualizing."

In the meantime, Susannah Rosenstock, appointed late last year by AT's parent company, London-headquartered, privately owned Informa Exhibitions, as the fair's director in charge of "all show management responsibilities," is using her clout to "refresh the brand." The knock on the convention centre has been that, atmospherically, it's been too corporate, sterile and cold. To counteract this, she initiated a redesign of AT's graphic presentation and a reimagining of the fair's floor plan. She's also been pushing hard to woo more international galleries here. Previously, AT's non-Canadian roster hovered around 20 per cent to 25 per cent of total exhibitors. This year one-third are international, including 15 new gallerists.

In addition, after a two-year absence, AT is resurrecting its geographical focus program, this time keying on contemporary art from Mexico, Central and South America. Eight galleries specializing in Latin American art are scheduled to exhibit while Berlin-based curator Abaseh Mirvali is curating a showcase of works by six artists from Argentina, Mexico and Colombia, each of whom is being shown in Toronto for the first time. Also, as an antidote to the perception that art fairs often seem less like opportunities for reflective appreciation than tribal gatherings and occasions for quietly desperate spending and getting, AT is presenting six site-specific projects, among them A Piano Listening to Itself by Gordon Monahan, winner of a 2013 Governor-General's Award for visual and media arts. There's also a raft of speeches and panel discussions: R.K. Wittman, founder of the FBI's national art crime team, for one, is talking Friday afternoon about art theft and art recovery.

Feature has international components in its programming, too. U.S. art critic and author Ben Davis (9.5 Theses on Art and Class), for instance, is delivering the fair's keynote address, Who Are We? What Are We Doing Here?, Thursday at 2 p.m., while Border Crossings magazine contributing editor Robert Enright discusses the "question of painting" with Barry Schwabsky, art critic for The Nation, the same time the next day. However, for the time being at least, the art that Feature is exhibiting is strictly Canuck – of its 29 participating galleries, 13 are Quebec-based, nine are from Toronto, six from Vancouver, one from Winnipeg – the thesis being, Hancherow says, to "internationalize Canadian artists … [to] let the world see we're producing some of the best artists out there."

Although AGAC was founded in Montreal in the late 1980s, it has strived in recent years to expand its membership and influence beyond Quebec, to the point that of its 43 current members, more than 14 are from outside the province. One of these is Toronto's Feheley Fine Arts, which has been a well-regarded purveyor of Inuit art since the early 1960s. This year, for the first time, Pat Feheley, owner of Feheley Fine Arts, a well-regarded purveyor of Inuit art since the early 1960s, is staffing booths at both AT and Feature (joining at least another four galleries that are doing this "double-dip").

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Feheley said recently she "loves" AT, having participated every year since its start in 2000, "always enjoying [it] and it's done very well by me." Joining AGAC, showing at Feature (where she's presenting drawings by relative newcomer Saimaiyu Akesuk and veterans Jutai Toonoo and Shuvinai Ashoona) shouldn't therefore be construed as a rebuke of AT. "My ongoing quest is to park contemporary Inuit art as much as possible into the context of good Canadian art and Feature represents another opportunity to do that," albeit in the smaller, more intimate milieu than afforded by AT. "The goal I have is that contemporary Inuit art is simply contemporary Canadian art. Period," she said. "And I look for every opportunity I can to place it in the midst of good company."

By contrast, another Toronto gallery, Diaz Contemporary, is casting its lot only with Feature this year, a first. Founded in 2005 and now representing such artists as Kelly Mark, Joseph Tisiga and Kim Adams, Diaz has participated in AT five times since 2008, including a much-discussed appearance last year by BGL, the Quebec collective representing Canada at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Diaz associate director Claire Christie stresses the gallery has had "a consistently positive experience [at AT]." But this year it was attracted to Feature's smaller scale. Said Christie: "It lends to an unhurried feeling throughout and …allows for longer engagement with the work for viewers." Moreover, "showing a maximum of three artists compels us to respond in more of a curatorial frame." Seen together, the paintings of Montreal's Francine Savard and Vancouver's Elizabeth McIntosh alongside the sculpture of Torontonian James Carl reveal a marked attention to "a kind of structural distillation … we think will benefit from being seen in close quarters," Christie said.

Information on Art Toronto 2015, www.arttoronto.ca; information on Feature Contemporary Art Fair 2015, www.featureartfair.com.

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